All photos Laura Hayes

A lot of chefs have a mantra to get them through hard times and grueling days. For George Pagonis, it’s “don’t screw it up,” because that’s the advice his father Tony Pagonis gave him at the most critical juncture of his career.

For most fathers and sons, these backhanded words of encouragement land before the first day of school or minutes before a wedding ceremony, but Tony put on the pressure in 2006, when he gave his sons Nick and George every last cent he earned from selling his Alexandria Greek diner, The Four Seasons, to TD Bank.

The cash positioned Nick and George to sign on as partners with Mike Isabella in 2011 so the trio could open Kapnos on 14th Street NW—and later Kapnos Taverna in Arlington and Kapnos Kouzina in Bethesda.

“I had a month’s worth of sleepless nights because I was so stressed out,” George recalls. “My dad gave me whatever money he worked his whole life to earn. He gave me everything.”

George grew up working at The Four Seasons, making the transaction especially emotional. While other kids were going to baseball games on weekends, he was showing up for shifts starting in first grade. “We’d come in at 9 a.m. and make toast—you’d order a Western omelet with cheese and wheat toast. I made the wheat toast,” George says.

Servers would share their tips with George, who earned as much as $50 or $60 a day. He spent his earnings on ice cream sandwiches and video games. But even then, his father encouraged him to save. 

“‘You might have it this week, you might not have it next week. That’s how the restaurant industry works,’” George says, recalling his father’s foresight. “My dad always stressed that the diner is everything. If we lose this diner, we’re finished, we’re going back to Greece.”

The deep financial risk inherent in the business is one reason Tony hoped George wouldn’t follow in his footsteps. But Greek food is in his blood. At different points in their lives, Tony and his wife Mary emigrated from a tiny Greek village called Skoura, just outside of Sparta. They met in New York while Tony was helping his cousin open a Greek diner in Brooklyn and Mary was living in Astoria (Queens’ Little Greece). 

The couple eventually settled in Alexandria because Tony’s uncle Louis Cholakis was opening Greek diners in Northern Virginia, including Amphora Diner Deluxe in Herndon, and needed help. Also, Tony’s brother Peter Pagonis owns Nostos in nearby Vienna and he has myriad nieces and nephews spread throughout the Northeast in the diner business. Tony followed suit by opening The Four Seasons.

For many of George’s relatives, going into the diner business wasn’t a choice. “When you come over from Greece, you don’t speak English, so you stick to family, and the people who came over first had diners,” George explains. “They got into the diner business because they didn’t know how to do anything else. It’s kind of like Italians and pizzerias.” 

As a first-generation Greek American, George did have a choice. But despite studying business and finance at the University of Mary Washington, he couldn’t quell his instinct to cook.

“I graduate from college, buy a fancy suit, and go on some job interviews,” he explains. “But then I go to my father and almost have a breakdown. ‘Dad, dad, I can’t do this. I’m faking, this isn’t me.’ My dad’s like, ‘OK fine, you want to do the restaurant business, you’re going to culinary school.’”

George enrolled in New York’s Culinary Institute of America with the idea that he would open a new diner and run it with his brother after graduation. “The problem was I went to culinary school and didn’t realize the dining scene that existed outside the diner world,” George says, adding that his family always ate home-cooked food except for the occasional birthday meal at The Prime Rib.

Culinary school stirred a desire to learn the world of fine dining. So George took his first job at New York’s Le Cirque under Chef Christophe Bellanca. The restaurant was intensely focused on earning both a New York Times review and Michelin stars.

“Everything had to be perfect,” George says. “I’ve never been screamed at so much in my life. My paychecks were like $350 a week. Back in those days you worked 80 hours, only got paid for 40, but you didn’t sue your restaurateur.” To make ends meet, he lived with his grandmother in Astoria who still lovingly calls him her “roommate.”

George stayed at Le Cirque for two and a half years until the 2008 financial crisis crushed the fine dining business. He returned to D.C. late that year to be closer to family. When he Googled “top D.C. restaurants,” the search returned one word—Zaytinya—so he had to work at José Andrés’ Mediterranean restaurant where Isabella was the executive chef at the time.

George submitted his resume on a Sunday evening and Isabella hired him the next morning. He stayed there for two and a half years before leaving to scratch the fine dining itch one more time in New York—this time at Charlie Palmer’s restaurant Aureole.

While he was there, things started to fall into place back at home. Namely, Isabella, who was fresh off a second Top Chef appearance and opening his first restaurant Graffiato, took a trip up to New York to meet with George in winter 2011 because he wanted to open a second restaurant with both Pagonis brothers as partners.

“He’s a good looking guy, Greek, came from fine dining and I thought he’d be perfect for me,” Isabella says. But there’s more to it—Isabella says George has the best work ethic in the company. “You don’t get that as a lot of people start moving up,” Isabella says.

Nick agrees. “He’s a smart kid, but it’s the good work ethic,” he says. “My dad always talked about good work ethic—laziness is the number one thing that will kill you. He’s far from that.”

It took a year and a half for George to nail down the Kapnos opening menu because of his desire to get things right. “I was getting scrutiny from my dad, uncles, my mom, saying you have to have this or that on the menu,” George explains. 

The spits at Kapnos

His dad couldn’t wrap his head around non-traditional dishes like duck phyllo pie with cherries and pistachio yogurt. “I said I’m sticking to my guns here—I’m either going down in flames or it’s going to work out. Let’s show people Greek food can be different with those flavors in there.”

Though George went with a modern menu showcasing meat spit-roasted over hickory wood that more closely mimics the best BBQ pits in the Southern U.S. than anywhere in Greece, there are some nods at his Greek roots such as the lobster hilopites Kapnos serves on Tuesdays. George, after all, spent June through September in Greece growing up and still visits for two weeks every summer with his brother.

The women in George’s village would have hilopites parties where they’d make the diced pasta—drying it on George’s bed when he went out to play. “Then at night my grandmother would pick up the hilopites and my whole bed would smell like it,” he recalls. He had to have the lesser-known, classic dish on his menu but upped the ante by adding lobster. 

Then there’s Kapnos’ brunch, a nod to George’s first job. “Big fat pieces of French toast, pork and beans—the really hearty dishes—are all an ode to the diner because I started from breakfast,” George says. “Kapnos D.C.’s brunch kills every other restaurant’s brunch. We do 200 covers. It’s packed. I love working brunch. I’m probably the only chef that can say that.”

Just as George was getting in the groove at Kapnos, he followed in his partner’s Top Chef footsteps. It was almost a blemish on his career. He was eliminated first when he couldn’t shuck clams fast enough. “I buckled under the pressure—you have a million cameras on you,” George says. “Thank god I got back on and went to the final four.”

Then came the girls. When the show aired in 2015, George was engaged. But that didn’t stop all the single ladies from pinging him on social media or sliding their numbers over the pass in either of George’s open kitchens. (The airing of Top Chef coincided with the opening of Kapnos Taverna.)

“I’m telling you on Twitter they were throwing it out there, being very aggressive,” he says. He threw the numbers in the trash out of respect for his fiancée, but he found it hard to say no to posing for pictures with customers. “What they post on Facebook, I had no control over that. It was a little intense.”

Even after the engagement fell through (landing George in a Marie Claire article about the most eligible bachelor chefs in the nation), he didn’t lose focus. “I was a good boy. I didn’t let any of it phase me. I kept my eye on the prize because of my father.” 

If you do a Google search for “George Pagonis,” the search engine will auto-fill “girlfriend” before “Kapnos” or even “Top Chef.” He is now in a committed relationship with Jessica Greeves, who understands when he has to cancel a date to fill in for a sick chef or because a VIP is coming in to dine. 

All in all, George says he’s glad he went on the show. “It opened some doors for me,” he says. “I love Mike Isabella, I think he’s a great guy, but I don’t want to be in his shadow my whole life.” 

To Isabella, George is no understudy. “What he’s doing for Greek food now is what José Andrés did for Spanish food,” the restaurateur says of Pagonis, whose Greek heritage inspired Kapnos, Kapnos Taverna, and Kapnos Kouzina, plus Kapnos Taverna in Reagan National Airport. No two concepts are alike. Kapnos Taverna boasts a raw bar while Kapnos Kouzina is known for its fried chicken with burnt honey harissa.

“He’s teaching people about Greek food—it’s not just spanakopita, but a lot more flavors and techniques. That’s what people need to understand. I’m an owner, he’s my partner, but he’s the man that deserves the credit for Kapnos.”

A typical work day for George starts at one of his restaurants in the ’burbs, Kapnos Taverna or Kapnos Kouzina, where he’ll work lunch and check in with the chef de cuisine. Then in the afternoon it’s back to Kapnos in D.C. to ready the kitchen for dinner service and maybe even some recipe testing for menu development. He’s become a master delegator. “In order for me to do my job properly, I have to free myself up,” George says. 

“His team reflects George’s leadership,” says Nick, who oversees front-of-house operations at Kapnos and other restaurants. “George looks at every dish that comes out. If it’s not right, you’ll hear curse words. Unfortunately, the guests hear it at the chef’s counter, but that’s part of the experience.”

The days can be draining—George works six days a week—but nothing compares to restaurant openings, which George classify as his most trying moments because he’s in at 7 a.m. and out at 1 a.m., only to repeat the whole thing again. 

He says the biggest challenge is training because the food at Kapnos is unlike other restaurants. “All the words are different, all the ingredients are different, the techniques are different. You’re just training, training, training and then the guy quits, doesn’t show up, or he gets in a fight with someone and you have to fire him.” 

Even Isabella pinch hits to help out. “I worked the sauté line the first two months at Kapnos Taverna,” George says. “Mike Isabella was working the expo station. Bethesda was the same thing. He comes out of retirement for the openings.” 

Fortunately or unfortunately, George has a steady stream of openings in his future. 

What people might not know about the Pagonis brothers is that they’re more than just partners in the Greek restaurants under the Mike Isabella Concepts (MIC) umbrella. They’re all in, and that means they’re invested in one of the fastest growing restaurant groups in the region.

The next restaurant to debut is a Southern Spain and Tangier-inspired restaurant called Arroz, which is going into D.C.’s Marriott Marquis hotel this fall. The Pagonis brothers, Isabella, and MIC beverage director Taha Ismail traveled to Portugal, Spain, and Morocco for research.

Then there’s the gargantuan Isabella Eatery going into Tysons Galleria in Virginia. The 41,000-square-foot food court will hold at least 10 concepts, including Kapnos Marketa—a quick serve take on Kapnos that will get George’s modern Greek food into infinitely more homes (and mouths). 

By anyone’s standard’s, even Tony’s, George didn’t screw it up. CP

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com.