February 7, 2013

Kanella @ COOK

For our birthday, we decided to cough up the cash for a return visit to COOK.  Last time, we got to check out four different chefs and learned a lot during our incredibly delicious (and entertaining) dinner.  Even though prices have only gotten steeper, when we saw that Konstantinos Pitsillides from Kanella was going to be paying COOK a visit, it didn't take long for us to snag a couple of seats.  Again, since we were trying to absorb every bit of information from one of our favorite chefs, I'll present what we learned in a not very organized list.

1. Arrive at COOK 5-10 minutes before your class starts to grab the best seats in the house- front and center. You also get to see some prep work in action.  Considering Konstantinos' stern and serious demeanor in the kitchen, we were a little nervous about how his personality would come out during the evening.  The first words out of his mouth were actually "So.. I'm not going to talk..." which caught us off guard. Thankfully they were followed by "..until everybody gets here."  Even more thankfully, he turned out to be an incredibly gracious, and at moments hilarious, "host" for the evening.

 2.  Konstantinos is from Cyprus, a country I know absolutely nothing about.  In fact, I thought it was a part of Greece, but it is in fact its own independent nation.  However, the island has been conquered by a number of nations over the centuries (Greece, Egypt, Persia, Rome, and Britain to name a few) which has helped shape its own unique cuisine.

3. The word Cyprus actually translates to "copper" which explains all of the copper implements decorating Kanella's walls.  In turn, Kanella is the Cypriot word for "cinnamon"... and Konstantinos has a fantastic way of pronouncing it with his somewhat sultry accent- the emphasis on the L's.

4.  Our meal started out with a plate of olives, pickled vegetables, and "hummus"- which in this case, was actually a dip made with yellow lentils.  He adds a few carrots to enhance the color of the dip.

5. Konstantinos' father still resides in Cyprus and regularly sends the chef fresh olives to use in a number of dishes at Kanella.  Olives are marinated, or "cured," for two days before they're sent stateside.  Konstantinos swears this is legal.

 6.  We were also given generous chunks of dense, crusty bread for smearing with lentil dip.  Kanella used to bake their own bread, but Konstantinos decided it was using up far too much of the limited space in their kitchen.  Now he outsources it from a bakery in North Jersey.  I hear the water up there makes a better dough anyway...

7.  The meal was a reflection of what Konstantinos serves during his Sunday prix fixe "mezze" (a number of small dishes).  He advertised this special meal, noting he always has both a vegetarian or meat/seafood option.  However, restaurants don't get fresh seafood delivered on Sunday's, so he has to be creative.  Note to self: Never order seafood on a Sunday.

8. Konstantinos actually has a degree in Tannery and Chemical Engineering, which he could have utilized to join his family's tannery business.  However, he blames his transition to cooking on his ADD- working in a kitchen keeps his mind busy and challenged.

9.  As part of the first course, we were served a fatoush salad: crispy pita, peppers, tomatoes, cukes, and a few crunchy pomegranate seeds for a bit of sweetness.  The pita was dusted with sumac, a popular spice on an island where lemons are scarce.  Sumac has a surprisingly pleasant lemon flavor and aromatic profile.. and he promised us this wasn't the poison sumac we're all accustomed to hearing about.

10.  The sous chef that Konstantinos brought along did a lot of the cooking while the chef regaled us with jokes and cooking instructions.  The sous single-handedly made us one of his "staff meal specials"- a verrry slow cooked scrambled egg dish filled with shredded zucchini, leeks, and kefalotyri cheese, which Chef compared to an aged Pecorino.  The eggs were finished with Greek yogurt, and along with a handful of fresh dill, helped to make some of the world's best scrambled eggs.

 11. A pot of giant beans were simmering on the stovetop when we arrived.  Both chefs carried a large (copper?) spoon in their back pockets, which were occasionally pulled out for a quick taste of a dish as it came together.  When the beans were deemed ready, they were served with a bit more cheese and white anchovies.  We were reminded of our last visit to COOK, when Peter McAndrews boldly claimed that if you don't like anchovies "you may as well kill yourself."

12.  The scramble we were served is a vital part of a mezze- it's not complete without one!  I also need to reiterate how amazing this was.  At one point, I turned to A and pointed out that we had paid $175 to eat scrambled eggs.. and I was totally OK with that.

 13.  My favorite dish of the night was the grilled octopus, served with capers and cilantro and a squeeze of lemon juice.  Konstantinos actually receives his octopus frozen, which he claims is better than any fresh option available in Philly.  These tentacled animals were marinated and then braised (thanks for the correction, Kanella!) for an hour, rendering them tender but still with a bit of a snappy bite.

14. Another attendee asked the chef the secret to knowing when octopus is ready to go- without undercooking or overcooking it.  He looked thoughtful for a moment and then instructed her "Well, one thing you can do is to take a fork and a knife and cut off a piece and eat it..."  Thanks, Chef.

15.  We had a little break as the chefs prepared the third course.  Konstantinos cooked a bulgar wheat as a starch to be served with braised chicken.  He likes to experiment with grains, but stays true to what is native to Cyprus.  Even though he's tempted by quinoa, he won't serve it in the restaurant.

16.  Bulgar wheat was a new grain for some of the group, but he pointed out that you can easily find it at "that overpriced store called Whole Foods."

17. We were served a very traditional dish of lamb kafta and sausage with a thick tzatziki sauce.  The kafta was made from ground lamb, dried apricots, and pistachios- yes, it was as good as it sounds.  Actually, better.  The sausages were made with veal, red wine, and peppercorn.  Konstantinos has a special (and secret!) spice mix that he uses in a majority of his dishes at Kanella- it includes "cumin, fennel, coriander, and ...something else."

18.  One question that came up was "Who is the most famous person to come from Cyprus?"  Konstantinos' answered with the name of an Archbishop... I'm not sure anyone actually caught the name.  Lily, one of COOK's fantastic servers, pointed something out to us. "Wait, aren't George Michael's parents from Cyprus?  He's way more famous than Archbishop Blah-blah."  Way to school the Chef, Lily.  Sorry, Archbishop Blah-blah!

19.  Our last dish was slow-braised chicken punched up with tons of flavor from the help of preserved lemon, olives, and mint (keeping the skin on doesn't hurt either!).  Konstantinos braises meat at 500 degrees- quite high when most chefs consider a braise "low and slow."  He claims the key is an extremely tight seal to lock in the moisture.  He also claims to be an "arrogant shit."

 20. Another question that came from the group was what Konstantinos cooks at home. When he does cook at home, he typically eats grilled meat, salad, bread, and wine.  The Mediterranean diet is "not a diet, it's a way of life."  And from the looks of those bulging biceps, it's working out for him just fine.

 21. For dessert, the chefs set up a deep fryer directly in front of us.  We went home permeated in the smell of peanut oil.

22.  Loukoumades- which translates to "honey puffs"- contain no honey, so the translation bothers Chef. These ultra light and sweet treats are my new favorite form of fried dough.

23.  Once the chefs cleaned up (and passed out some leftovers! We claimed a hunk of bread.) and removed their classic striped chef aprons, we realized they were both wearing (different) Kanella t-shirts.  Where can we get our own??

24.  Our second annual experience at COOK can only be described as incredible and certainly once-in-a-lifetime.  It's so amazing to have your favorite chef cook what feels like a private meal directly in front of you- and become your new friend in the process!  We're certainly even more enamored with Chef Pitsillides and his restaurant now.  I wonder which session we'll end up at next year...

253 S. 20th Street


  1. Love that his father sends the olives :) Great recap, as always!


    1. Thank you both for such happy and detailed coverage of the event! Konstantinos really enjoys this type of event and we are so glad his own enjoyment (of food, cooking, teaching, his culture et..) transferred itself to you.
      PS: Braise the octopus, not grill, it for one hour
      PPS:he does secretly listen to Georgos Panyiotou (aka George Michael), of course!! :)
      we linked you to our facebook page: www.facebook.com/kanellarestaurant

    2. I knew I'd mix up some detail- there was a lot of information there :) Thanks so much for the link, I'm sure we'll be into Kanella soon!