6 Questions with Charles Bililies & Tony Cervone

Souvla’s motto is ‘Make it nice and be nice.’ what’s the backstory?

CHARLES: We look to this phrase as a constant reference point. Coming out of Michelin three-star restaurants like I did, there was always this relentless pursuit of perfection, which is great in many ways but comes with a very heavy human toll. When we set out to create Souvla, we wanted the opposite of that. We’ve created a culture where there’s open and direct communication. Unlike most kitchen environments, we don’t yell at people or raise our voice. If there’s a conflict to resolve, we do it in a professional manner.

What’s the most common misconception about Greek food?

TONY: People look at it as more casual than it actually is. Especially in America, people associate Greek food with a greasy pita sandwich, but there’s a lot of refinement and technical skill needed, even if you’re just cooking over a grill.

CHARLES: Greek food is underrepresented in the United States. There’s a lack of awareness and exposure. Most Americans are well-versed in Italian and French cuisine, but Greek cuisine often gets blended in with Middle Eastern, and they just call it Mediterranean. People will come in and ask us for hummus, and hummus is not part of Greek cuisine!

The menu at Souvla feels so familiar, and yet so new.

CHARLES: The gyro sandwich hasn’t changed much since it was brought to the United States in the early 1970s. It is still this highly processed, mystery cone of meat with mealy tomatoes and out-of-season produce served from a cart at 4 am… equal parts delicious and I-think-I’m-going-to-be-sick. So I saw a real opportunity there. It was very important to us to have a simple, curated menu. Even when it comes to our wine, we have basically one of each: one white, one rosé, and one red, and even just one beer! One of our goals is to evangelize and showcase Greek wine, how delicious and what great value it is. We only work with Greek winemakers, we only feature native Greek varietals. We’ve effectively forced people to drink Greek wine.

Speaking of Greek wines, which ones are you most excited to showcase on your trip?

CHARLES: Greek wines represent tremendous value in a world where all of the high-end French wine producers are now highly allocated and basically unattainable. You have to mortgage your house to buy French Burgundies! Greek wines punch above their weight, and deliver exceptional quality at a fraction of the price.

We are going to two, maybe three, of the best wineries in all of Greece. Both George Skouras and Paris Sigalas are producing very special, truly world-class wines that are only now being discovered by many Americans. When we go to Skouras, you’ll see a style of winemaking that’s indicative of something you would find in Bordeaux and that you wouldn’t expect in Greece. And then you will see almost the opposite when we go to Sigalas, where you have this old school, creative approach and where some of the best food I’ve ever had at a winery is served in a rustic, rural setting that’s just very, very genuine. They are known for their assyrtiko, a grape native to the island of Santorini that’s grown in some of the harshest conditions, we’re talking about a former volcano that gets basically no rainfall. So it’s getting all of this crazy wind off the Mediterranean to the point where they actually train the grapes to grow inside what looks like a woven wicker basket. These wines have intense minerality and you’re able to almost smell the ocean in them. They’re super crisp, high acid. I like to think of them as a Greek Chablis.

What else are you excited about?

CHARLES: Greece has obviously been an incredibly popular travel destination for decades. But most people don’t venture out into the non-tourist areas. There are certain things that you have to do in Greece, like going up to the Acropolis or being in Santorini and watching the sunset. Is it touristy? Yes, and it’s still amazing. But where we add value is in being able to go to these wineries and farms, being able to meet these producers and see parts of Greece that you probably wouldn’t see on your own. I’m so happy that we’re going to Nafplion. It’s a beautiful port town that’s very close to the Skouras winery and is somewhat of an undiscovered gem.

TONY: Sharing the meals. Huge tables, tons of food, carafes of wine—just having those experiences in these really special places. I look forward to being a host, describing and showing things to people and cooking things for people. Share sights we’ve seen and discover new ones. I look forward to being in that role.

CHARLES: Fun fact: Tony and I both got engaged on Santorini. Not to each other (laughs). Separate times and separate women.

TONY: It’s also the only time we’ve ever shared a hotel room, I believe.

Quick hits. If this trip to Greece were a color / food / wine / sound / feeling, it would be…

CHARLES: Blue. Olive oil. Assyrtiko. Waves crashing. Love.

TONY: White. Oregano. Retsina. Wind blowing. Happiness.