"This sounds like fiction, but it's not. This is how it happened. I'm with my friend. We're sitting on her veranda, having some wine. 'I'm going to open up a restaurant.' I say, and she says, 'How much money have you got?' 'Well I've got 27 cents. Nothing.'"
So says John Gegumis, the chef-owner of O Kypos, a tiny Greek diner just off the corner of Adams and Front. His palm hits his forehead. His eyes roll back. He shrugs as if to say, Everybody knows you can't just open a restaurant with pocket change.
"I'd been a painting contractor for 30 years," Gegumis says. "So I went out and painted a house. I got some money. I got this location, went out and bought two chickens and a leg of lamb. I sold it all on the first day. So I went out and bought four chickens and two legs of lamb. And that's how O Kypos got started."
To clarify, that's how O Kypos opened, not how it started. The actual story sounds even more like something right out of a Hollywood screenplay.
"I moved to Greece about eight years ago with the idea that I was never coming back to the United States," Gegumis says. He was middle-aged and tired of the grind. He was ready to find his joy.
"I have a house right on the Mediterranean. It's a little paradise, and I was going there to live permanently with my family, who are all in the restaurant business. We've got bakers, fishermen, and those who own tavernas. During the day, I'd make chandeliers out of olive wood, brass, and copper. At night, I'd go to O Kypos -- the garden."
The original O Kypos is a taverna on Kalamaki beach where Gegumis would sit at the open bar and watch the world go by. Or maybe he would work in the kitchen soaking up all his family's secrets.
"Sometimes I'd go snorkeling," Gegumis says. "There was this one place where there were so many octopus. So I'd spear my own octopus, take it home, and cook it."
Gegumis was also inspired by the fact that he was living on a beach where the Apostle Paul used to hang his halo.
"Every day I was walking in the footsteps of Paul," he says reverently. "It was paradise. And, as I'm sure everybody knows, there's only one thing that can make a man leave paradise."
Gegumis got married, had a daughter, and that prompted him to move back to Memphis with all his family recipes.
"The really great thing is that the food you're going to eat here in Memphis is exactly the same as if you were having it on Kalamaki beach," Gegumis brags. "It's the exact same ingredients, prepared exactly the same way. This is like my little Greek island in downtown Memphis."
For lunch, O Kypos offers a gyro, the ubiquitous Greek sandwich that's become synonymous with convenience-store cuisine. But don't expect cliché. Rather than buying pre-made slabs of skewered mystery meat, Gegumis prepares his gyros from scratch with a blend of lamb and sirloin, roasted separately, then combined and grilled to order. The Greek salad is a real Greek salad -- no lettuce. It's a blend of cucumber, red onion, bell peppers, and olives tossed with oregano, drizzled with Greek olive oil, and topped with herbed feta.
O Kypo's menu is built around traditional Mediterranean fare: spanakopita, souvlaki, lamb, and pastitsio. The moussaka, a Greek-style lasagna with layers of potatoes and eggplant stuffed with cinnamon- and allspice-scented beef, takes two days to prepare. Seafood dishes include calamari, garlic shrimp, and grilled swordfish. But there are some surprises as well.
Hat-tipping its hometown, O Kypos also serves smoky Memphis-style lamb ribs, a perfect marriage of Mid-South and Mediterranean sensibilities.
"I think that's what's attractive about Greek food to Memphians," Gegumis says. "We're all big barbecuers; we love our grills. But the biggest problem with selling the lam-b-cue is trying to pry customers away from the gyro. Everybody loves a gyro."
Gegumis always admired Thomas Stergios, the dearly departed owner of the recently closed Melo's Taverna, because Stergios was able to bring an authentic family feeling to his restaurant.
"Tommy would always come around to every table," Gegumis says. "He would always come around to talk to you or to see how you were doing. I have a great staff. We all have a very personal family-type relationship, and I think that the customers can really feel that. It's important to me that O Kypos feels like a family restaurant."
O Kypos is located at 100 N. Front (864-1008). Customers may park for free in the garage at the Comfort Inn.
"If you don't like grits or never tried grits, come down and taste the difference in the way we make them," says Kevin Shockency, co-owner of Memphis Grits, which opens the first of July at 22 S. Main.
When owners Shockency and Steven Leake decided to open Memphis Grits, they sought out fresh ingredients made locally: honey from Collierville, produce grown in Ripley, hand-rolled sausage, and, of course, stone-ground corn grits. They wanted to revitalize the "farm-fresh Southern comfort food" they remember from their childhoods.
As a boy in Kentucky, Shockency would stand on his tiptoes to watch his mother make wedding cakes and would later help his father in the family's catering business. At 18, his mother sent him to culinary school in Indiana. He has since graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York and worked in New Orleans and Atlanta. He will continue his position as executive chef at the Memphis Hunt and Polo Club.
Leake, one of 11 children, also learned to cook at home while growing up in Nesbit, Mississippi. But it was his first job in the kitchen at Memphis' old Crowne Plaza Hotel that inspired him to make a career of cooking. Now he owns Premier Catering and Ice Sculptures and is an instructor and program director of hospitality management at Southwest Tennessee Community College.
"We're just a couple good ol' boys who learned great Southern cooking from our parents and other talented chefs around the country," says Shockency.
In addition to grits, the menu at Memphis Grits includes buttermilk biscuits, ham, and a "Kool-Aid of the day."
The restaurant will initially be open for breakfast and lunch, Monday through Saturday 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. However, Shockency and Leake plan to offer upscale dining beginning August 1st. The dinner menu will still include grits -- with a twist.
"The grits we'll be doing for dinner will be Southern fusion delicacies, such as oregano-crusted veal served on a bed of grits with sun-dried tomatoes, calamite olives, and feta cheese," says Shockency.
In its first month in business, Memphis' Crescent City, at 1315 Ridgeway, surpassed sales at the other 16 locations in California, Georgia, Utah, and Texas, says general manager Jaison Boyd.
The New Orleans-style franchise serves beignets, "eggs NOLA" with peppers, onions, ham, and cheese, and other breakfast items all day. For lunch and dinner, authentic Creole dishes and po' boys are prepared by New Orleans chef Paul Isabelle.
Crescent City is a fast-growing chain. Including the five additional locations planned for the greater Memphis area, there are more than 80 locations scheduled to be built from California to Florida. The franchise is based on the increasingly popular "fast-casual" concept.
The Memphis location has some unique features.
"This is the first Crescent City to have a patio, and on Friday and Saturday nights, we will have a jazz band playing out there," says Boyd.
The restaurant opens Monday through Sunday at 9 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. throughout the week and 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Dino and Tracey Grisanti will open their home's kitchen to kids who want to learn the art of cooking. Dino, chef at Dino's Grill on McLean, patterned his summer program, Kids Kulinary, after the classes his mother Sue Wynne has taught for 15 years.
The week-long, three-hour classes teach food preparation, safety, table manners, clean-up, and tips on making international foods, and sweets.
"We will also have a teen-age class to make pizzas and different snacks for parties and a couple of adult classes," says Dino.
The kids' camp costs $125 per session and "Teen Night," June 30th, costs $25. Adult classes are $35. Call 278-5279 for a complete schedule.
The Blue Monkey, the pub ON FRONT Street opened last June by the owners of Midtown's the Blue Monkey Pizza & Potations, has revamped its menu.
The powers-that-be decided to "lighten it up and try some new things," says part owner Mike Johnson.
They eliminated some heavy pastas and added more appetizers. The fried grouper entrée became a po' boy sandwich. And they introduced some California-style dishes, such as the veggie sandwich with avocados, tomatoes, and Swiss.
"We didn't want to make too many changes. We feel that the menu worked from day one," says Johnson. "We've had a great response from this neighborhood and our friends in Midtown."