Pinay restaurateurs thrive amid Greek recession

Miles Viernes
The difficult economic situation in Greece has not dampened business for these Filipino women's restaurants

ASIAN CUISINE. Filipino-owned restaurant Viet Au is located at the Ambelokipi area in Central Athens. All photos courtesy of Miles Viernes

ATHENS, Greece – Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in Greece are not only employees who work for Greek or foreign nationals. A number of them excel as makeup artists, chefs and service workers, while others are entrepreneurs who own and manage restaurants which are becoming popular among Greeks and tourists.

Lefkada beckons

MEDITERRANEAN. The original taverna, Kato Rahoula Grill House Restaurant   has been renovated with a more modern look. Shyrill and  Sakis Soumas are the husband and wife team behind its success.

Shyrill Cafino Souma and her Greek husband own the Kato Rahoula Grill House Restaurant in Lefkada, an island in the Ionian Sea on the west coast of mainland Greece. Established in 2012, it was a typical Greek taverna serving Greek and Mediterranean dishes. It was modestly furnished with a garden style ambiance. Two years later, the taverna has grown into a restaurant which also serves Asian cuisine such as Japanese, Chinese and Filipino.

We had a late lunch at the taverna two summers ago when we attended the 50th Lefkas International Folklore Festival. We had a mix of grilled fish, squid, mussels and shrimp; beef kebabs; and lamb chops all cooked to perfection and very delicious. We savored the delectable dishes and finished off with yogurt and fresh strawberries.

Shyrill and her husband bought the taverna from their neighbor who had to sell the establishment  because it went bankrupt. “Maliit ito noon at hindi pinapansin kaya nalugi (It was a small dining area and it was not attracting customers so it closed),” Shyrill said. 

Shyrill’s story is similar to other OFWs who traveled to Greece to look for better job opportunities. A Commerce graduate who majored in banking and finance at the West Negros University, she worked in a bank in Bacolod and at Negros Navigation Company for 3 years before she came to Athens. She also worked as a waitress and receptionist at the Manila Peninsula and Hyatt hotels to gain the experience she needed to be accepted in international shipping lines.

“Naglagare ako. Sa umaga nasa Manila Peninsula ako, at sa gabi naman, sa Hyatt Hotel. Minsan, sa umaga sa Hyatt at gabi naman sa Peninsula,” she said. (I worked by shifts at Manila Peninsula and Hyatt Hotels.)

Her efforts paid off because her first assignment was at M/Y Prince Abdulaziz, a private yacht of the King and Queen of Saudi Arabia. She was an onboard stewardess working as a receptionist, waitress and cabin assistant all in one.

It was at the yacht where she met Athanasios  “Sakis” Soumas, the yacht chef.  They got married in Athens on Dec 24, 2007. Before settling down in Lefkada, they both worked in Athens – Shyrill at a hotel while her husband worked at a restaurant in Plaka, a tourist  area in Central Athens.

Lefkada is a popular tourist destination because of its impressive coastline, white sand and turquoise waters. Sakis loved the island and dreamt of having a business there. So when the opportunity came, they grabbed it. The taverna which was a realization of that dream, has grown into a successful business venture.

Like other businesses in Greece, they also experienced the effects of the economic crisis. Fortunately, it was not as bad as the other stores which had to close, as tourists and locals alike continued to patronize the taverna. Last winter, the restaurant was renovated to accommodate the ever increasing satisfied diners and to give it a fresh look . The dining area is now much improved with modern furnishings and elegant decorations.

Her husband is the chef while she is the cashier. During peak seasons, they put in as much as 15 hours of work from the time they open at 9 am until the customers leave. The customers come not only for the wholesome Greek fare but also for the live band, an added feature, playing  their favorite tunes.

Kato Rahoula employs two assistant chefs, a dishwasher and 4 to 5 waiters/waitresses. During summer, they hire more waiters/waitresses.

“Sa awa ng Dios, parating puno ang restaurant kasi malapit sa Dimossari waterfalls, a tourist spot. Lahat ng bumibisita sa waterfalls ay dumadaan dito at kumakain,” Shyrill said. (Thank God our restaurant is always full because it is near Dimossari waterfalls, a tourist spot. All of those who visit Dimossari waterfalls end up eating in our restaurant.)

Kitchen partners

Jacqueline Aquino is another OFW who has become a successful entrepreneur. She arrived in Greece in 1992 at the young age of 19 as a contract worker. She first worked as a housemaid, then as a waitress in Chinese and Japanese restaurants in Kolonaki.

Jackie met her partner, Stylianos Kapsaskis, while on vacation in Zakynthos, another  Greek island in the Ionian Sea. As fate would have it, love blossomed and so has the restaurant which they put up 8 years ago: Grill “Fratzikos” Barbecue Restaurant, which is in Peristerion, a suburban municipality northwest of Athens. It serves Greek and Mediterranean cuisine.  Sometimes they prepare Asian food upon request.

Their bestseller is the chopped grilled chicken which is lightly marinated, and the lamb chops with mixed grill. “Our version of pork and chicken gyro is also popular not only for its delicious taste but also because it is easy on the pocket,” Jackie said.

At the height of the economic crisis, sales of the restaurant declined. Customers would only buy souvlaki and rarely the main dishes. “Now, business is slowly picking up,” she said.

We have dined there twice and every time, I noticed many of the tables were filled up as early as 7:30 pm, which is not usual for Greek diners. Delivery staff would come and go mostly with gyros every 15 minutes or so. We had to bear with cigarette smoke, though, as there was no separate section for smokers.

Three months ago, we treated Noralyn Dudt, my high school batchmate and her husband Phil, at the restaurant. Phil is a naval architect working for the US Department of Defense. They were on a short vacation in Greece. We ordered mixed grill (lamb chops, pork, kebabs), cheese croquettes, tropical salad mix, fried zucchini and aubergine.

Phil was very impressed and satisfied with the food. “That was the best Greek food I ever tasted,” he said.

Noralyn too could not get over the gastronomic experience they had at the restaurant. “I would go back to Athens just to eat there,” she exclaimed.

Jackie and her partner of 10 years, Stylianos, have no formal culinary training. She helps in marketing, planning and management. She puts in more than 8 hours of work a day, oftentimes going home at 2 am. The restaurant opens daily from Monday to Sunday. They have 18 employees who work in shifts. Delivery staff are paid by the hour and they own their motorcycles.      

Cooking and coping 

DIFFICULT YEARS. Delia Balilo Nguyen is another OFW who has survived tough times in Athens.

Fried fish with rice, sweet sour pork and Peking duck with broccoli or with pancakes. These are just some of the dishes being served at Viet Au restaurant in Ambelokipi where many Filipinos reside. Five kinds of set menus with choice of appetizers, main dish and rice at 5 Euro ($6.75*)  is a value-for-money offer for delivery to nearby offices. No wonder the restaurant is a popular choice of Greek and Filipinos alike.

Viet Au, established in 2005, is owned and managed by Delia Balilo Nguyen. Originally it was named Golden Greek restaurant.

May tumawag at sabi hindi ko daw  puwedeng gamitin ang word na ‘Greek’ kaya pinalitan ko ng ‘Viet Au’ (Somebody called and said I cannot use the word ‘Greek’ for my restaurant name. So I changed it to Viet Au),” Delia said. 

She is not only the manager but also the chef who takes care of planning and preparing the dishes.

“We also have eat-all-you-can buffet on Sundays at 10 euros ($13.50),” Delia said.

The buffet usually includes from 12 to 18 dishes such as pancit (noodles), teriyaki chicken wings, barbecue spare ribs, Vietnamese spring rolls, and other Asian dishes. Sometimes she adds Filipino food like dinakdakan, Bicol Express and menudo.

Delia’s experience during her early years in Greece is one of hardship and trials. She entered Greece in 1986 with the help of her neighbor and her sister who paid for her expenses. With a two-year contract, she was a kasambahay (domestic helper)  for a Greek couple who had  two kids. She worked 14 hours a day, with a day off of a day and 5 hours only.

She lived in a boarding house consisting of two rooms, together with 17 other Filipinas. It was in this boarding house where she met her husband, Nguyen Quoc Thanh, a Vietnamese refugee. Their love story is like a teleserye (drama series) where the man was visiting another lady in the boarding house, but ended up with her instead. Marriage was the only way she could get away from her Greek employer. She did not work for 4 years after she got married to Nguyen in 1988.

When she resumed working, Delia was employed for 10 months at Kowloon restaurant in Glyfada. For the next 15 years she worked at Epicure, a restaurant chain owned by a Greek-American. Again, she was overworked, on duty from 11 pm to 4 am at the canteen owned by the restaurant, and at 5:30 am of the same day, she would go back to the restaurant to serve. She would be dizzy most of the time from lack of sleep and fatigue.

Her husband at died of kidney failure at 36. They have 3 daughters, two of whom have finished college in Greece. The son of her husband from a previous marriage works as her all around assistant.

Delia does not have any culinary training. She learned the rudiments of food preparation and cooking by experience and by watching television cooking programs. Her creativity and passion for cooking are evident in the delicious and authentic Chinese and Vietnamese dishes being served at the restaurant.

Mr A. Georzalos, one of the customers, was all praises for the noodles with shrimps and teriyaki duck he had that day. 

Weddings, birthdays and baptismal receptions are also being held there.

Nagpapasalamat ako sa mga kababayan natin na kumakain pa rin dito (I am grateful to our countrymen who continue to patronize my restaurant),” Delia said.

Shyrill, Jackie and Delia are just 3 of the OFWs in Greece who are making good in the food industry, not only as chefs and hardworking food makers, but as restaurateurs as well who continue to beat the Greek economic crisis. –