Lisa Nicholas is living her dream, in spite of the pandemic, at the Greek Kitchen.
One of Lisa Nicholas' first food memories involves cooking with her grandfather, an experience that sticks with her vividly not so much as for what was good about it, but for what was so very bad.
"My earliest memories of cooking at home with my papopus
when I was little was making scrambled eggs," Nicholas recalls. "He'd always add grape jelly to them. It made them sweet and salty and green — and absolutely horrible. Scrambled eggs became my big go-to food over the years, but without the grape jelly. I would never do that to my kids."
Now an adult, and owner of the Greek Kitchen (343 South Kirkwood Road, Kirkwood; 314-462-9112)
, Nicholas gets the final say about what goes into her dishes. It's been a long time coming for her to get to this point — especially considering she has been cooking for years and was one of the founding forces behind the iconic Olympia Kebob House and Tavern, which she helped run with her ex-husband. Now, with her husband and co-owner Joe Kandel by her side, Nicholas is able to bring to life the Greek specialties she's been honing for decades at a place all her own.
Though she's been involved in the restaurant business for years, it wasn't necessarily something she fully embraced until recently. Growing up the daughter of trained ballet dancers who owned a dance studio, Nicholas was destined to go down that path. When her parents retired she took over the studio, balancing teaching, helping to run Olympia and raising her children. It was a busy time, but she always fell back on cooking as a creative outlet and relished any opportunity she had to show her stuff. She'd cook for family and friends, do some catering and even prepare some dishes alongside Olympia's matriarch, her ex-husband's Aunt Marietta, who would always give her grief about her skills.
"She was the best Greek cook I've ever met — right off the island of Rhodes," Nicholas says. "She was incredible, and I'd just watch her and learned so much from her. Anytime I'd make something, she'd say it was no good. My most favorite line of hers was when she'd say, 'It's good, but it's not mine.' She was probably my biggest influence."
As Nicholas got busier teaching ballet and raising her family, she became less involved with Olympia. After her marriage ended, she entertained the idea of opening her own Greek restaurant — and even dreamed of it being in Kirkwood. However, because she lacked the funding to start such an operation, she didn't give it much thought.
That changed when she reconnected with Kandel. A former couple when they were young adults, the pair got together after he moved back to St. Louis. One day, as a token of her affection, Nicholas made Kandel a small pan of baklava. He was blown away by how delicious it was, and he encouraged her to begin making it to sell. Working together, they got the licensing, packaging and a commercial kitchen, and began a small business.
It was killing them. Though they loved the idea of having a business together, the high overhead and low profit margin for the baklava operation was not sustainable. As they searched for their next move, they found an opportunity one night while out at dinner. The pair happened upon a small restaurant in Ellisville, Cafe Kabob, and got to talking with the owner. As their conversation went on, he informed them that he wanted to sell the business. They next thing they knew, they were arranging to run it for him for six months to see if they truly wanted to go all-in on owning the place. After that trial period, they sealed the deal and bought the restaurant in June of 2015. With the business fully theirs, they were able to put their stamp on it and soon rebranded as the Greek Kitchen.
The pair found success in Ellisville, but Nicholas never let go of the dream of owning a restaurant in Kirkwood. When an opportunity arose to move the business she jumped on it, opening the Greek Kitchen on South Kirkwood Road in June of 2017. The restaurant was everything she'd dreamed it would be until March of last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic upended life as she knew it.
The past year has challenged Nicholas in ways she never could have imagined. Scared, unsure and exhausted, she and Kandel have been making it work and are encouraged to keep pushing forward by their loyal patrons, who they consider friends. She also credits her Uncle Dino, who spent his life in the restaurant business, as the inspiration for what keeps her going day in and day out. Drawing upon his example as a hard worker who never gave up, Nicholas is not about to let the pandemic dash her restaurant dreams now that she feels that she has finally achieved them.
"There are days when I don't want to get out of bed, and there are days when I can conquer the world," Nicholas says. "I know I'm speaking for everyone in the business when I say that. Still, we feel lucky. It's not great, but it's as good as it can be. I can't ask for more than that."
Nicholas took a break from making her signature baklava to share her thoughts on the state of the restaurant industry, her recently acquired taste for White Claw and why empathy from her customers is the best gift they can give.
What is one thing not many people know about you?
I'm a trained ballerina. Both my parents were ballet dancers, and I retired from teaching three years ago to focus on our restaurant. And children, I LOVE children of all ages! That's two things.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Morning coffee and the local news. Getting to the Greek Kitchen early to plan and make sure that everything is in place to cook very traditional, authentic food.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
My uncle, Dino Benos. He is retired from the restaurant business, but his work ethic and delicious food are always in the back of my mind. He doesn't know this, but I am his biggest fan and want to be just like him when I grow up. WWUDD? What would Uncle Dino do?
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Lemons! The Greek answer to penicillin! They can be sweet, they can be sour, but they always make everything better.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Teaching. I love my employees, and I really try to help the younger ones with manners, discipline and excellent posture! They don't seem to mind, and they call me their work mama.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
I really believe that most people understand and have been very patient with us as we navigate through all the changes that have been made back and forth over these eleven months. There are a handful of customers who don't understand what we have gone through. There were days that Joe and I couldn't keep up with the changing rules since there was no real guidance. Close, 25 percent, 50 percent, no bar seating, wow. It's been crazy. Our restaurant is small, with only fifteen interior tables. People have walked in and I had to turn them away, even with so many empty tables. A couple of carryout orders went to the wrong customers. I want everyone to know that we are doing our absolute best every single day and we are tired! We are washing dishes, cooking, answering phones and running a business. Joe and I want to thank all of our wonderful customers (friends) from the bottom of our hearts. You all have kept us going and because of that, we have been able to keep all of our employees working. Thank you so much!
What do you miss most about the way you did your job before COVID-19?
I miss plating the food the way I would like to, as most everything has been in carryout boxes. I want the food to look lovely and delicious.
What do you miss least?
I guess it would be getting home later at night. As hard as this year has been, we have been getting home earlier.
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
I'm usually not a big drinker, but my daughter turned me on to White Claw. She said that I'm like a teenager! Joe loves the occasional Scotch on the rocks. Then there are the nights that we come home really stressed and have a Boodles and diet tonic. The secret that no one knows is the food that we eat after work. Cans of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup for me and rotisserie chicken from Sam's for Joe. We have a really nice meal every Monday night. We have been eating/drinking this way for the past year.
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
It's going to take a while to get back our sea legs. I think the carryout business will stay significant as we juggle our 100 percent seating. That will be quite a challenge, and one that we are up for — just another time that we will have to be creative. Everyone in the industry can't wait for some normalcy. I know that employees will be happier having the old boring routines back. It's going to be quite an adjustment for restaurants and quite a thrill for customers.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
Well, I always have hope. And I feel that the more you give back, the happier you will be. I have tried to set an example of giving and never saying "no" to anyone that may need help. People are really struggling, and it is my hope that Joe and I can be of any kind of help or service, and that my kids will learn from our example. There will always be struggles, but there is always hope and something to look forward to.
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