We talk about: The Brasserie’s Comeback, The City of Chicago, Chocolate Chicken Liver Parfait and Carol Baskin
Nikos Matsikas, 42, has been on a roller-coaster during his career. His story entailed many hardships, faced his fair share of challenges and encountered- to be frank- a few shit storms along the way. But each time, instead of letting the ship sink- he kept it afloat.
“We went from being one of the most hated restaurants in Dundee, to possibly the most loved”
The original owner of the Brasserie Ecosse was a dentist and Nikos admits, had no real clue about starting up a restaurant or business for that matter. So the owner gave well-qualified Nikos Matsikas, full rein of the £800,000 renovation and he built the restaurant from the ground up.
A vast space that was found derelict, that was once an arcade and indoor shopping market, built in 1903. Nikos got to work, and created the restaurant from scratch. He designed all 600 squared feet of the area, introduced a state of the art kitchen and made the business profitable and functional. Designed with warm, moody lighting, featuring a grand wooden bar, surrounded by exposed stone walls and over-head, hundreds of hanging lights, and their famous metallic egg-shaped chairs, awaiting your arrival.
But Nikos’ creative opportunity, took a peculiar turn, something he admits he’d never experienced in his career. In 2018, the Brasserie was splashed across newspapers for embezzlement and fraud and the restaurant and it’s staff were subject to horrific online trolls and even death threats.
“We were hounded for 6 months, Facebook sites were made; I couldn’t even get credit card machines or suppliers to work with us. We were boy-cotted and blacklisted, everyone hated us, it was horrible,” he recalls.
Thankfully, the team later won in court and received a public apology and compensation. But Nikos had to gain respect from his community, and build a reputation, again- from the ground up. Nikos’ work ethic and likeable character, through time, made the Brasserie into a loved restaurant once more.
Even through this scandal, some staff remained loyal to the business, and one of his most proud achievements was the growth of Natalie.
“We employ on employability scheme with the council, and at the beginning, Natalie would cry every time she asked where the toilet was. She’d only work a few hours a week, had a overwhelming list of phobias. And now she’s my head waitress.” It is incredible what hospitality can do to a person, it can bring people out of their shell and build confidence. Nikos says that working in the restaurant was the best therapy for her and now she is blossoming; she bought her own car, moved out of her parents’ house and is a whole new person.
“We even taught her to swear like the rest of us. Because we all know, a kitchen isn’t shy of a swear word or two and back of house it can get stressful. She feels like she has a family here.”
The food at the Brasserie is certainly something to brag about. Nikos claims, “our chef is amazing, he is one of the best I’ve worked with in a very long time. I stand by his food”. The cuisine is French and Asian techniques with a Scottish twist. The manager’s ultimate three courses from the Brasserie Ecosse would be, to start, the chicken liver parfait which he claims to be the best you’ll ever taste.
The parfait arrives like you’ve never seen it before, an egg, cradled by a nest of filo pastry. The exterior is a white chocolate mould that appears porcelain, and as you crack it open, a glorious rouge-coloured parfait is revealed. Nikos implies, “we like to serve that element of surprise, we like to have fun with our food.”
Furthermore, his main course would either be the sea bream, which is theatrically filleted at the table or their lamb dish. Shredded lamb shoulder which is made into a small pie, alongside sliced lamb loin. And for dessert, he assures that he isn’t a vegan by any means, but is a big fan of their rich, dark chocolate and tofu ganache. Inside is an orange liquor flavour that oozes out.
Let us delve into Nikos’ story; he was born in Chicago, USA, but spent his early years in Greece where his parents were from originally. The alpine zone has two climates, you could be in the heights of the snowy mountains and still just be a 30 minute drive away from white sandy beaches.
“I grew up with food, everyone in my family cooks, if you don’t cook in my family you’re ridiculed.”
His memory carries him back to his mother’s handmade pies with: filo, spinach, feta, leeks and olive oil, and his father cooking meats in the traditional Greek ovens that are shaped like domes. “We would bury everything in charcoal and let it slow roast. The tastes are amazing, especially our meats. Every time I smell a fire place now, I’m transported right back to my father’s village.”
He began his career as a jeweller, which was part of the family business and then joined the Greek army for two years. When he was discharged, at 20 years old he returned to Chicago alone and it was him against the world. To make his way in life, he took on four jobs: a bar tender, Chef du Rang, limousine driver and tiler.
“Chicago is a beautiful city, but also very dangerous. There’s parts of Chicago you don’t want to wander into, very rich and very poor parts, I experienced things like drive by’s while working in restaurants, people would try shoot up restaurants and there’s lot of gangs around. I lived in a very bad neighbourhood when I first moved there because I couldn’t afford much else, so I had to keep my wardrobe in my vehicle. I’d have to take off my work suit and tie, because if I walked about in that neighbourhood, I wouldn’t last 20 seconds. For 2 years, I’d change my clothes in the car every night”
“… this is where I learned hospitality, the business, the service, everything. Even though it was tough, I learnt more”
“In America, it’s very competitive, very cut throat. No one will hold your hand or spoon feed you.”
Even though the competition was fierce, Nikos soared and worked in some well-established places and served A-listers such as Jennifer Anniston and Johnny Depp. But the most extraordinary night for Nikos, had to be when he was serving at the Gala dinner for Barack Obama’s pre-election campaign and he says, “a few days before the event the secret service hand selected staff who could work in the event- for whatever reason. I was one of the chosen ones.”
He recalls, after the 6 hour event, soon-to-be president Obama shook the hands of each staff member at the Gala. Nikos said Obama remembered everybody’s names without even a flinch (there was over 50 staff working that evening) and said he was very charismatic; a night he’d never forget.
But Nikos admits, he is a European at heart, and after his time in Chicago he returned back to his roots in Greece. He preferred the euro way of life and resonated more with the mindsets of the Greeks. That in Greece, they are un-phased about material things; the bigger car, the bigger house, the bigger diamond ring, that didn’t matter. And he felt that was what America was all about.
His time in Greece was short-lived as his wife struggled to find work in her field, but in his time here, he worked in ultra-luxurious resorts 7 months out of the year, with 2 days off a month. Nikos says he loved it there, but described it like the Truman show, it was hard to picture the outside world. So, after three years and deciding to start a family, the pair moved to Scotland and his wife became a nurse for the NHS and Nikos worked in prestigious places such as Malmaison and Gleneagles.
Although it was a typical dreary Scottish day during our interview, the heatwaves made their way up North in the past weeks and Nikos joked, “global warming does wonders for Scotland.” He raves about Dundee, and how the city really is up and coming. He insists, in years to come it will be the ‘Milan of Scotland’. His Greek heritage has many similarities with the Scottish culture; they both wear kilts, both listen to bag pipes and both eat haggis. Maybe that is why Nikos feels so at home in Dundee.
Which brings us back to the Brasserie Ecosse. His favourite memory working at the Brasserie so far, has to be the Halloween party of 2020. This was the team and Nikos, making the best out of a bad situation, which was supposed to be a party for the guests and team but because of the restrictions Covid had brought, they had a Halloween party on their own to lift each others’ spirits, and they had a blast. Nikos dressed as the notorious tiger king, Joe Exotic, and asked his employee, who was from Philly, to be his arch nemesis Carol Baskin. He says, “everyone really went for it. Had a really good time just here on our own.”
I’d scrolled on the Brasserie’s Instagram and came across a video of Carol Baskin herself, giving a shout out to the Brasserie before their July relaunch in 2020. Nikos explains how he reached out to her, “she’ll do anything for money, so I got in touch with her and she couldn’t pronounce anything, but it was funny. Definitely funky and unusual, yeah we were just having fun with it.”
“Looking back on what I’d been through, working in three countries, as well as Brexit and Covid- nothing phases me anymore. I’m always up for the challenge. It’s like I’ve become weather proof. Especially what happened with Brasserie, that was really wrong. And I couldn’t pack up and leave, I stood here and fought. It’s more than a restaurant to me”
“The proudest moment for me wasn’t the building of the restaurant as such, it was preserving it and keeping the ship afloat. Protecting it. I can’t even describe, it is a part of me, I’ve never been emotionally attached to an establishment so much.”
Looking on to the future of hospitality, he admits, it will be a hard winter due to the lasting effects of Covid and Brexit, but he assures that they will survive and they will get through it.
And besides, what is life without going to a restaurant or a bar? We discussed how society has maybe felt a bit empty from the absence of our industry during these times, but we are all striving to make our comeback, bigger and better. “…It’s soulless, life would be meaningless, what we do- it’s an art form and we’re entertainers. If you take that element away, life will be just grey.”
Nikos passionately finishes with, “I’m confident I will remain in hospitality, I’m not going to bail, and for the restaurant we’ll be here for many years to come.”