Is this a moussaka-induced bad dream? How did Yanni’s, a favorite Greek restaurant on Phinney Ridge for nearly 30 years, wind up on Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” show?
Watch when the episode airs Friday night for the full story — or, at least, the version edited for TV. But the short answer you get in the show’s first few minutes is that the warm family-run restaurant with the garlicky skordalia and killer calamari was nearly sinking in its own tradition. Owner Peter Avgoustiou was “in denial,” both controlling and overwhelmed, resisting pleas to overhaul the encyclopedic, dated menu or the tired decor. Business had taken a hit as the neighborhood evolved around the restaurant, and the younger crowd went to newer and hipper spots instead. The family was financially overextended and worn out.
“We need to step up and take back the restaurant,” Peter’s sensible, stylish wife Karen told Ramsay at one low point during the filming. “Are you willing to work with us, Chef Ramsay? Are we savable?”
This being reality TV, of course the answer was yes, though the show first chronicled fiery squabbles between the couple and daughters Alyse and Tariya, tears, and some stomach-turning kitchen close-ups.
Karen Avgoustiou chatted a bit about the filming in between serving tables Thursday night. There will be a viewing party Friday (make reservations for no later than 7 p.m.), where the family will be seeing the show for the first time. Here are some edited excerpts of what she had to say:
On why they would say yes when a scout asked if they’d consider being on the show: Because it had been 29 years since Peter opened the restaurant with his father, mother, and sister. Families had been raised there, kids had gone through college, Peter’s father semi-retired several years ago and gave the restaurant to his son, and yet it didn’t feel like theirs. “We had stayed the same. We still had the grapes on the wall, the wine kegs… we had stood still, and everyone had come and gone.”
On how she thought the family would be portrayed: “I think it made us kind of into characters, (though) we all bring something of the attributes… Alyse, yes, she’s a pistol, my husband can be difficult to work with, and I’m kind of an organized person that came from the financial world…I think it’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of it all…
“I don’t know how we’re going to look out there, but I’m confident they did good things for us and they wouldn’t portray us in a really bad light. I think they were really good people. Chef Ramsay, he was in your face, brutally honest, screaming at you… he’s an actor, he has a show and that’s his persona, but as far as what that brought to us, what we’ve been working with now, it’s a very nice gift.
“Sometimes you get caught up in the craziness because you’re being filmed, sometimes I think you take on something of an acting persona yourself. We were totally out of our element — we’re just a tiny Greek family, we are loud and we do scream, but we’re not crazy, crazy people!”
On whether the filming was exaggerated or staged: “It was so surreal in here. You come in to work and there are cameras all over, you’re all miked up, it seems weird anyway, and then you have to serve tables! At one point in time, everyone in the restaurant was sending back food for one reason or another, and that never happens, so I don’t know how all of that came about.”
On why no one thought to clear the refrigerators before a particularly tough scene where Ramsay deemed them disgusting: “During the show, the six days that you’re filming, the restaurant’s closed down, machines are getting unplugged… it’s not a normal week for anyone. People can go online and they can read health department records and all of our ratings. We’ve never been marked down or shut down, other than by Ramsay.”
On what customers can do when they miss some of Yanni’s garlic-laden old dishes too desperately: “We have this side menu. (If you want a dish), ask us if we have it.”
On change: “It kind of re-energized the family, revitalized for sure the restaurant, and, again, it’s kind of fun. It’s fresh. (When people say they miss the old Yanni’s), I think, do you like going to your home day in and day out and seeing the same things in the same place 30 years later? You don’t change anything? I love that they shook us up.”