Alexis Karolidis and Samson Moisidis:
We’re making Greek cuisine trendy in Russia
Greek food is taking over the world. In the past couple of years, trendy restaurants have opened in London, Monaco, Hong Kong, Miami, and Dubai. Moscow is no exception. And the main reason is that Greek cuisine is healthy and simple at the same time. Greeks focus on healthy eating, so everything is prepared with fresh produce. According to the Greeks, this is the secret to a long life. Capital Ideas correspondent Anna Sirotina talked to the founders of Molon Lave Alexis Karolidis and Samson Moisidis about how to open a real Greek restaurant in cold Moscow.
Alexis Karolidis is the former owner of Gaudi club and currently a successful restaurateur with several successful projects in Moscow. In 2014, Alexis opened the restaurant Molon Lave, which won over the hearts of many: the establishment is perfect for big gatherings, be it a family dinner or a loud weekend of sirtaki dancing. And all of this is accompanied by Greek dishes prepared from his family recipes. Two years after opening the restaurant, Alexis is expanding his business with a bakery that features traditional Greek baked goods and sweets that you can order at the restaurant or take home with you. Alexis has also been introducing the capital’s residents to Greek street food over the past two years at Greek Freak on Rozhdestvenka, which makes souvlaki, pitas and mezes.
His business partner Samson Moisidis was born and raised in a small town in Greece. He enjoyed basketball as a child, was on the Greek junior national team, and even played professionally. At some point, he realized that he wanted to go in a different direction. He studied in various European cities and worked in the fashion industry. After moving to Moscow, Samson became a successful restaurateur when he opened the Greek restaurant Molon Lave together with Alexis Karolidis.
How did you meet?
Alexis: Let’s go with the longer version. When the Greeks moved away from the territory occupied by the Ottomans… (laughs). Actually, we met in Moscow, but there’s a long history behind this, like with everything Greek. We were two Greeks who were trying to warm up this city from different angles, began to compete, but then talked and joined forces.
How long ago was this?
Samson: Before the restaurant opened. Every Greek person living abroad is always trying to warm up their space. When they feel good, everybody else will be comfortable as well. Together they want to relive memories of Greece, or dream about their next trip to Greece. What can be more fun than feeding and entertaining a group of people? This is something inherent to the Greeks, and a restaurant is the fastest and most obvious way to achieve this happiness. You always need a place where you can treat people to delicious food and meet up with all of your friends and compatriots. And we met to make this project a reality. The most interesting part is that neither one of us really believe in fate, but this was a fateful meeting. We clicked very quickly, the way only Greeks can.
How do you split up the responsibilities?
Samson: Alexis had experience opening and managing a club, so he is in charge of management and logistics. Molon Lave is our first experience in the restaurant business. We make all of our decisions together and try to have a hand in everything that happens at the restaurant, resolving all issues as soon as possible.
It’s very important for us that we import wine specifically for our restaurant, and it’s marked with the label “special for molon lave.” A lot of Greek wines can only be found at our restaurant. I personally select the wine that we serve to guests.
Alexis: And Samson is always the life of the party. He baptized my son, my fourth child. We are very close. We definitely need to get 300 Greeks together and take back Constantinople (laughs).
Greece has everything. Do you agree with this statement?
Alexis: I don’t understand how this phrase became so popular among Russians. What did he mean by this phrase?
It’s a matter of interpretation.
Samson: I think Chekhov was trying to say that it’s important to live well, with delicious food and surrounded by beauty.
This is your first joint project. Why did you start with Moscow?
Samson: Our restaurant is 5 years old this year. There is a big Greek diaspora in Moscow. A lot of guests ask why we haven’t opened a location where they live. But even if we do open another restaurant, it will be in Saint Petersburg. We just have to figure out how to clone ourselves and who is going to live there (laughs).
Do a coin toss…
Alexis: Someone would definitely have to live there, since we manage the restaurant directly and that’s how a specific atmosphere is created. Someone with more time and no children would have to go.
Samson: I really want to go to Petersburg, and there are people opening Greek restaurants there. They are trying hard, but we would be able to give the city more. While everybody in Moscow tried to get on the guest list for clubs, people in Northern Palmyra could always get tickets to any rave. These are completely different people. But the number of foreigners and tourists is a separate theatre with its own rules. A restaurant is primarily about the food and the atmosphere. We don’t make sushi or khinkali, we don’t smoke hookah… an important point is that Petersburg has a Greek Avenue and a Greek Street. It would be ideal to open a restaurant there.
Samson, you lived in Florence for a long time. Would you say this is one of your favorite cuisines?
I liked everything in Florence. Food is the second most important form of pleasure after love. Italy is very similar to Greece in terms of these warm villages where the locals make their own mozzarella. Greeks make feta. An older woman can just stop you on the street and treat you to a bag of round mozzarella floating in water. But I didn’t come to Italy because of the food. I came to play basketball for the Greek junior national team and stayed because of a woman.
Then I realized that I have the best of Italian cuisine at home, because she was always making food and telling me that this is how her mother or grandmother used to prepare food when she was a child. I’ve been to a lot of villages with fantastic local cuisine. So I can say for sure that it’s easier to get to know the food culture through Italian women than at the best restaurants.
The restaurant business is one of the toughest out there. In your opinion, what is more important – the food or the service quality?
Samson: One doesn’t negate the other. I think that over the past hundred years Moscow has always tried to be more trendy. Peter the Great opened the window to Europe, and it started then (laughs). People started to value everything foreign. What we have is bad, what they have is better. This race for the trendy is always there, and a lot of people have to wear masks and play roles in a sort of theatre because of this. You can see that the overall picture is shifting in terms of cars and some kind of modern presence… The restaurants too are becoming more conceptual, interesting and fashionable, but all of it resembles a random collection of phrases. In the 5 years that we’ve been open, we’ve often heard the expression “authentic restaurant.” “Gastronomy” is a Greek word, and it means “pan.” Greece is not a trend, it’s here to stay!
Alexis: Here’s the thing about the trend: all of Europe wanted to turn Greece into their dacha, because our country is a unique place with ideal nature. When it rains everywhere else, the sun is shining in Greece. Even the Italians and Spaniards are jealous of this. So we’re always trendy. There was a single Cypriot restaurant called “Jason” on Orlenka, but there was never any authentic Greek cuisine. At least the high-profile restaurants only make improvised versions of Greek food.
Do you have some sort of plan on how to break the stereotype of Greek food being somewhat simple and expensive?
Samson: We entered the restaurant market and reminded people that Greek history exists. In the past 20 years, whenever I heard that there is a new Greek restaurant, I would go there right away. But it always turned into Soviet Caucasian restaurants. We happened to open our restaurant at a time when you can be original without really flirting with the public. We have dancing on Fridays… and this wasn’t planned in advance. People come up to us and ask if they can have a bit to drink and dance. Ok! And the waiters take off their aprons, drink, and start dancing sirtaki. Now everyone asks if there will be dancing today when they book tables. We started responding that we dance when the waiters are in the mood. We don’t really have special dancers or singers, after all.
Did only Greeks work at the restaurant until a certain point?
Alexis: We can’t just bring a bunch of Greeks over here. Russia is a wonderful and free country that has separated itself from the rest of the world, so we smuggle in feta on planes. Greeks don’t really want to come here.
Samson: We have a very pleasant turnover and treat people like family, so the people who left know they can always come back.
Do you consider yourselves to be Russian Greeks or Greek Russians?
Alexis: I’m a Greek. If the USSR still existed, I would call myself a Soviet person. But still, Greeks have our own traditions. And this is a great joy. I have children now, and I’m passing on my knowledge and experience to them.
Samson: A very beautiful question. 10 years ago, when I came to Russia for the first time, I understood that people treat foreigners with great respect, and even reverence. I only have a Greek passport. Really, you’re talking to two restaurateurs who are very mindful of their roots.
You started 5 years ago, but the world changes every day. What is the main restaurant business challenge in Russia?
Samson: It’s very difficult for a foreigner to adapt to Russia. If you haven’t lived here for many years, haven’t experienced the challenges and problems of the 90s and the early 2000s, it will be difficult to figure out what’s going on.
Alexis: Moscow is a very specific city. For a person who can’t put their foot down and call it their home, the situation can change at any moment. The status of a Greek restaurant that is managed by Greeks in Moscow is quite complicated. Novikov, Rappoport – Russian restaurateurs and other heavyweights of the restaurant business open a lot of restaurants, and it may seem hard to become part of this system as an outsider. But we’re in great shape and we have a big fan club.
Why should people come to your restaurant?
First of all, to meet us. We are here often and try to talk to guests often, to take part in the life of the establishment just like our guests do. Anybody who walks through the door must leave happy and full.
Molon Lave means “Come and Take” in Greek. It’s a legendary expression first used by Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. So come and take some food prepared by the real descendants of the ancient Hellenes.