I’m being shown around the kitchen of one of Houston’s most popular restaurants. My tour guide’s name is Jack. It wasn’t until later that I realized what a well-fitting name it was for the 20-something that seemed to know a little bit of everything in the kitchen. He gives me a quick rundown of the ingredients we’re going to be working with. I’m trying not to show how nervous I am. This isn’t my typical Saturday afternoon. I’m getting ready to play the part of
chef sous chef assistant at Helen Greek Food & Wine.
My first assignment is to cut green onions which sounds easy enough, but I can’t stop thinking of what would happen if I cut myself in the middle of the lunch rush. Needless to say, I’m working slowly and occasionally taking in the artful work going on around me. As it happens, my pace is not out of place in Helen’s tiny kitchen. The restaurant’s dining philosophy – “siga, siga” (slowly, slowly) – marks the care and mindfulness that brings each meal together. The Koroneiki extra virgin olive oil is infused with Thyme in-house. I taste it and I’m in love. The market fish is flown in by a local fish monger and served whole. It’s a culinary masterpiece. Considering myself something of a connoisseur in the art of whole fish, I pay more attention to this than my green onions. Normally, I would be disappointed by anything other than a simple Ladolemono to accompany whole fish, but today that’s not the case. This fish is framed with a golden Avgolemono sauce brushed in thick strokes on either side and topped with lightly dressed micro
greens. I promise myself that that I will order it as soon as my shift is over.
As I continue to cut my onions with all my digits still intact, I start thinking of the first time I dined at Helen. The entire experience was a pleasant surprise. I remember walking in with somewhat low expectations after so many disappointing meals at Greek restaurants across the country. So many lacked authenticity and innovation, yet my experience at Helen was different. No Greek flags, no mystery meat strips of beef and lamb disguised as a gyro and no servers shouting “Opa!” as they bring you your food. I fell in love with Helen that day and now I’m a guest in the kitchen. Is this really happening?
I’ve been promoted to garlic-peeling duty. I’m wondering how long my hands will smell after I leave this kitchen and Mercedes, Helen’s Chef Du Jour, walks in. I take a few steps to the side. I’ve been told Chefs can be temperamental when people get in their way. Mercedes introduces herself and I think “she must be one of the nice ones.” She starts to prepare the marinade for the gyro meat and I start to ask questions. “Where did you train?” “Where did you first work?” “How did you get started with Helen?” “Where do you get your inspiration from?” “Have you ever been to Greece?” “What is your favorite dish?” Mercedes’ passion for the food at Helen is clearly evident and I’m learning so much from my conversation with her, but there is still one piece of information I still need to understand. “Who created Helen?” I’ve been in the kitchen of
an authentic Greek restaurant for house and haven’t met a single native Greek. I ask and am surprised to learn that Helen was not created by a native Greek as I expected. Rather, it is the product of Evan Turner who is (as you probably guessed by his name) not Greek.
In walks Evan. I have lot of questions for him. Fortunately though, he does all the talking.
He tells me his story and how his parents were professors who moved their family to Greece when he was young. They spent years there and Evan fell in love. He fell in love with the culture, the history, and of course, the food. He even fell in love with Greek politics which brings me to the conclusion that he is more Greek than I am despite my being born in Athens.
Evan’s passion touches every aspect of Helen. While other Greek restaurants are serving a processed combination of beef and lamb as gyro (spoiler alert: this is unheard of in Greece), Evan insists on serving a traditionally prepared, entirely pork gyro. In developing the concept, he understood and appreciated the Greek culture enough to maintain its authenticity. I finally understand what sets Helen apart from other institutions of Greek cuisine: an authentic philia (love) of Greek culture and all it embodies. Hours past my initial time commitment, I’m deep in thought on the labor of love I just witnessed. I thank everyone in the kitchen, untie my apron and sit down to order. “Market fish, please.”
Helen Greek Food & Wine
Shortly after it’s opening in 2015, Helen Greek Food & Wine became one of the most notable Greek restaurants in the country. Less than two years later, it appeared alongside names like San Fransisco’s Kokkari and New York City’s Molyvos– both considered institutions of Greek cuisine in the U.S. Currently, Helen has two Houston locations in Rice Village and the Heights.