somehow during my time working in his Agia Galini kitchen, I met a man both wise and compassionate who taught me, amongst many other things, that above all else I must never forget

 

I am alive

   



Theofili the Philosopher

If there is one character who had a profound influence, not only on my career in catering but also on my whole understanding of what I mean by grecofilia, it is the restaurateur, entrepreneur and philosopher, Theophilus Koukas of Crete.

I'd been running out of money and hanging round his Neo Restaurant Bar for what seemed like an age and although I hadn't actually lied, I'd puffed up my experience and knowledge of the culinary arts enough to make myself seem like an irreplaceable asset in a town full of restaurants.

Then two weeks before his trip to Kassos, Theo decided to take me on. He showed me round the kitchen, told me to forget everything I'd ever been taught before, then proceeded to re-educate me in the art of cooking for crowds. He put a hand on each shoulder, looked me in the eyes, his waxed moustache dangerously pointing east and west, and announced with his customary doleful expression,
'Listen to me, Antonis. You might not make much money here but then I don`t charge for training.'
He not only sharpened my humour, also he gave me myself.

At five next evening I turned up for work and stood in front of the stove, closed my eyes, held my breath and leaped into the abyss of catering a la carte, promising to emulate Theo's own seemingly effortless style for at least the next fourteen nights and hopefully longer.
During those two weeks, I abandoned my own path and followed the Theo way of cooking under pressure. No drinking, late nights or being late. He encouraged lots of fresh air, walking on the beach and moderation in everything.

 

'You are going to become a thinker in my kitchen.

Either the customer wins or you do. It's for you to decide!'

He encouraged trust in my sense of smell and helped me develop a discriminating array of senses and taste buds. He installed the necessity of blending colour and texture, and as far as the blade and the block were concerned, I became finesse with a razor's edge.
'You have only eight fingers and two thumbs. Don't waste any of them.'

Every day there were words of wisdom. 'Never use a clock. Let your sixth sense alert you when cooking time is over, do you understand?'

Theophilus was passionate about everything - the music of Rembetika, his home film making, but mainly his little boat - the Saint Adelphia. He had shown his films all over Greece. Sometimes in his restaurant he would film his diners eating, while they argued, singing, even when they were paying their bills and later, translate their body language. For instance, the cool guy who scratches the back of his neck when asking if there is a table available - not cool at all, in fact edgy; and those who make wavy lines in the air when they want to pay, 'Why don't they just ask for the bill? They look like they want to conduct an orchestra.'
It was impossible not to feel younger than him. Some said he'd been here before.

Looking back, it was either a calculated risk or his own reckless sense of humour that caused him, the owner of one of the most prestigious restaurants in southern Crete, to take me on trial as his cover chef but secretly, I suspect Theo simply enjoyed teaching life lessons and taking risks. He rarely lost his temper but step out of line and you sensed his disappointment. Calmly, he would take control, appeal to your intellect and leave you to work it out where you went wrong.
For instance, on one occasion he became so suspicious of his bar manager diverting the takings that he simply promoted the man to cash controller and made him responsible for every single drachma. Miraculously, the money stopped disappearing, the manager took the credit and the staff was relieved.
As I said, Theo's humour was sharp. You never knew when he was pulling your leg.
He was known to swan through the kitchen on the way to the bar showering advice on his assistants right and left, 'Attention everybody! Listen to me! Never slice anything so thick you can't see through it!' or, giggling like a schoolboy and clapping his hands like a flamenco dancer, 'Come now, clear Table 2 - we're running out of lettuce! Come on!'
I believe he placed great faith in his motto, 'A contented boss, and the establishment runs itself.'
So he let us drink as much as we dared. The penalty for being 'tired and emotional' was instant dismissal but since everybody loved Theophilus, no one ever let him down. Except once when he actually offered to pay an inebriated barperson to go home early rather than wait until she passed out.

But there were times when we came close to disaster.
One of his kitchen rules was that any home-made soup left over from the day before was to be placed in the bottom of the fridge to be thrown away by the kitchen assistant - Theo never took chances with food. 'If in doubt - throw it out!'
One evening at the height of his performance, he was told a rather pompous gentleman diner wanted to speak to him in person with regard to the soup. 'But there is no soup on the menu tonight!' He raised his eyes to the gods. Then Theo, believing attack is the strongest form of defence, presented himself at table with a confident smile, 'Good evening sir, everything to your liking, yes?'
'Well, this soup has an alcoholic bite and I was wondering if it might be past its best.'
The man's hungry family, each with a bowl of the suspect soup before them, stared with admiration at their father then turned and waited on the next words from Theo. All fell silent. Theo smiled warmly, 'Sir, many of my customers make that mistake. You see, we use an ancient Cretan recipe and just before we serve the soup, I throw in a glass of traditional Cretan raki for good luck. This may have confused you.'
'Oh well, that's fine. It really is most unusual. Thank you.'

Theophilus sailed back into the kitchen and took a sword down from the wall, 'Bring me the kitchen assistant. Immediately!'

But we were a good team and took great pride in accepting responsibility and running the restaurant ourselves whenever Theo and Tsaly, his wife, were away. It was theatre and always, the show must go on. We worked hard and late, had some fun and usually all went well. But so often pride comes before a fall and at the end of those two weeks my rump hit the ground with a mighty thump.

It was on Theo's return from Kassos that he came to my work station, shook my hand and said simply,
'Antonis, I am impressed. Have a night off.'

A night off? Unheard of in summer. A night off. I was stunned.

Anyway, that evening I rewarded myself with a Psarosoupa, a favourite Cretan soup made with octopus, sardines, smelts and any other whole, small fish, as well as some onions, garlic, tomatoes, celery and a bottle of fine white Cretan wine - all in my room at a table for one on my balcony overlooking the summer street and for the first time in over a fortnight I let out a sigh and relaxed. Then just as I was wallowing in my own conceit, a loud banging on my door brought me to my senses and shattered the peace and quiet.
There stood a furious Theophilus, feet apart, hands flaying the air and eyes wide with anger.
'Mister Brown, as you know, we sell lamb, chicken, veal, biftekia, brisoles, lamb chops, souvlakia, moussaka and we open in just half an hour. Now since you forgot to take any of these things from the freezer for tonight's menu, dear boy, it means means we've no goddam meat. Nothing!'

Economy of words and yet his condemnation hung like the sword of Damocles as he wheeled round and stormed off down the stairs leaving me to make a panic-stricken circuit of the other restaurants in the hope of finding replacements.
Time was running out but I was in luck and managed to gather not just an ample selection of vital main course ingredients but also some very flattering praise from Cleo's Restaurant, our biggest rival in the town. It was well known in the village that to employ an English person was a feather in the cap of any restaurant proprietor and cause for envy amongst rivals. So by the time I returned to our kitchen I was bursting at the seams with pride and self-esteem, declaring to all and sundry, as I pushed open the door and announcing, 'You're saved! The 7th Cavalry's here!'
Silence. You could cut the air with a carving knife. 'And guess what Theo? Cleo herself offered me a job.'

'What as? Stock Controller??!!'

He deflated my triumph in an instant. The incident was never mentioned again and the Neo became my home from home for the rest of the summer.

When the time came, I bade my farewells to my friends and just before catching my bus to Iraklio, Theo and I stood on the veranda overlooking the rooftops, neither of us knowing quite what to say. Then he turned to me and said softly, 'Antonis, why must you go back to England? I don't understand. Here you have a good job, the Cretan sky, the warmth of the seas and they are yours. Most of all you have my friendship - so why?'
We hugged. And as I lumbered down the steps towards the square, I sobbed and the tears ran down my face. My mind a blank.

In the years before Theo left, I dropped in with Sandy, my wife, several times on our visits to Crete, always enjoying the special treatment he reserved for his guests of honour and, like the old guru master that he was, he always left it for me to mention my big disgrace before we'd laugh and cry, then laugh all over again.

The last time, as we stepped into the square, he took our hands in his and smiled at each of us, 'May you live a life well lived'...
We hugged. Once again I lumbered down the steps towards the square, my eyes hot with tears and still I had no answer.


'...and don't ever forget that you are alive...'

dear Theo

I won't forget



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