He sits at the bar of his bistro, La Crêpe et La Vie, laptop open, comparing recipes for bouillabaisse. Even seated, Kostas Kormopoulos’ energy sizzles, like batter poured on a hot griddle.
“Sit wherever you like,” he motions dismissively.
I seat myself and order my favorite: la crêpe Greque, a wafer-thin pancake browned in butter, filled with fresh spinach, feta and a lemony-dill sauce. As usual, the crêpe delivers: a crispy envelope opens up to creamy fulfillment. As I’m savoring my last bite of scrumptious, Kostas sits down opposite me.
His father was a Greek fisherman, but the saltiness surfaces on the son’s skin too. Kostas opens the conversation by recalling the time he and his chef buddies held a private party and served their guests in only white aprons: “We put the plates down, said ‘bon appétit!’, turned around and walked back to the kitchen.”
“So you mooned them.” I plunge the grinds to the bottom of my personal French coffee press.
“Absolutely,” he smirks.
At 67, Kostas passes for a cocky 50.
I turn the conversation: “What does cooking mean to you?”
“A lot. More than life.”
“Who taught you how to cook?”
“Really? I don’t believe you. Somebody in your home cooked,” I insist.
“My father. But he never cooked crêpes, or any of the food that I cook.”
“What did your father cook?” I ask.
“Fish for breakfast, fish for lunch, fish for dinner. He was a fisherman.
I grew up in Greece for the first 27 years of my life.”
“But you cook fish as well. Just not the way your father cooked it.”
“No, improved, evolved. But his way is the best way, actually.”
[pullquote]My sauces incorporate wine and heavy cream and butter. Tons of butter. Thousands of tons of butter. So If anyone has a problem with butter they don’t have to come here.[/pullquote]
“How is that?” I ask.
“And he had very fresh fish,” I add.
“Yeah, fresh fish.”
“How long have you worked in restaurants?”
“I’ve never worked in restaurants,“ he answers. “I build restaurants. My real business is construction. Every time I open my own restaurant, I open it because I just feel like opening something. The first place that we opened, in the Newkirk Plaza, it was on the spur of the moment. My sister-in-law and I realized there was no food around here that we liked to eat, so we opened a place where we could eat!”
“What was that restaurant like in the Newkirk Plaza?” I ask.
“It was a gourmet market, fish market, meat market, and then, since I love cooking, I also had a kitchen to cook for the guests. I put in a few tables. It got hectic. Too many people. I wanted 10 people but then everybody came to eat there, because everyone said the food was great. The customers were coming in asking me: ‘What are you cooking, Kostas?’ Then I showed them the fish, and I showed them the meat, and so, you had water and earth! I had no menu. It was one of those places. But it was popular. That’s why I closed it down, too many people.”
“Shut it down?” I ask.
“I left. I gave it to my sister-in-law. I wanted to have the best of it, work on it a few years, then arrivederci. Restaurants are like girlfriends.”
I smile and knock back my cup.
“Oh? Why is that?”
“You keep them for a while, and then, you know, they get tired of you or you get tired of them and then, you know, you move on…”
“Hmm…” I want to lick the halo of butter circling my empty plate. “The next girlfriend, the next restaurant, is different?”
“What made you think crêpes?” I ask.
“When I came to this neighborhood 18 years ago, there was nothing decent. There was only a supermarket, nothing else. No place where people could get some fresh pasta or really good fish. The only thing you see here is the same thing: chicken. Over chicken. Over chicken. Chicken, chicken, chicken, chicken! I just make crêpes. But on weekends I also cook for my friends. What I cook for my friends is totally different. I pick recipes up from the internet, and then I infuse them with whatever I feel. People in the neighborhood create their own spices, and they come to me.”
“People come to you with spices?” I ask.
“Yes. They make their own spices. They say: ‘Kostas what do you think about this spice?’ and I take their spice and if I can incorporate it into whatever I cook, I do. That’s why my food is different. So Thursdays, Friday, Saturdays, there are real meals here.”
“What time do you serve?”
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s not something I can predict. People come over here with friends and they hang out…”
“Can I come?”
“Of course, as long as you bring your own wine.”
“What time do you finally go home?” I ask.
“Your guess is as good as mine. If nobody’s here, I close at 8. Sometimes I close at two o’clock in the morning. This is a neighborhood joint, a pit stop for the people from Brooklyn College. They feel comfortable here. They don’t feel that my place is a stuck-up place. I never advertise. My decorations are whatever you see here. Normandy style, tenement style, I would say. I wanted to recycle whatever was here already. I build restaurants. I see people spending huge amounts of money on decorations in restaurants. It’s totally useless.”
“Are you building other restaurants now?” I ask.
“Right now no. We just finished one in Manhattan and one in Jersey. Usually I build restaurants with the Greeks. But they’re not all Greek restaurants. Some we build are French. We build Japanese too.”
“Diners, right?” (Dopey question.)
“Actually, I’ve never done diners.”
“The Greeks build restaurants that aren’t diners?” I just can’t get beyond the SNL skit of Dan Aykryod flipping quarter-pounders: “cheeseburrrger… cheeseburrrger…”
“Absolutely. The Greeks might own Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish restaurants. Look at me.”
“How are the Greeks so good at so many different types of restaurants?” I wonder.
“Because Greeks love food. I mean it’s like eat, eat, eat, eat! If somebody loves to fly, they become a pilot. If somebody loves to sail, they become a sailor. Greeks love to eat so they become restaurant owners. They try to persuade people that food is everything in life. It is. Every day everybody has three meals. So there it is. It is everything in life. And of course, as Greeks we believe in butter. My crêpes are totally butter.”
“Delicious,” I agree.
“My sauces incorporate wine and heavy cream and butter. Tons of butter. Thousands of tons of butter. So If anyone has a problem with butter they don’t have to come here.”
“Butter, sugar, and lemon crêpe. Because everything balances each other out.”
I can almost taste the sweet and the sour meeting, mellowed in melted butter. (Drool.)
“Tell me more about your weekend dinners. What are you making for these?”
“I like to play around with fish. Fish, shellfish, salmon. Every time I try to take from a different part of Europe. I can make a salmon the way they make it in Italy, the way they make it in Greece, and the way they make it in France. And when I make the bouillabaisse — which everybody goes crazy for — it’s from a different part of the world. I go on the internet, I see what’s the main dish of some nation, and then I take part of it. And I always have to use the Greek stuff, because for me, food without the Greek inspiration doesn’t exist.”
“So you’re inspired by Greek cooking?” I ask.
“No, by my father’s cooking.”
“But he was Greek?”
“He was a fisherman.”
“So for bouillabaisse, will you start with Jacques Pepin or Julia Child?”
“No, I don’t have any cookbooks in my store. But maybe I can call my friends in France and ask them what’s trending now. In every country there are variations on bouillabaisse. So for example, I make a bouillabaisse with Indian spices. Go figure. This is my place. I eat here. My family eats here. So the food has to be good since I am kalofagas, as we say in Greece…”
[pullquote]Let me tell you something about cooking. If you are gonna live for 1,000 years, you can go to school, for a 1,000 years. And if you don’t sleep with cooking on your mind, and you don’t wake up with cooking on your mind, you will not be able to even boil a freaking egg! You have to love to cook.[/pullquote]
“Kalofagas. Good eater. Somebody who eats good food. I don’t eat crap.”
“So you’re a good eater.”
“Not only me, all of the Greeks are.”
“Maybe that’s why my grandfather, a Greek, married an Italian? They like to eat too.”
“Absolutely. Some folks too, they chase crêpes. Crepe freaks. I always tell them: ‘You like it you come back. You don’t like it, I don’t want you back.’ I’m having fun. This is a hobby place.”
He points to a beautiful woman at the back of the restaurant, smooth, dark hair falling below her shoulders. Kostas’ wife, Sky, is in her boutique, Tresor en Fleur, draping a cocktail dress over a hanger.
“She’s having fun. The whole family is having fun. And of course this is being transmitted to the people. Every night you see the people coming, hanging out. And even if they’re not hungry, they still eat something.”
“How is it to work with your wife?”
“What do you mean work? I live with her. That’s work!”
Ha! “I think it’s wonderful that you have your own business and she has her own,” I observe.
“Absolutely. I like her to be with me. I don’t know if she’s happy being here with me.”
“And your son works here too?”
“Yeah, Pavlos comes over here. He likes to meet people, talk to people. He’s 17 years old. Instead of hanging out with his own people he comes here. He helps me out. I give him a couple of dollars. The good old way.”
“What do you think Foster Avenue needs?” I change the subject completely.
“More restaurants. And I think this organization Flatbush Development Corporation needs to do what they’d do for any other neighborhood. They have to come over here and do all those parties they do on other streets. They should do them over here, because there are businesses here also.”
“You mean Cortelyou at Twilight, right?
“And they should bring this freaking greenmarket over here. Not concentrate only on Cortelyou Road.” He presses his burly, tensed forearms into the table.
“I agree, a farmers’ market on Foster would be great.”
“You know there is not one empty store here along Foster, from Ocean Avenue to Ocean Parkway.”
“From Ocean to Ocean,” I echo.
“All the storefronts have businesses. This Flatbush Development Corporation needs to do what they have to do!”
“Do you know what we did in the Newkirk Plaza? If it was not for me, and Niko, from the liquor store, and Paul, from True Value Hardware, and LoDuca, from the pizzeria, and a few others, Newkirk Plaza would be the same crap that it was 20 years ago. We are the ones who forced the MTA to rebuild the plaza. Me, Niko, and the people at the head of FDC in those days. We had a meeting every freaking week. We business owners were bitching: ‘Fix the Plaza!’ We had an organization, everyone was paying money to clean the plaza. Right? People said we were ahead of our times 15 years.
“So one day I told the head of FDC: ‘Come over here. You’re always telling me you have this big f@@#$%* budget,” Kostas continues. “Just give me the freaking money! I will go buy pots and put the flowers in them, now! Don’t tell me next week, in a month or in a year!’ And the head of FDC was laughing… And I said, ‘Why are you laughing?? You’ve got the friggin money?? Okay! Give me the money! Let’s go together. I’ll get you my truck. Go buy the planters, put them over here!’ And we got it done. Then FDC went to Cortelyou. Why’d they go to Cortelyou? I want them to answer me!”
I applaud Kostas. The plaza looks great post-renovation. “It takes a lot of hard work to get anything done,” I say, “and you were willing to do the work.”
I stir the conversation back to cooking. “Tell me more about your process as a chef.”
“Why should I tell you that? Let me tell you something about cooking. If you are gonna live for 1,000 years, you can go to school for a 1,000 years. And if you don’t sleep with cooking on your mind, and you don’t wake up with cooking on your mind, you will not be able to even boil a freaking egg! You have to love to cook. Sometimes I make love to my wife and then if a recipe comes into my head, I stop it — I go write down the recipe — and then I go back and continue. Don’t write that, my wife is gonna get pissed.”
How can I leave that out?
“I’m 67 f&@*#$% years old, I don’t give a crap.” He pushes himself up by his fists. “We’re finished, no?”
“Finished. Kostas, I really wish to f#$% I could put all of your cursing in here!”
We share a good chuckle.
[pullquote]Some folks too, they chase crêpes. Crêpe freaks. I always tell them: ‘You like it you come back. You don’t like it, I don’t want you back.’[/pullquote]
Kostas returns to the kitchen and I head to the back of the restaurant and sit down at the last table. Elegant in a black, boat-neck sweater, Sky is a soft-spoken woman with a girlish voice. We get business out of the way. I reach into my Flatbush Food Coop tote and pull out a jacket from a Soho children’s boutique, and a Brooks Brothers’ white oxford, size 4. I splurged on that shirt for a family wedding: worn once. She looks over the shirt carefully: no stains, no missing buttons.
“What do you want for this?” she asks.
“I don’t want to tell you what I paid for it new.”
Sky answers with a beautiful smile, “How about $20?”
“Fine. How do spell your last name by the way?”
“R-e-r-r-i-e-K-o-r-m-o-p-o-u-l-o-s. Rerrie-Kormopoulos It’s a nightmare to write.”
“You know you could just do what Cher does. Just go by Sky. Forget the last names.”
“That’s for famous people,” she dismisses me modestly.
Born in Jamaica, Sky came to New York to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. She worked for 25 years in the fashion industry, before reinventing herself as proprietor of Tresor en Fleur, a vintage clothing & consignment boutique.
“How did this store come to be?” I ask.
“Kostas decided he wanted me to be here with him so he made me this little space and said, ‘Hey, have a ball!'”
“Tell me a little about the relationship with your sister Judith,” I ask, referring to the other owner of Tresor en Fleur.
“I do only the creative. She does everything else: the books, the finances. Technically it’s her business. She is the head of Human Resources for the Hospice of New York. She has a big, stressful job… but you know, that’s how her brain is. She does all the paperwork. I can’t even focus to read something if its too long. Anything that needs to be done on that side of the brain, she takes care of it.”
Sounds like a good arrangement. “What kind of stuff do you look for when you shop?” I ask.
“My sister always says that anything I’ve ever bought her has never gone out of style, and she’s had it forever, until the seams rip apart! She wanted my eye to pick everything for the store. We go away to shop together.”
“Do you like vintage or new? How about designer?”
“I love vintage items. I also do consignment. I’m very picky about my consignment.”
[pullquote]”How did this store come to be?” I ask. “Kostas decided he wanted me to be here with him so he made me this little space and said, ‘Hey, have a ball!’”[/pullquote]
“Yes,” I laugh, “I know you’re picky about your consignment.”
“I’ve weeded it down to three people.”
“Am I one of those three people?” I ask.
“You are one of those three people because you have the eye that I like.”
“And the other two are retired fashionistas from the Upper West Side. I love to get things from them because they are very high-quality items. I do get a lot of people coming in to do consignment, but I turn them away. The space is very small. So I just pick the best and leave it at that.”
“You have a website.”
“Yes, Judith developed the website.”
“You can buy things directly off the website?” I ask.
“Yes, or you can pick them up in the store.”
“You have a little of everything: jewelry, and blouses, hats, and dresses.”
“Have you ever worked with your husband before?” I ask.
“So this is new?”
“Yes. Usually he does his thing and I do my thing. Yeah. I don’t want to get into it because he’s more aggressive the way he does things and I’m more laid-back. So he stays on his side and I stay on my side, pretty much. If he needs to deal with something, he does it with Judith.”
I like this idea. Use an intermediary. “So how is it being with your husband all day and then going home to your husband?”
“Well it’s kinda good, because I come in at 11 in the morning, and I’m doing my thing. And he doesn’t get home til 11 at night, and I’m usually sleeping, so I don’t really see him.”
“Does he cook you meals when you’re here?” I ask.
“Yeah, he feeds me,” Sky smiles, “I get to taste all the experimental dishes.”
“And if you approve a dish?”
“It becomes the meal of the day.”
“It goes on the board outside?” I ask.
“What is your favorite thing that your husband cooks?” I ask.
“He has a cajun shrimp that he does with grits.”
“Shrimp and grits. Delish.”
“He’ll put it on the board, usually on a Friday. That’s really tasty. And there’s also a cod with cherry tomatoes and basmati rice.”
“And what’s your favorite crêpe on the menu?”
“Sweet one or savory?” Sky asks.
“One of each.”
“My favorite savory would be the Greque.”
“I love that one too. The spinach with the lemony-dill sauce. Yummy.”
“…and my favorite sweet crêpe would be the Pomme.”
“The Apple.” I haven’t tried that one yet.
“Does he have specials every day?” I ask.
“Usually Fridays are the biggest day for fish. It’s pretty packed. They usually get here at six. A loyal crowd comes every Friday from Manhattan.”
“You hang out with them?”
“No I usually just say hi and bye.”
I’m curious about something. “Tell me about the relationship between your sister and your husband. They seem to be good buddies.”
“Oh yeah, for as long as we’ve been together they’ve been really good friends. They have the same energy. Whereas I have to retreat a lot, they usually hang out together. More than me.”
“That’s nice,” I observe.
“Thank God!” Sky laughs, “‘cause I couldn’t keep up with him! He’s pretty energetic, and for his age as well.”
“Yes. 67. So I guess age has nothing to do with it,” she observes. “It’s just a matter of whatever is going on inside…”
“Yes,” I agree, “age has nothing to do with it.”
I’ve been working up to my next question: “So have you ever had a fight in the store?”
“Well yeah, we bicker. If I see something in his space that he needs to fix… And then he tries to keep me contained because I try to sneak my clothes in the window and he says ‘but nobody can see inside!’ So we have that rift sometimes. It’s about my advertising versus his advertising.”
“Where your spaces collide and connect,” I reflect.
“Yeah, he’s very specific and he doesn’t really waver from his vision. I can’t really add to it. He’s not as flexible as I am, so that’s sometimes an issue. When I sneak stuff into the window display and he finds out, and goes: ‘Wait a minute!’”
“But all in all, he says he likes having you here when he’s here,” I conclude.
“Yeah he does, cause I think that was his dream to have me here with him… it wasn’t my dream. I never thought about it til he came up with it. So I guess he got his dream…” Sky flashes an enigmatic, dimpled smile. “Sometimes people come by and I’m not here and he’ll open up the boutique and actually sell. He’s good with actresses. They’ll come in saying they have a movie premiere and need a dress and jewelry. He’s extremely good with actresses.”
“I think Kostas is good with all women,” I offer.
We share a good laugh over that one.
“Sometimes when he travels he buys stuff for my boutique. He bought a lot of great stuff from the thrift stores and church stores on Cape Cod.”
“How did you come up with the name Tresor en Fleur?”
“Because I had to fit into his theme, I just sat down and thought about it. I don’t speak French. I just played with words and these items I sell are going to be around for a while, so they’re like treasures that are always in bloom. They don’t go out of style. I majored in tailoring and it’s really where my brain is at, you can wear them any time, every year. Classic.”
“A lot of people thought it was weird, the crêperie with the boutique, but I didn’t understand that. If you go into the city you find it a lot. Everybody has food with the clothing. Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, Saks. So it’s not that strange. I guess it may be strange for Brooklyn.”
“Do people do what I do?” I wonder. “I place my crêpe order and then I get up and check out your shop.”
“Yeah, they do that. And they’re looking at dresses and they’re getting excited and then all of a sudden they realize their food is getting cold. But then they come back after they eat and they buy.”
“Tell me how you and Kostas met.” (So much for the linear interview.)
“We went to somebody’s party and actually the host had invited Kostas to meet my sister. I was still in college. Kostas was friends with Judith but she was dating somebody. Then a couple of weeks later he calls me, and I said “Who’s that?” I think he just invited himself over to our place on his birthday. I was already engaged. We just became good friends and the long distance relationship I had with my fiancé while I was in school didn’t work out. Kostas and I were just friends for a long time and I guess it just went from there. Then he got invited to Greece by the government so he invited both of us, Judith and me, but she couldn’t go. I said ‘I’m going’ and she said” ‘No you’re not!’ It was a big sister-little sister fight. I did end up going. She didn’t like that he was much older.”
“How much older?” I ask.
“But I went. It was a big fight. And I went,” she laughs.
“Does Kostas have children from another relationship?”
“Yes he does. He has a beautiful daughter who is two years younger than I am. She’s also in the fashion industry. So he has one daughter and his ex-wife and his ex-girlfriend. We’re all good friends. His ex-girlfriend is my son’s godmother and his ex-wife and I are always chatting. So Kostas has a very… I dunno… it radiates from him… because he still keeps a good relationship with everyone, and everyone still loves him. Like my ex-boss said the day of our marriage: ‘Oh my God, this is like a Fellini movie!’ We were all there, on my wedding day, and we were having a good time. That was the joke!”
The scene comes into focus: Sky in her wedding dress, wet and clinging, and all the ex-amores of Kostas, linking arms and dancing, knee-deep in the Trevi fountain.
The four o’clock sun rays finger their way through Sky’s cocktail sheaths in the storefront window and brighten the room, and the people in it. The ceiling lights, with cheerful tea towels draped over them are not on, and not missed. I am at ease, relaxed, at home, enjoying framed photos of French entertainment icons: Edith Piaf and Catherine Deneuve, Simone Signoret and Yves Montand.
I watch four young missionaries from the nearby Church of the Latter Day Saints, sitting up straight in their seats, relishing their crêpes chantilly, Nutella, and marshmalleur.
“Yeah, it has a good energy,” Sky replies, rises, and returns to her boutique to arrange sparkly earrings for sale.
Hours of Operation:
Wednesday: 11:00AM – 3:00PM
Thursday & Friday: 1:00PM – 7:00PM
Saturday & Sunday: 11:00AM – 4:00PM
Closed Monday & Tuesday
La Crêpe et La Vie
1715 Foster Avenue
Between E17th & E18th streets
Brooklyn, NY 11230
Hours of Operation:
About the author: Maria Newsom, a seven-year resident of Parkville and co-prez of the Parents’ Association of PS 217, has used up the last baby wipe in the house and is finally putting her MA in creative writing to use. She has recently discovered the bliss of blogging and soup recipes on Pinterest. Abandoning all sleep hygiene in pursuit of her new passions, she produces a monthly email newsletter on the thankless job of parenting, and the world that opens up once the stroller has been thrown on the ash heap. In between newsletters and navy bean soup, she scribbles for Ditmas Park Corner. Got a neighbor up to cool stuff to profile? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.