David Schneider, owner of the new Wicker Park restaurant Taxim, knows it won't be easy to change entrenched ideas about what a Greek restaurant should be in this town. "I've had people actually get in here and say, 'You need more blue and white. This place doesn't feel Greek enough,'" he says. "Likewise, there's an orthodoxy about how to make a dish."
If a single historical figure could be blamed for that orthodoxy—the one that upholds the ideal of Greek food as bechamel-blanketed pastichio and high-viscosity avgolemono soup—it would be European-trained Greek chef Nicholas Tselementes, who in the early part of the last century sparked a culinary revolution in his homeland, exiling simple, fresh ingredient-driven dishes made with olive oil, garlic, and native herbs in favor of a French-influenced hybrid employing butter, cream, and flour. Tselementes wanted to purge Greek cuisine of Turkish and other influences, and affluent Greeks embraced his writings with such enthusiasm that today his name is synonymous with cookbook.
But Schneider knows that this fundamental shift in Greek cuisine can't be hung on just one chef. Tselementes's rise coincided with Greek and Turkish nationalist movements that climaxed with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 and the mass expulsion of a million and half Greeks from Asia Minor. Since then a kind of collective denial of eastern Mediterranean Greek cuisine has persisted in Greece and abroad, while Frenchified Greek cuisine, aided and abetted by the tourist trade, has been exported all over the world.
Though he's only 29, Schneider talks about this tragic history as if he'd lived through it himself. "If you're gonna study Greek cuisine," he says, "the hardest thing is to get out of this mindset that Greece is this small boundary."
Schneider, whose mother came to the U.S. from Greece in the 60s, divided every summer of his childhood between his grandparents' small rural property outside Athens and his grandfather's native village on Evia Island, where he was immersed in the farm-to-table aesthetic. "People have their small plots of land," he says, "and every time you visit somebody—especially from the older generation—they'll pick you something and they'll make it for you."
Schneider has always loved to cook, but he graduated from Northwestern with a civil engineering degree, worked for alderman Helen Shiller, and did construction before landing a job in the front of the house at Green Zebra in 2004, where he witnessed firsthand what it takes to open a restaurant. That year he took another extended trip to Greece, this time traveling all over the country, eating in small restaurants and people's homes, visiting markets, and cooking with his grandmother. Early the next year, after returning to Green Zebra, he began to think about a place of his own. Chef de cuisine Christine Kim allowed him to train with the cooks in the kitchen, and he tried to pick up everything he could. But it was a subsequent trip to Greece and the eastern Mediterranean that cemented his plan to open a Greek restaurant unlike anything in Greektown.
"You go to Istanbul to the little bars near Taxim Square and they're drinking ouzo or raki," he says. "They're having the same exact food" as Greeks used to. Both of Schneider's aunts are married to Greeks with roots in Asia Minor, and traveling with one of them, he was able to spot many lost connections to the region. "Everything that she was familiar with as a cook, through her husband's family and his relatives and my other aunt's family—you go there and you feel at home," he says. Schneider traveled on to Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, where he says he detected vestigial Greek influences as well.
Three years ago he began working for the caterering group Entertaining Company, and before long he was picking up jobs on the side, preparing the foods he'd learned to cook from his mother, often with her at his side. His mom, he says, was hard to please, but steady affirmation from his customers convinced him he could do it on his own.
He put his engineering background to use designing and renovating the space in the former Big Horse Lounge, where termite damage in the floor joists was so advanced you could sink a hammer head into the rotted wood. He outfitted the place with engraved copper platters and Byzantine brass lanterns, and poured moldings with Levantine patterns.
But adapting his catering operation for a restaurant kitchen line was beyond his experience, so through Christine Kim he recruited Jan Rickerl, a former sous chef at Green Zebra, to help out. The pair developed a small but remarkable opening menu that incorporates a wide array of regional ingredients and techniques into its hot and cold mezedakia and larger bountiful plates.
The briny seared halloumi cheese (tossed with arugula) is Cypriot, but its lemon-and-dried-mint vinaigrette shows a more eastern influence; roasted peppers have their origins in Macedonia; and the simple roasted fish with lemon and olive oil is a preparation specific to Crete. The smoked green wheat bedding for his tender braised lamb shank hails from Cyprus, Syria, and Lebanon, where its production is a cottage industry among village women, and Schneider has even offered a specialty from Tselementes's home island of Sifnos, a cake soaked in the piney liqueur mastic.
Schneider likes to mix things up. His unstrained house-made yogurt appears in a number of dishes, from sauteed baby eggplant to young favas with lamb confit, a preparation rooted in the mountainous northern Thraki region, where use of animal fat reflects the scarcity of olive oil. And he particularly wants to showcase the urban—or politiki—foods of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Smyrna (now Izmir). Some might see his duck gyros as the ultimate bastardization: In place of the familiar pita, he uses a stretchy durum version made in the style of the Pontian Greeks, who live along the southern coast of the Black Sea. The duck is marinated in fenugreek, allspice, fennel seed, salt, and garlic—spices used in the making the bastourma (spiced cured air-dried beef) of the Thraki region—and served with a pomegranate glaze. But the dish is all politiki, and a more authentic rendition of the spit-roast gyros than the shaved processed meat cones you find at most places in town.
"Lamb is the best gyro," Schneider says. "But whatever is available you could put on the gyro. You could have lamb liver. You could make a fish gyro. There is no orthodox gyro."