Pano Karatassos spent his early life doing boyish, outdoorsy things around the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, where his father worked as a chef and lodge manager. He was barely aware of his Greek heritage.
All that changed when he was 8 years old: His family moved to Atlanta, and his maternal grandmother came to live with them. Were it not for it his yia yia (grandma), Karatassos may have never fallen in love with Greek food nor followed the path that led him to Kyma. Today, his iconic Piedmont Road restaurant with the squat white-marble pillars is a temple of modern Greek gastronomy and most likely the best seafood restaurant in the city.
I remember when Kyma opened in 2001. The local and national press was eager to see what this scion of the family-owned Buckhead Life Restaurant Group who had cooked under Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Eric Ripert could do. Kyma means “wave” in Greek, and that’s exactly what Karatassos created.
But that was 17 years ago.
In the rich pageant of Atlanta restaurants, it can be easy to overlook this venerated restaurant and its illustriously pedigreed chef. That could change now with the arrival of “Modern Greek Cooking.” Published today, this beauty of a cookbook celebrates Karatassos’ repertoire, from his matriarchs’ earthy home cooking to the stunning Oven-Roasted Oysters with Champagne Avgolemono and Grilled Octopus with Olives, Capers and Marinated Red Onions he serves at Kyma.
The book thoughtfully focuses on meze (Kyma always has at least 25 of the small dishes on the menu) and mains, with explanatory material on essential elements that define the restaurant experience: octopus, whole fish, Greek wine, simple sweets.
And it has recipes for cooks at every level. You can make a meal off spreads and pita alone -- or chef it up with Calamari “Pasta” with Saffron Yogurt and Watermelon and Feta Salad. The latter dish transcends the commonplace by adding small scoops of watermelon sorbet and a scattering of edible flowers.
Along with his signature seafood, Karatassos finds room for many variations of Greek staples: There’s phyllo and lamb and eggplant and grape leaves. Both the meze and the entrée chapters have vegetarian sections, too.
Karatassos remembers going into his Greek aunts’ pantries for pickled octopus; here he tells you how to preserve them three ways in jars, then add them to salads, grill them, or braise them. If octopus is not your thing, how about Lamb Meatballs with White Bean Stew and Preserved Lemon Yogurt? Or Roast Chicken with Warm Potato-Tomato Salad?
Desserts range from homespun Yogurt with Honey and Candied Kumquats to Phyllo-Wrapped Banana with Flourless Chocolate Cake. The chef’s walnut-sprinkled, honey-drizzled Little Greek Doughnuts don’t seem difficult to make, and they are irresistible. (I know, I’ve had them.)
This deeply personal cookbook will appeal to fans of Buckhead Life Restaurant Group and Kyma in particular. For students of meze, seafood cookery and Greek food and wine in general, it is essential reading.
From Atlanta to Greece and back again, it describes the remarkable odyssey of a chef who in service to his heritage and family business has kept a rather quiet profile. But Karatassos is not without ambition: His first cookbook is a testament to that.
He’s the third Atlanta chef to produce a first cookbook this year. Eddie Hernandez wrote of being a Mexican chef who was born again in the South. Todd Richards upended stereotypes about African-American cuisine. Now Karatassos describes how a chef can use his European birthright in a modern context, how he brought the bright sunny flavors of the Aegean home to Atlanta.
“Modern Greek Cooking” will tantalize the senses and put you in the mood for a Greek feast.
“Modern Greek Cooking: 100 Recipes for Meze, Entrees, and Desserts” by Pano Karatassos (Rizzoli, $37.50)
Wendell Brock is an Atlanta-based food and culture writer, frequent AJC contributor and winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. Follow him on Twitter (@MrBrock) and Instagram (@WendellDavidBrock)