Aristo Boutsikakis with his signature Greek octopus at his restaurant Aristo's (photo by Adam Finkle).

Utah's oldest continually operating restaurant, Lamb’s Grill Cafe, was started by a Greek immigrant.

Utah is eating better cheese, salumi and chocolate because of an Italian-named specialty shop run by a half Greek. A local Chinese restaurant—lauded by a national travel magazine—is run by, you guessed it, Greeks. Look into the history—and into the kitchens—of many of Utah’s oldest and finest restaurants and you’ll find a Greek heritage. Serving food is as Greek as a gyro filled with chicken and dripping with tzatziki sauce.

“I don’t know what it is. It’s in our blood. We know how to cook, we know food,” says Aristo Boutsikakis, owner of Aristo’s Greek restaurant in Salt Lake City, one of state’s first-rate restaurants. Yes, he’s the owner, but you’ll still find him in the kitchen, tossing octopus in olive oil. 

In Utah, Greeks have been the main engine driving food—and hospitality—forward. The ancient Greek virtue of xenia—literally “guest-friendship”—has endured as the Greek cultural imperative of welcoming strangers. That congenial tradition has leavened the sober isolationism and pioneer frugality of Utah’s founding culture, and helped to make Salt Lake City, among other things, a great place to eat.

Take, for example, the Greek Festival, which annually exposes thousands to the ethnic delights of the savory pastitsio and sweet galotopita.

Think of the accolades from the New York Times for the pastrami burger—a cheeseburger topped with Thousand Island dressing and lots of juicy pastrami that may have originated in California but was brought to prominence by Utah Greeks. Or Travel + Leisure magazine naming the Mandarin in Bountiful, run by the Skedros family, as one of the country’s top 25 Chinese restaurants.

The pivotal player in elevating local dining has to be Nicholas & Co., as a supplier to some of the most beloved and best restaurants, ranging from Squatters Pub and the Oasis, to Cafe Madrid and Martine, to Stein Eriksen Lodge and Montage, among many others.

“We’re the stealth behind the success of the restaurateur/operator,” says company president Peter Mouskondis.

And that’s because they’re Greek, insists his wife, Nicole, (who happens to be Italian).

“Because food is a part of everyday culture, we have an innate understanding and appreciation that the greatest memories will be centered around a great culinary experience,” she says.

They Came, They Cooked

It was food—the failure of the currant crop—that forced the Greeks in the early 1900s to leave their mountain villages and cross the Atlantic Ocean, eventually working in Utah’s coal and metal mines and on the region’s railroads. The men vowed to return and even carried with them a vial of soil from their homeland, in case they died in the strange new land. 

While the Greeks were some of the last immigrants to settle in Utah, they came in greater numbers, lured by a labor contractor known as the “Czar of the Greeks.” They created Greek Towns, including one on 200 South in Salt Lake City, buying octopus, olive oil, goat cheese, figs and dates and playing cards and talking politics in kafenia, or coffeehouses, according to historian Helen Z. Papanikolas, who studied the Greek experience in the American West.

In the 1920s, they started leaving the mines and railroads to work for themselves, as butchers, sheepmen, store and restaurant owners. That’s when George P. Lamb opened his self-named cafe in Logan. In 1939 he moved it to Main Street in Salt Lake City, where he was joined by another Greek immigrant, Ted Speros, who had first worked in a Greek-owned grocery store in Bingham Canyon and at the Greek-owned Royal Candy Co.

“I always think of an old saying: The lowest rank in the Greek military is a general,” says Boutsikakis. He started his food career in New Jersey at age 11 cooking knishes and shish kabobs in a shack on Coney Island, but in the 1990s when he was 17 he moved to Utah to work at Atlantis Burgers for his uncle. Just a few years later, he opened Aristo’s. “None of them can work for somebody else. They had to work for themselves.”

Building empires out of food, with its connection to hospitality, just makes sense, then and now, say the families of those immigrants.

“Cultural life, family life, religious life are all bundled up and centered around the family, which is centered around food,” says Nicole Mouskondis. She’s thinking of Greek name day festivities, which are more celebrated than birthdays: Children born into Greek Orthodox families are given a name of a saint and celebrate on the saint’s feast day. She recalls roast lamb, spanakopita, dolmathes, keftedes (meatballs) and a full bar for her father-in-law’s name day on New Year’s.

And Greek hospitality is legendary. A common theme in Greek mythology is being courteous and generous to strangers (lest they be a disguised god). Think of Penelope’s obnoxious suitors feasting at her house for years in The Odyssey. Think of Philemon and Baucis welcoming Hermes in disguise.

Gregory Skedros (right) and his daughter Angel Manfredini, in the kitchen at Mandarin, the Chinese restaurant opened by Skedros in 1978; photo by Adam Finkle).

“People come into our homes—the first thing we want to do is serve them something,” says Gregory Skedros, owner of the Mandarin. “The baklava comes out.” 

Skedros owned a drug store but decided to open a Chinese restaurant in 1978 when he realized that grocery chains were taking over the pharmacy market. He couldn’t open a Greek restaurant because he was too busy at the store to cook. His family recruited chefs from Hong Kong and San Francisco and continues to travel to China to stay on top of food trends.

“Everything we do here is equal or better than what they do. The Chinese won’t like that,” he says. “It’s hard work. I’m 85 and I still work 60 hours a week here.”

His daughter, Angel Manfredini, says Greeks bring a unique history to Utah’s dining scene. “Our ancestors came here with nothing,” she says. “They worked to create businesses and make their name with hard work and a lot of pride. As we come in as second and third generation, we still have that same strong passion.” Manfredini grew up at the restaurant and is now the general manager and co-owner. She says the rules about what food she can serve are a “little bit different” because they’re Greek. Take the Mediterranean Lamb dish, which you won’t find on any other Chinese menu. The Asian-Greek fusion dish includes fresh tomatoes, water chestnuts, onions and carrots in a sauce made with oyster and soy sauces, oregano, lemon juice, garlic, sesame oil and fresh ginger. And it’s topped with feta cheese. “This is a Chinese restaurant with a Greek soul,” Manfredini says. The restaurant closes for three weeks each year, allowing the cooks to visit family in China.

Eating Weeds

Meals were the focus of family life for Matt Caputo, but the director of marketing at his family’s speciality food store, Caputo’s Market & Deli, wasn’t always proud of the Greek food he grew up eating, either at home or at his Greek grandmother’s red kitchen table.

He was jealous of his friends’ Hamburger Helper dinners. “When I would have them over they would ask, ‘Why does your family eat weeds?’” he says, remembering the dandelion greens drenched in olive oil. Forget mentioning goat.

Of course now, he thinks back to the meals of orzo and browned chicken, potatoes and a little tomato paste, and the smells of anise and dill and sun-ripened vegetables and knows they are what led him to work in the food world, alongside his Italian father. Matt Caputo has helped turn his dad’s deli into a foodie paradise, with a selection of more than 200 cheeses, some aged in his cheese cave, 300 premium chocolate bars, and a top cured-meat selection.

“My food values are certainly formed in large part from being Greek,” Caputo says. “[Those values are] making food an integral part of your life, something that is not just there to give you sustenance but that’s there to bring families together. Something that can bring intense gustatory pleasure.”

It has taken some training for Utahns to love Greek food beyond its street fare.

When Boutsikakis started out in 2003, Aristo’s was more of a “glorified gyro joint,” he acknowledges. There were some specials based on family recipes, similar to what Caputo remembers eating at his grandmother’s. But most orders were thrown out because nobody would eat it.

Now he’s flying in octopus caught near Greece, and the delicacy fills one-third of his patrons’ plates. He also flies in the sea bream, tsipoura, and roasts lamb on the grill in the summertime, like a Greek roadside taverna. This spring he’ll change the menu again, focusing on small plates to be shared family style. Boutsikakis is trying to recreate what you’d dine on in Greece.

“The dining scene of Salt Lake has changed,” he says. “It’s matured.”

The Greek Burger Connection

The foundation of Utah’s burger culture is Greek–many local burger chains are owned by Greeks and it was a Greek who popularized Utah’s (in)famous pastrami burger.

Crown Burgers, 118 North 300 West, SLC (plus other locations)
Olympus Burgers, 6100 South 900 East, Murray (plus Sandy location)
Astro Burgers, 6863 S State Street, Midvale (plus other locations)
Apollo Burgers, 256 West 3300 South, SLC (plus other locations)
Atlantis Burgers, 10 North Highway 89, Noth Salt Lake (plus Magna location)

Back>>>Read other stories in our March/April 2014 issue.