Chef George Pagonis of Kapnos is driven by one thing: his family. Raised by two Greek parents who operated a Greek diner in Northern Virginia, he is committed to cooking the kind of food that would make them proud. Beyond this culinary foundation, he was trained by DC master chefs José Andrés and Mike Isabella. Chef George is now living his dream by operating Kapnos, a Greek restaurant that cooks food from his family’s home country with an innovative twist.
Inspired and encouraged by his good friend and business partner Mike Isabella, George packed up his knives to join Top Chef Season 12 in Boston. Although he made a departure early on, he triumphantly returned to the competition in a sudden death quickfire challenge. If the food at Kapnos is any indication of what he has in store this season, the judges will be thanking their lucky stars for his return.
We got the chance to talk with him about his culinary inspirations, Greek cooking, and, of course, brunch. Read on to see what he had to say and check out our review of Kapnos, here.
Where is your favorite place to brunch in town?
My favorite place to brunch is Ripple. Marjorie [Meek-Bradley] does a really good brunch on Sunday. I also always enjoy Boqueria. I like to get pan con tomate, which is one of my favorite things. If I come out to brunch, it’s only once in a while that I come all the way out to brunch in DC. I usually just cook breakfast for myself and my fiancé.
What is your favorite dish to cook for brunch?
Every time my lady and I have a brunch at our house we like to do Greek style because we’re both Greek, We cook eggs sunny side up with sliced tomatoes, feta cheese olive oil, oregano, a couple bagels, and maybe some bacon or Greek sausage. Then we make coffee and hang out and watch football. Saturday nights at Kapnos are hectic, so it’s a great time to relax and unwind.
Do you prefer to brunch in or out?
I prefer to stay in. I’m always in D.C. out at my restaurant, so it’s always good to stay home and relax.
What brunch item do you have to order if it’s on the menu?
I’m a big eggs guy so if there’s a frittata or a cool looking omelette on the menu, I’m getting it. When I go out to brunch, I stay more on the “br” [breakfast] side, so I’ll always go with an egg dish.
What is your favorite item on the Kapnos brunch menu? What is the most-ordered item?
My favorite item is the pork and beans. We take Greek gigante beans with spit roasted pig and fold it into braised greens, a poached egg, Greek sausage, and a piece of grilled bread. The most ordered dish is our stone baked eggs. They’re like a baked egg in a Le Creuset with crispy lamb, feta cheese, and some herbs.
Do you prefer Bloody Marys or mimosas?
Mimosas. I can eat tomatoes like an apple, but I can’t drink tomato juice. I like to go classic orange juice but if I can have a glass of grapefruit juice for breakfast too, it’s a big plus for me. My father owned a Greek diner when I was kid so when we make our brunch here it’s very Greek inspired diner because I come from the diner background.
If you had to invite five local celebrities to brunch, who would they be?
I’m a big sports fan so I’d love to have some Redskins football players. That would be great. Scott Drewno and Mike Isabella are great friends plus Anthony Lambordo (1789) and Danny Lee (Mandu). All those guys are people I usually hang out with now and would hang with for brunch.
Kapnos is known for its wood roasted meats. Tell me about that process? What’s your favorite?
Every morning around 8 or 9 o’clock, we get our spits going with hickory wood and charcoal. We don’t use gas or electricity. We marinate our lamb and dry rub our goat. We also have lamb shoulder, pork shoulder, and chicken. One spit gets the whole animal and one spit gets the cuts. When I bring in my Greek family whose been eating Greek all their lives, they say Kapnos has the best lamb. If there’s one meat I could eat every day, it would be the chicken. I love our chicken. We also put potatoes underneath all the animals so they collect all the drippings.
Greece is clearly one of the biggest influences on your culinary career. How has that culture affected you cooking? Where do you get your inspiration?
I’m a first generation American from Greece. My mother and my father are both from Greece and I’ve been traveling to Greece my whole life. It’s always been what I ate. I’ve worked at a lot of French restaurants and got a lot of my training and foundation there, but what I want to cook is Greek food. The idea behind Kapnos is not to be a typical Greek restaurant. Sometimes you go to a Greek restaurant and the menu is the same and it’s so boring. So when we opened Kapnos, I decided I wanted to stay true to Greek food and Greek flavors but make it mine. I wanted it to be interesting and different.
You’ve worked for some of D.C.’s biggest name chefs- namely Jose Andres and Mike Isabella. What’s it like working for someone with their reputation.
For me, especially as a young chef, it’s important for me to work for someone I admire and respect. That drives me to work hard. These are people you never want to let down or disappoint. I always want to make sure I’m doing a good job for them. I never want to let anybody down, especially people like those two.
Mike Isabella has an ever-growing number of restaurants. What will your role be in the empire?
I’ve been with Mike since the beginning at Zaytinya and we moved forwarded into Graffito where my brother is the general manager. With all the expansion going on, we’re trying to not over-extend ourselves. My brother and I will be taking over Kapnos in DC and Kapnos Taverna coming to Arlington. I’m going to be focusing on these two and that’s it. We’re going to have some different chefs lined up for the new Graffiato location. We have a bunch of sous chefs that well promote from within. With every concept that’s opening we’ll make sure we put the right person in place that is strong in that cooking. Mike and I are partners in every venture we go into.