Charred crusts and supple meat on a skewer, courtesy of the ‘Octopus Whisperer’
Konstantinos “Kostas” Katsaros remembers vividly the way his father would prepare fresh-caught octopus during summer vacations along the Aegean coast. Pulling his harpoon from the Aegean Sea, he’d promptly gut the wriggling cephalopod and slap it against the rocky shoreline 50 times, kneading the tentacles with handfuls of seawater to soften the flesh before hanging it on a clothesline to dry. Sometimes they’d grill the tenderized meat over coals; sometimes they’d let it stew in a big pot. It was always delicious.
At the Altadena Farmers Market on Wednesday evenings, wedged between a pupusa stand and a taco vendor, Katsaros can be found upholding the family tradition. In July, the 45-year-old chef launched Calamaki, a stand that specializes in charcoal-grilled skewers threaded with seafood, meat and vegetables.
Calamaki translates to “skewer” in Greek, though Katsaros says he was enticed by the prefix “Cal” too, a nod to the prominence of local ingredients in his cooking. And despite its name sounding similar to calamari, the stand’s top seller is not squid (which Katsaros occasionally offers as a special) but artfully charred skewers of grilled octopus. Among market regulars, he’s known simply as “the Octopus Guy” or “the Octopus Whisperer.”
“It’s kind of amazing to see people excited to eat octopus on a stick,” he said.
Katsaros grew up in Athens. At 25, he moved to Amsterdam to work as a chef, spending the next 18 years in some of the city’s best fine-dining establishments. Four years ago, he and his wife, an L.A. native, relocated to El Sereno.
Searching for kitchen work, Katsaros found himself skimming Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants list for places to apply; eventually he landed at Michael Cimarusti’s Providence, the top honoree on that year’s list and one of the most acclaimed seafood restaurants in the country. After his time at Providence, Katsaros went on to open Cape Seafood & Provisions, Cimarusti’s now-shuttered seafood shop and takeout counter on Fairfax Avenue (octopus tacos were a house specialty).
After nine nominations, Providence chef Michael Cimarusti has won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: West.
After Cape Seafood closed, Katsaros decided to launch his own business. He was enticed by the idea of grilling outdoors at local farmers markets, where he could enjoy the fresh air and interact with customers.
“If I had just had a food truck or something, I would be one dot in the ocean,” he said. “This way, I could show people I was doing something unique.”
Using a mesquite-powered, 4-by-3-foot steel yakitori grill that his father-in-law built, Katsaros, on a given evening, might cook Japanese sweet potatoes or leeks or radicchio, finishing the smoky, charred produce with a squiggle of arugula-pistachio pesto. There’s grilled pork neck marinated in garlic and fennel seed paired with tzatziki sauce and salted lemon, or sticks of local snapper dotted with olive oil, pickled sea fennel and Kalamata olives. You might even catch his take on a traditional Greek salad (called a “village salad” in Greece, he says) made crisp with bits of purslane and adorned with a fat slab of Dodoni feta.
But among Calamaki’s many Grecian specialties, it’s still the unfussy $8 octopus skewers that manage to steal the spotlight. Katsaros mainly uses wild octopus caught off the Spanish coast, though lately he’s been enamored with giant Pacific octopus from Alaska, which are a bycatch of cod fishing and have a sweeter taste compared with their saltier Atlantic counterparts.
A majority of the octopus on the market these days is sold frozen — and Katsaros says that’s preferable: The freezing process actually softens the meat (no rock-pounding necessary). After a gentle 90-minute simmer in saltwater that turns the tentacles a familiar shade of violet, Katsaros finishes the sliced octopus on the grill, yielding a charred crust that contrasts with the supple meat underneath. “There should be a little crunch,” he said. “You don’t want it too soft.”
Katsaros hopes to expand to more farmers markets soon and eventually open a full restaurant that melds Greek flavors with California ingredients, though he admits that he’ll need to sell a lot more octopus skewers before that happens.
“Greek food is about using very high-quality ingredients, and to me there’s so much overlap with what you find here,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer that they go together.”
Calamaki, Wednesdays, 3 to 7 p.m., 587 W. Palm St., Altadena, calamaki.com
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