By Dario DiBattista
When Xenos Kohilas, owner of Ikaros, comes to your table to say hello and shake your hand, it’s like a scene in a movie where everything slows down. The background goes out of focus. You feel a rush of comfort and pleasant acknowledgment. You relax.
It’d be so easy to stay in this moment. Xenos will give you all the time you need. To tell him about your day, talk to him about your family. To catch up. To reflect on a tragic loss. Too many losses these days.
Everything will feel familiar and good. The restaurant around you will glow behind you, traditional and unchanging with ancient Greek-styled masonry and musical instruments on the walls, the tremolo of Old World folk music on the speakers. All is Hellenic blue and white.
But blink and you might miss what’s really going on, the hidden artistry in so many forms.
Xenos — age 65, sleeves rolled up to his forearms, collar unbuttoned, his eyes both soft and serious, a white mustache curled into a smile – is the maestro of this everyday performance. Ikaros is his theater and in it he shares his culture by way of sacrifice and service.
Xenos arrived in the United States in September 1975 after fulfilling his obligation to the Greek Army. He had always wanted to pursue art but got here too late to apply for the already in-session semester at Johns Hopkins University, the school of his desire.
In the meantime, he took to helping out his brother Ted, the original owner of Ikaros, who had been running the restaurant at its original location – a block away at 4805 Eastern Avenue – for six years.
It was an easy transition for Xenos because of his upbringing on Ikaria, the island from which Ikaros takes its name and culinary traditions.
According to the New York Times, people “forget to die” on Ikaria, a so-called rare “blue-zone” of the planet where one in three of its inhabitants live into their 90s. Food is an extremely important part of life on the island. Scientists believe the lifestyle and diet of the locals is the reason for this long life.
At Ikaros, Xenos uses the culinary knowledge gained from in childhood, which would shame even the most ardent farm-to-table disciple in the United States. Back home, there were no imported products to use or electricity for cooking. The production of food was completely self-sustained. The homemade pots and pans were made out of clay. Livestock was slaughtered by hand. If a recipe called for something sweet, Xenos would trap bees for harvesting their honey.
Though Xenos learned from everyone in his family, his mother was most responsible for his education. She would give thousands of mini-lessons: add parsley to this, put it in the pot at this point, clean the tomatoes this way, take off the pot, put it on its side like so. It all remains vivid to Xenos.
He remembers the pots “still bubbling because of the heat …”
To this day, he can still see it all and on Ikaria the process was more than tradition. It was survival, the way of life.
At Ikaros, Xenos likens his expertise in cooking to painting, which he still practices, largely self-taught.
“You get the raw ingredients just like you get the paints, the brushes,” he says. Uncooked meats, vegetables, flour and spice are put into motion by tongs, knives, spatulas and come to life by heat and flame.
“[There’s] beauty as you see it changing,” Xenos says, then laughing at the process, “but the outcome of all that is you get to eat it,” rather than merely admire the beauty.
Another practiced art of the restaurateur is acting. People come to restaurants for many reasons: family meals, engagement dinners, anniversaries, graduations; or maybe because they’re sad and exhausted and stressed and just want someone to provide a nice meal.
“They don’t want to know your problems,” said Xenos. “You’re supposed to be kind, happy, welcoming, not giving any indication of some kind of black spot.”
Those times, when he gives of himself no matter what, resonate most with Xenos, pensive by nature, as he reflects on a career of more than 40 years.
“I have to be a part of that moment,” he said regarding the recent death of a friend while allowing that, “I don’t know if I want to escape it in order to avoid to pain.”
It happens almost every day at Ikaros, he said, where customers become friends and friends are longtime customers. They come to eat and love and celebrate until the day when others are toasting to their memory.
“Here, this is life,” said Xenos. “This is real.”
Along the walls of the main dining room are photographs Xenos has taken over the years; images of an old woman, a donkey, the outside of a monastery on a Greek island, a worm’s eye view of ancient ruins.
They reveal his interest in the preservation of memory, of maintaining culture and practice, of looking deeper.
On a Saturday night in 1984, Xenos was the only one from his family to remain behind when the rest returned to Greece to be by his sick mother’s side.
Big lines at the bar that night. Lines to get in and be seated in the restaurant. Frenzy. Lots of guests enjoying themselves, liberally, with lots of needs – literally hundreds of individual needs all at once.
The phone rang and Xenos rushed to answer it.
“Ikaros, can I help you?”
It was his sister from Greece. Their mother, Stella, had died.
“I remember exactly what I was doing,” Xenos says. “I was making a margarita.”
When Xenos squeezed a bottle of newly made “simple syrup” – sugar and water boiled together – inexplicably, it broke, the hot liquid spreading over his hand. Rushing to wash off the syrup, he turned turning on the hot water instead of the cold and it made the burn feel like “a thousand degrees.”
Yet Xenos felt no pain. He walked into a quiet area in the kitchen, standing and breathing for a couple of minutes. And then he went back out to the dining room, greeting people at the door. He gave them tables. He made drinks. He kept doing his job.
“There was nobody,” he remembers, “to share what I was going through at that moment.”
Dario DiBattista is the editor of Retire the Colors: Veterans & Civilians on Iraq and Afghanistan. His writing has appeared in the New York Times and the Connecticut Review. A resident of Baltimore, Dario can be reached via email@example.com
Photos by Jennifer Bishop