INSIGHT: Grace Santorini turns 10 – an interview with Executive Chef Spyros Agious
When did you start with Grace Hotels? It was March 2009 when the beautiful journey at Grace Hotels began on the ‘magic rock’ of Santorini Island… then over the next two winter seasons, I spent a few months at the White Barn Inn in North America where I had the opportunity to work with some great chefs, learning about New England cuisine and preparing so many Maine lobsters!
What do you remember about your first weeks with Grace Hotels? I was struck by how it represented something new, fresh and completely different; this made me very excited. I was so impressed with the people I met… the creators of the Grace vision, so much creativity and passion even with just a small hotel. Certainly, one of the most impressive memories which will always stay with me is the view from the hotel on Santorini. What a location.
Which is your favourite part of the hotel? Well, obviously I have to say the Restaurant of course!
What do you enjoy most about working on Santorini? The island has amazing and truly unique produce. Things like its rich wine, the ancient fava beans which still flourish, the anhydrous vegetables which grow without requiring rainwater but through atmospheric humidity, cheeses and so on. And under the beautiful landscape there is a very interesting world, full of surprises like the deep waters of the Caldera volcano basin. They are perfect for many types of scuba diving: wreck dives, cliff dives, cave dives and more.
What major changes have you seen at the hotel over the years? The hotel is more than doubled in size. I still remember the architect’s discussion about the new restaurant and pool being planned at one corner of the hotel, overlooking the rocks. It seemed such an impossible spot that I was sure they were joking. The biggest change in recent years has definitely been the new restaurant, pool and kitchen where turns the building into a modern, contemporary hotel with amazing external areas.
What do you think guests value or enjoy about Grace? There’s a strong emphasis on the culinary side, excellent food with authentic Greek hospitality and how each hotel’s location is unique.
If you had to describe Santorini in one word – what would it be? It has to be the ‘volcano’, which has played such a key role in the history of the island, its wine and food, the energy, view, colours and overall fame.
How would you describe the cuisine at Grace Santorini? We offer different dining concepts in the hotel. The tasting breakfast ingredients change daily, casual lunches are based around the chargrill oven, dinner is sophisticated yet uncomplicated contemporary Greek cuisine with nods to global gastronomy, and ‘363’ brings in snacks and bar meals with a sense of fun. Everything is designed and prepared to honour the amazing produce we source from small producers all over Greece.
What’s the philosophy behind this? Our food philosophy is strongly inspired by people, passion and heritage. What I mean here is you need to search and find the right suppliers, people who share the same values and dreams to work with and serve that produce to people visiting Grace on Santorini and Mykonos to enjoy what we offer amid the beauty of these ancient Islands.
People are so important. When I visit Mr Nomikos, one of our suppliers, I feel the love and care he has as we stroll through the farm and he describes the fava bean harvest, the pistachio tries, the process for making sun-dried tomatoes; you feel his respect for nature. A month ago I was on a farm in Mykonos that produces fantastic cheese, Greek yoghurt and milk. Mr Koukas there treats the animals with great respect and love – you feel that when he is walking in open farmland and calling out to each of his cows by name. In this way, people transmit their dedication into passionate food. This all connects at a very human level, often evoking memories. The smell of pastries and a pie baking very early in the morning, the chargrilled lobster, sourdough bread, that little bite of cheese with some local honey, or my grandma’s ‘bianco’ recipe. Food can be very emotional and we see this when guests smiling after one bite when you hear “I tried octopus for the first time and it was awesome” or the feeling they have been made happy, healthy, nourished by food.
And heritage because we cook the same fava bean which has flourished for the last 3,000 years on the island of Santorini. We love Greek cheese and wine still produced today from ancient times. We learn traditional cooking from our grandmothers and serve it with a modern twist. We cook with olive oil, in many ways the symbol of Greek gastronomy, history and culture.
What dish on the menu are you most proud of? This is difficult question… I have pride in many dishes for many different reasons, some because guests love them so much, some because the story behind the main ingredient is very interesting, some because I created them from scratch and some because the recipe comes from a person I respect a lot.
What do people ask for or order most on the menu? That’s easy – Greek Salad! Simplicity at its very best. Healthy, refreshing and an extremely flexible dish as a side, starter, main for lunch or dinner, with fish, meat or on its own. It’s a very honest dish because all you need is quality products.
Tell us about the delicacies of Santorini? I’m lucky that my landlady is an amazing cook. Santorini’s cuisine is full of simple, tasty and very clever dishes because with just a few ingredients the locals prepare incredible food. Made into a purée, the famous Santorini fava bean is like baby food. Tomato fritters made with scallions and peppermint are the perfect summer appetizer or nibble. Hearty local sausages smell like heaven. The healthy four main ingredients of the dessert ‘Kopania’ combine to revive and refresh with their aromas. A Santorini salad with the characteristic local tomatoes, aromatic ‘katsouni’ cucumber, ‘Chloro’ fresh goat’s cheese and caper leaves… these are all so delicious.
Do you have a favourite drink or cocktail? I have been drinking Santorini’s unique wines for the last decade and they are among my favourite drinks. But I’m open and I love to try whatever a barman might create, living out the motto to ‘let the artist express himself’.
What do you cook for yourself at home? I love breakfast, any time of the day! But breakfast can be a super-healthy with a big glass of vegetable and fruit juice, or maybe the pizza from last night with a fried egg on top. There’s also the Santorini fava bean with tomatoes and poached eggs or even cornflakes with a midnight movie.
How do you relax? I like to hold my breath and take a deep dive into the sea, following the fishes and the flow of the current. The harmony of nature helps me to relax a lot: the sun, the evening breeze, and of course the 360-degree view on Santorini with its endless horizon serving to cleanse your thoughts and empty your mind.