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The Family Behind Westchester’s Best Diners And Other Eateries

 



The Family Behind Westchester’s Best Diners And Other Eateries

 

Many years ago, when her three children were quite young, Chrysa Livanos was called in to intervene in one of the children’s rare arguments. Corina, the youngest, was beside herself in tears, while her older brother stood nearby wearing a guilty expression. “What happened?” Chrysa asked in her native Greek, reaching to console the child.

 

“Billy just said a bad word to me,” Corina sputtered between heaving sobs.

Chrysa, whose most important rule in the house was to show respect for one another, shot a stern look at her middle child, then about 10, who soon joined his sister in guilty tears.

 

The bad word?

 

Shut up.

 

Chrysa Livanos now laughs as she recalls the anecdote. “That was a bad word in our house,” she says. It still is. Those who witness the daily interaction among the Livanos siblings—Corina, 32, Bill, 38, and Nick 42, who together with their parents, John and Chrysa Livanos, are part of a restaurant empire that includes six restaurants and is worth more than $20 million—say there is never a harsh word between them.

 

“To this day I would never say ‘shut up’ to my brothers,” says Corina, the banquet manager at Manhattan’s three-star seafood restaurant Oceana. “In my family there’s a tremendous amount of respect. I can’t help but think that makes a huge difference in what we do.”

 

What they do is successfully run and manage three City Limits diners, two in Westchester and a newly opened one in Stamford; Hartsdale’s Mediterranean-style Café Meze; the aforementioned Oceana; and Molyvos, the family’s paean to its heritage and fine Greek dining.

 

And to think this restaurant empire was built by John Livanos, now 67, who came to this country from Greece in 1957 and started as a dishwasher in his uncle’s diner.

“John Livanos knows that the basic ingredient to success is the family,” says Peter Makrias, the publisher of Estiator, a monthly magazine for Greek-American restaurateurs, who has known the Livanos family for more than 20 years. “Here you have a family that has adopted the most modern methods of research, development and marketing and is able to work hard together in a spirit of tremendous cooperation. That is extremely rare.”

 

John Livanos’s childhood in Greece was spent watching the ships come in. His father and uncles were commercial fishermen, and until he grew old enough to go out on the boats himself, the boy would run down to the docks to see the catch of the day: porgy, red mullet, smelt, skate, red snapper. What wasn’t sold his mother would cook up for dinner that same day. That love of fresh fish would eventually carry over into the opening of Oceana, today considered one of the finest seafood restaurants in the country.

Like many other Greek immigrants to this country, Livanos gravitated toward the diner as a way to support himself and his growing young family (he and Chrysa married in 1958). He bought a 30-seat luncheonette in Astoria, Queens, for $1,300 in 1961, closed it down briefly for renovations and sold the diner for $18,000 a mere 18 months later. Livanos bought up a string of diners in the metropolitan area in the ’60s and ’70s, culminating in his purchase of the 230-seat Arch Diner in Brooklyn, which in the 1970s was said to be the busiest diner in New York State. Livanos recalls working 15-hour days, seven-day weeks; his wife remembers finding him fast asleep in the car in the driveway of their home.

 

What kept him going in those early years? It’s the same motivation that keeps him going today. “You’ve got to have inside of you a devotion to the business,” he says, his Greek accent still in place 45 years later. “And when you go to sleep, your mind is still in the restaurant.”

 

“My dad was never home,” recalls Bill Livanos of his childhood. So in essence each of the three Livanos children grew up in the diners their father owned, working weekends and school holidays behind the register, seating patrons and clearing tables. Today Bill keeps close to the same hours that his father had, working 12-hour days, six-day weeks, overseeing both Westchester City Limits restaurants as well as Café Meze.

“I tried to discourage my children from going into the restaurant business,” John Livanos says. “I knew they liked the excitement of having lines out the door, but not the roughness of a 24-hour diner.”

 

After running diners for 20 years, Livanos felt it was time to go upscale. In 1985, he opened Livanos Restaurant on Central Avenue (on what is now the site of City Limits), which attracted a loyal following for its Continental food but failed to attract enough of a business for its oversized space. Then the family decided to apply what they had learned from Livanos Restaurant to what they already knew about diners: City Limits thus was born. Livanos sought out not merely top diner cooks, but top chefs, people like Peter Assue and his wife, pastry chef Tracy Kamperdyk—Assue, both of whom trained and worked in three- and four-star restaurants in Manhattan before being wooed to City Limits.

 

“I would never eat in a diner,” confesses Kamperdyk-Assue, “but, knowing the Livanoses were running it, I knew this was going to be no ordinary diner.” Kamperdyk Assue was promised she could bring her Valrhona chocolate imported from France (which patrons will find in the Valrhona chocolate pudding and all the chocolate desserts) and Tahitian vanilla beans (they’re in the crème brûleé, among many other desserts). Assue was given similar assurances that whatever he needed in the way of equipment or staffing was his.

The pair has been cooking at City Limits since the flagship Central Avenue location opened in 1994. Kamperdyk-Assue is also the pastry chef for Café Meze, the Livanoses’ Mediterranean-style restaurant on Central Avenue in Hartsdale.

 

Critics have described City Limits as a fine restaurant disguised as a diner. Indeed, this is a place where a tuna fish sandwich is made with fresh yellowfin tuna as opposed to StarKist, where pancakes are drizzled with pure maple syrup, and the smoked salmon comes from the restaurant’s own smokehouse.

 

Westchester’s other City Limits is in The Westchester; Stamford’s version opened last March.

 

Oceana marked the biggest risk for the Livanos family as its first Manhattan foray. When it opened in 1992, there were just a handful of upscale fish restaurants. “Oceana marked us as a serious restaurant family,” says Nick Livanos, who oversees operations at all six restaurants. The restaurant became acclaimed for such signature dishes as sheep’s milk gnocchi with black truffle, French sea bass with exotic spices and tamarind, and American, as opposed to overfished Russian, caviar. The restaurant on East 54th Street caters to a high-end professional crowd and is known as much for its décor as its food, with seascapes and polished wood resembling an ocean liner.

 

Cornelius Gallagher was recently named executive chef at Oceana, having worked previously as sous-chef at Daniel on Park Avenue and 65th Street. “You have to respect John Livanos,” Gallagher says. “He came to this country with nothing and now has a restaurant empire. He’s a hands-on guy who knows how to balance all the things it takes to be successful in this business—solid personal relationships, business acumen and keeping employees’ morale high. He also has built a trusting relationship with all his chefs.”

 

Crain’s New York Business recently awarded Oceana a 10, its highest rating, for excellence and consistency, and observed, “The fortitude and flexibility of the John Livanos family in not just taking on Manhattan, but also upscaling dramatically from a base of diners, has long since been demonstrated.”

 

Molyvos, named for John Livanos’s hometown on the island of Lesbos, is the embodiment of the elder Livanos’s dream. Livanos spent two and a half years preparing for the restaurant’s opening, taking his chefs on two trips to Greece in order to teach them how to cook authentic Greek cuisine. When it opened in 1997, Molyvos earned a coveted three-star review from Ruth Reichl in The New York Times, who wrote, “This Greek food is presented by people who passionately want you to love it.”

That passion doesn’t seem to have abated. “You have to love food,” John Livanos says. “You have to have a passion for creating new dishes. You have to appreciate people coming in and thank them for their business.”

 

“John is more than a hard-working businessman,” says Peter Makrias, the publisher of Estiator. “He didn’t come out of business school or culinary school, but he still has among the best restaurants in the country. How did he do that? By asking questions and wanting to know more.”

 

Hardworking, disciplined, curious—all those are attributes friends and employees ascribe to the elder Livanos. But are you also tough?, John Livanos is asked.

“Yes,” he answers a little too quickly, a little too emphatically, momentarily caught off guard. The sparkle in his sea-green eyes turns stormy for a nanosecond.

Corina Livanos, whom her father calls “my sweetheart,” shares a story. It was the holiday season, the busiest time of year for a restaurateur, and Corina, then in high school, was expected to help out at the family’s restaurant. She showed up for work half an hour late. Her father had just two words for her: “Go home.”

 

Corina recalls standing there in shock, as customers waited to be seated, their coats to be checked—jobs she was meant to be filling. John Livanos glanced at his customers, usually his uppermost priority. But family still came first.

“She’s my daughter,” he said to his patrons by way of explanation, “and she’s late for work.” Turning back to Corina, he repeated, “Go home.”

Corina laughs today, recalling that incident. “I have to say my father was tough on us,” she says. “You just couldn’t slack off around him.”

 

Back to the present, where john livanos has   recovered his equilibrium. Yes, he’s tough, he acknowledges, but he’s fair. He doesn’t ask anyone to do any more than he does himself. That currently means that John Livanos divides his time between the Stamford City Limits diner and Manhattan’s Molyvos restaurant, regularly putting in 10-hour days, week after week after week, at a point in his life when most other men could well retire.

What will happen when John Livanos retires? “He won’t,” says his elder son Nick with a chuckle.

 

The question is broached to the patriarch. It’s as if it’s the first time he’s considered the subject. “I suppose I could retire,” he says, “spend half the year in Greece and the other half here.”

 

But it’s clear that retirement is not in the cards. “My children have tremendous respect for me,” John Livanos says. “That gives me the inspiration and strength to keep going. I’m doing it for them.”

 

If you ask each member of the Livanos family what they like best about their family, it’s probably no surprise when, to a person, they mention Chrysa’s cooking. Bill extolled his mother’s roasted leg of lamb, Corina her stuffed tomatoes, John his wife’s dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), and Nick her black sea bass with mayonnaise. (The recipes for Chrysa’s roast leg of lamb and black sea bass appear on page 47.) Most weekends the clan gets together at either John and Chrysa’s home on Long Island or at either Nick’s or Bill’s house in northern Westchester, where the topic of conversation almost always begins and ends with food.

 

Chrysa Livanos says her greatest pleasure is cooking for her extended family, which has remained remarkably close despite the long hours and pressures of being in the restaurant business. “If you have the money, but you don’t have a close family, it means nothing,” she says. “I have always emphasized that to my children: You have good friends, but it’s nothing like your family.”

 

Donna Cornachio, an admitted foodie, has eaten in all the Livanos family’s restaurants. She writes from her home in Hastings on Hudson.

 

From Chrysa Livanos’s Kitchen

 

Roasted Leg of Lamb with Rustic Potatoes

(Serves 4-6)

 

Ingredients

7 lb. leg of lamb, semi-boned and

   butterflied, with shank bone (*See note)

salt and freshly ground pepper

1 clove garlic, quartered

2 Tbs. olive oil

1 tsp. dried Greek oregano, crumbled

3 medium-sized Idaho potatoes,

  peeled and quartered

1 14 oz. can of tomatoes, drained

  and chopped

1/2 cup dry white wine, plus more,

  if necessary

a few ounces of low-sodium canned chicken stock, or water, if necessary

 

Pre-heat oven to 450ºF.

Place the lamb on a clean work surface and season on both sides with salt and pepper. Shape the lamb by rolling it tightly around the bone, starting at one narrow end. Using kitchen twine, tie lamb lengthwise and crosswise at 1-inch intervals.

Make four small slits in the lamb and insert the garlic quarters.

Rub the lamb with 1 Tbs. olive oil, season all over with salt, pepper and 1/2 tsp. oregano, cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.

Place lamb in a roasting pan just large enough to accommodate it, and roast for
25 minutes.

In a mixing bowl, combine the potatoes with remaining olive oil and oregano, add the tomatoes, and season with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, pour the white wine around the lamb. Arrange the potato mixture around the lamb, and reduce oven temperature to 400ºF. Roast the lamb, basting frequently with pan juices, for another 45 to 65 minutes (if you need more juice, add a little chicken stock to the pan). Roast until medium rare, or until thermometer inserted in the roast reads 130ºF.

Remove lamb from oven and tent with
aluminum foil. Let rest for 15 minutes before slicing. Serve potatoes and pan juices
separately.

 

Note: Have your butcher bone and butterfly

   the lamb.

 

Poached Black Sea Bass with Mayonnaise

(Serves 4-6)

 

To make the mayonnaise:

Ingredients

1 whole egg

2 egg yolks

2 tsp. Dijon mustard

1 1/2 tsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 tsp. salt

2 tsp. sugar

1/2 tsp. white pepper

1 1/2 cups canola oil

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup chives, finely sliced

1/4 cup capers, finely chopped

 

In a food processor, combine the whole egg, egg yolks, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, salt, sugar and pepper on medium speed until the mixture emulsifies, about 1 minute. Gradually add the oil, drizzling in a little at a time. Once half of the oil is incorporated, add the remaining oil in a steady stream. Transfer the mayonnaise to a bowl, and fold in the chopped chives and capers. Reserve in a sealed container, and refrigerate if not using immediately.

 

To make the fish:

Ingredients

2 Tbs. olive oil

1 carrot, peeled and cut into 1/8” rounds

2 celery ribs, thinly sliced

1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced

salt and freshly ground pepper

1 1/2 quarts water

2 bay leaves

1 3 1/2-4 lb. black sea bass, cleaned

  and scaled with entrails removed

1/2 cup black olives, pitted and halved

In a large, wide saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the carrot, celery and onion, and sauté until vegetables begin to soften, taking care not to brown them, about 5-6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the water to the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, and allow the poaching liquid to simmer for about 10 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, gather together the vegetables at the bottom of the pot to create a bed for the fish.

Season the fish with salt and pepper. Rest the fish on top of the vegetables (no more than half of it should be submerged in the poaching liquid). Cover loosely with foil, raise the heat to medium, and poach the fish until the flesh is tender and white, about 25-30 minutes. Transfer fish to a cutting board and gently peel away the skin. Reserve the head and tail. When the fish is still slightly warm, remove the flesh from the bones using two large spoons. Transfer the fish to a large mixing bowl, cover and refrigerate. Once cold, coat the fish with 1 cup mayonnaise.

To serve, place the head and tail at opposite ends of a platter. Using the fish mixture, form the body of a fish between the head and tail by molding fish mixture with your hands. Garnish with carrot rounds around the platter. Surround each carrot round with olive segments to create a flower.

Serve with warm pita bread, if you like.

 

 

 

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