A Passion For Food And Life

When the Greek Festival opens this weekend, George Alexiades will be at the front of the line for the lamb chops. That’s because it’s his recipe they’re using. The lamb chops are a first for this long-running festival, and they’ll also be offering an incredible “Feast of the Gods” for those who would like to sample an array of Greek specialties. And then there’s the famous Greek dancing, which George has been known to do so well. In fact, he introduced many locals to “table dancing” at “The Plaka,” the restaurant he owned for 25 years in Santa Barbara.

The art of table dancing involves the dancer holding a set table between his teeth while performing a Greek dance – no small feat for someone who also prepared the dinners for his customers. And that is only a small portion of what George was able to accomplish. George epitomizes the quintessential Greek “Renaissance Man.” A self-taught chef, entrepreneur, entertainer, adventurer, teacher, actor, and all-around versatile guy, George has done everything from starting his own restaurant , going on safari in Africa, to climbing the Austrian Alps and Mount Kilimanjaro and has recently returned from travels to Australia and New Zealand.

Every now and then one meets someone larger than life – unforgettable, yet truly unimpressed with his own accomplishments. George is such a man. Born and raised in a small suburb of Athens, not unlike Montecito, his father worked in the shipping industry, including a stint with Onassis. He became a refuge when the Turks invaded his country and his life changed dramatically. Along with his father, George traveled the seas – Rome, Genova, Panama, Haiti, among other places. “Everything I’ve learned about the world has been through my father’s memories, which opened windows of different lifestyles,” he says.

When George was sixteen years old, his father decided to bring him to America to learn a new language and seek a different life. After a year of traveling, George initially settled in Long Island, New York, then moved to Manhattan where he finished high school. He was immediately drafted to fight in the Korean War, after which he became an American citizen. After the war, George moved to Los Angeles, where he studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts with an equally unknown Robert Redford. George performed in several off Broadway plays and even had bit parts in “Planet of the Apes” and “Daddy, What Did You Do in the War?”

Eventually, he threw in the towel and decided to move to Santa Barbara in the late ‘70s. Upon a suggestion from his long-time friend, Mike Pahos, George opened “The Plaka” on March 1, 1977 as a Greenwich Village style coffee house on Montecito Street. “I had no intention of cooking,” George explains. “This was to be a coffee house only. People would pay fifty cents to come in and then they could have as much free coffee as they liked. I didn’t come here to make a lot of money, I just really wanted to live here.”

He struggled with the coffee house for about a year and was about to give it up when UCSB offered him a program to teach dancing on the weekends at “The Plaka.” The rest is history. He taught all of Santa Barbara how to Greek dance, and everybody loved him. When his students became hungry, George would serve up a simple Greek salad. George remembers thinking ‘Why don’t I learn to cook?’

“So I got a Greek cookbook and started to teach myself one recipe at a time. Pastitsio was my first dish, then Moussaka. I got only the best ingredients – the best olive oil, the best meat. I made my own marinades, prepared my own spices. When I decided the Pastitsio tasted right to me, then it was ready to serve.” Students took notice. Soon, George was offering a variety of Greek dishes, learning to prepare them one at a time. Next, George found himself at the local library, getting a book on restaurants. He studied how to price food and how to do menus. To save on expenses, he simply printed daily specials on a blackboard. “I was a one-man show: I taught classes, I cooked, I danced. I had only one waitress, who stayed with me for fifteen years!”

George is philosophical when asked about his success as a restaurateur and entertainer: “When I reflect back, I always wanted to do things differently, make it more exciting.” He hired a local Greek artist to paint murals on the outside of his restaurant building. He was the first in the area to have belly dancing and offer an entirely Greek menu. When he did his table dancing, he spun it quicker than anyone else. And when the moment was right, with spirited abandon, George would lead his customers in the traditional throwing of plates. “You couldn’t see the dance floor for all of the broken plates,” longtime friends and “Plaka” regular Constantino Frangos recalls. George sums up his success: “ People loved it! I didn’t follow a formula. I knew where I wanted to go, then learned how to get there.”

Although now retired, George made many friends over the years and had many parties in his home in Montecito. “Parties would include over a hundred people or so – doctors, attorneys, students and laborers – people from all walks of life. I would order the lamb loin chops from Shalhoob Market, sliced thin. Meat that’s sliced thin tastes better because the flavor goes all the way through it.” And for those of you craving a taste of George’s famous lamb chops, you’ll have to go down to the Greek Festival this weekend and stand in line with George.

George’s Famous Recipes:

Pastitsio

Meat sauce:

2 lbs. lean ground beef

5 medium onions, grated

1 can 15 oz.tomato sauce

1 can 6 oz. tomato paste

1 T. cinnamon

Macaroni:

1 lb. penne pasta

2 T. unsalted butter

1 lb. Romano or parmesan cheese

Cream sauce:

2 c. nonfat milk

1 stick of butter

corn starch

1/4 t. white pepper

1/4 c, Parmesan or Romano cheese

6 eggs

1/2 t. cinnamon

In a colander, squeeze all of the juice out of the onions. In a hot skillet, sauté the onions until soft and translucent, stirring frequently, being careful not to brown. When ready, add the meat and mix with onions. When the meat is still pink, remove from heat and add the tomato sauce and paste. Mix well and add cinnamon and salt to taste.

Add the penne pasta to boiling water and cook al dente. Drain well and return to the same pan. Add the butter and stir until melted.

Butter a 15 X 10" pyrex pan and do in layers:

1/2 of the penne pasta

1/2 of the cheese and meat sauce remaining penne and cheese mixture

Cream sauce:

Beat eggs in bowl. Melt the butter in sauce pan and add corn starch until it thickens, stirring constantly. Add milk slowly and more corn starch. Do not boil. When sauce has thickened, add eggs, cinnamon, cheese and salt and pepper to taste, heating to keep smooth.

Pour cream sauce evenly over macaroni. Sprinkle over lightly with paprika, cleaning edges with a wet paper towel and bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes. Let cool for about one hour and put in refrigerator for several hours. Cut in square peices and heat in microwave. Serve with a Greek salad or vegetable.

Moussaka

8 large egglants

Meat sauce (same as for Pastitsio except use nutmeg instead of cinnamon)

Cream sauce (same as Pastitsio, replace cinnamon with nutmeg)

Peel eggplants and slice crosswise about 1/4 inch thick. Baste slightly with olive oil on both sides and put in a large pan. Broil in oven until slightly brown on both sides. Place the broiled eggplant in a 15 X 10" pan and squeeze eggplant together until there is an even layer about 1/2 thick. If too oily, blot with paper towels. Add 1/2 of Romano or Parmesan cheese. Add meat sauce, the remaining eggplant evenly, and the cheese. Pour the cream sauce on top, sprinkle with paprika and bake in preheated oven at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes.