People & Culture

An appetite for life: A Greek immigrant’s journey of hearty food and hospitality

The story of Peter Kontolemos’ decision to open a steak restaurant in Mackenzie, B.C., as told by his daughter

  • Nov 21, 2022
  • 1,847 words
  • 8 minutes
The author and her father on a recent trip to Greece. (Photo courtesy Alexia Kontolemos Calvillo)
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This summer, as in summers past, I find myself sitting with my dad and extended family at a seafront taverna overlooking the aquamarine waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Invariably, our conversation turns to food, and the days when Dad owned his own restaurant in central British Columbia, far from his original hometown of Kalamata in southern Greece. 

The waiter delivers a heaping pikilia plate, piled high with Greek delicacies — bites of sausage, grilled octopus, mini spanakopitas (spinach pies) and tiropites (cheese pies), plump tomato slices, cucumbers, kefalotyri and feta cheeses and, of course, kalamata olives. Between mouthfuls, we chat about his childhood, his journey to Canada and just how big a role Greek food played in our daily lives in Canada. 

Here in Kalamata, olive trees grow everywhere — on every corner, in every yard and covering every hillside as far as the eye can see. The trees, with their tell-tale gnarled trunks, silvery-green leaves and twisted branches full of the trees’ famous fruit — the kalamata olives — have grown in this region for thousands of years. Olives still reign supreme here, an important part of the history, culture and economy. My dad was shaped by this beautiful seaside town where the mountains, sea, olive trees and residents co-exist in perfect harmony.

Kontolemos on the beach in Kalamata, circa 1960. (Photo courtesy Alexia Kontolemos Calvillo)
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Kontolemos at the harbour with an octopus a fisherman had given him to take home for dinner. (Photo courtesy Alexia Kontolemos Calvillo)
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But it is only upon visiting my dad’s hometown as an adult that I realize how much the food culture from his place of birth influenced his decision to launch a restaurant when he immigrated to Canada. Olives and feta cheese were central to my childhood — on our Canadian table every evening. This food brought us closer, but it was the way we shared meals —the generosity and warmth—that was so very Greek.

 

Kontolemos with his father and sister, Rina, at their home in Kalamata in 1960. (Photo courtesy Alexia Kontolemos Calvillo)
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The Greek culture places great importance on the connection between hospitality, good food and good company. My dad, Panagiotis Kontolemos (or Peter as he was known here in Canada), instilled this culture into the restaurant he opened in Canada. He wasn’t alone.

Over the last 100 years, multiple waves of Greek immigrants have chosen the same path, bringing with them their “kefi,” or Greek spirit, along with delicious foods and recipes from home. Today, whether you find yourself in a northern British Columbia town, a seaside village in Nova Scotia, a rural community in the Prairies or any place in between, there will almost certainly be a restaurant, diner, pizzeria or cafeteria run by a Canadian of Greek origin.

In the 1960s and ’70s, as substantial Greek communities set down roots in the cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, the Mediterranean foods from their homeland slowly joined the mainstream. Kalamata olives, feta cheese and fried calamari began to appear on appetizer lists, and souvlaki would soon become a menu staple alongside burgers and chicken. The iconic baklava became a popular dessert choice.

Kontolemos with a friend in Turkey in 1962 while serving NATO. (Photo courtesy Alexia Kontolemos Calvillo)
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In the 1960s and ’70s, as substantial Greek communities set down roots in the cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, the Mediterranean foods from their homeland slowly joined the mainstream. Kalamata olives, feta cheese and fried calamari began to appear on appetizer lists, and souvlaki would soon become a menu staple alongside burgers and chicken. The iconic baklava became a popular dessert choice. 

Dad was born in 1939, just before the start of the Second World War. The Axis occupation of the country during the war and the civil war that followed left Greece economically devastated. There was little opportunity for young men and women to build a better life.

In 1961 and 1962, Dad served with NATO, where he was a communications specialist. Having a deployment that allowed him to meet and work with people from all over the world led him to look beyond Greece. Canada boasted a strong postwar economy but suffered from labour shortages and was looking to Europe for workers. In 1963, my dad joined a wave of fellow Greeks heading across the Atlantic — between 1945 and 1970, 107,000 Greeks arrived in Canada. “A friend who had arrived a few years before me offered room and board,” my dad remembers. “His wife was nice enough to cook Greek meals. It helped with being so far away from home and from my family.” 

 

Grilling souvlaki at a community event. (Photo courtesy Alexia Kontolemos Calvillo)
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The family at Morfee Lake in the early 1980s. (Photo courtesy Alexia Kontolemos Calvillo)
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Most Greek immigrants settled in enclaves in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, where they knew some people who had immigrated before them, who spoke their language and could help them find employment and a place to stay. They took up jobs in factories, on the railroads and as cooks and dishwashers. And they worked hard, mastered the language, saved some money and learned what they could about running a business. In time, they started families and integrated into their new country.

Wrestling a bear at a friend's house in Mackenzie, B.C. (Photo courtesy Alexia Kontolemos Calvillo)
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Eventually, those same Greek immigrants who worked as cooks and dishwashers bought restaurants of their own. Some of the more adventurous ones travelled to the far corners of the country in search of opportunities in small towns and villages. The restaurants they tended to open offered diner fare — sandwiches and burgers. But the Greek owners slowly incorporated the flavours of the old country.

My dad learned the food business in the hotels and pizza joints of Vancouver and through a stint at a Greek-owned steak restaurant in Prince George. But he was always on the lookout for the chance to run his own business. “When I was offered the opportunity to open my own restaurant, I jumped at the chance. I didn’t think twice,” Dad says. That opportunity was in Mackenzie, population 6,000, in central B.C. Here, there were pine forests rather than the olive groves of his homeland, and harsh winters and cool summers replaced the warm Mediterranean climate he was used to. 

I’m not surprised Dad would up and move his young family to a completely new town. He had ambition, an adventurous soul and a feisty spirit. He planned a steak and seafood restaurant, an upscale addition to the local scene. “On opening night [at the Merabello], many of the residents of the town came dressed up in suits and dresses. The mayor himself was there, and told me, ‘Mr. Peter, thank you. We now have a place to celebrate life’s events and come out for a nice dinner.”

I, along with two brothers and a sister, had a great childhood in Mackenzie, making memories playing in the back rooms of Dad’s restaurant and eating dishes from the menu. When we weren’t at the restaurant, we would take outings to Morfee Lake, go out to the brush to pick wild blueberries, climb to the top of the world’s largest tree crusher or park at the edge of the local dump to watch the grizzly bears there. 

At the Merabello employee Christmas party with friends (and coworkers) Gerry and Angelo. (Photo courtesy Alexia Kontolemos Calvillo)
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The author's mother, Sonia, bartending at the restaurant's Christmas party for employees. (Photo courtesy Alexia Kontolemos Calvillo)
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Even though we lived a quintessentially Canadian life, every family dinner included feta cheese and kalamata olives. Dad brought them in through his food supplier, and they were always on our table no matter what we were having for dinner. It only dawned on me much later in life that these additions to our table were obvious giveaways to our heritage.

The eyes of the neighbourhood kids would widen and their faces would light up when we brought out the ypovrichio, otherwise known as submarine sweets. The Greek summer treat is best described as a chewy vanilla-flavoured candy, which is served on the end of a spoon. The spoon is dipped in cold water and the candy is eaten little by little, dunked over and over into the cold water and licked until the white lump shrinks and disappears. If we didn’t have submarine sweets on hand, we would find other Greek treats to offer our friends. We cut up bars of pasteli (soft honey sesame bars), halva (tahini and semolina-based confection) or even loukoumi (gel-like cubes flavoured with rose water, lemon, orange or pistachios). 

The Merabello restaurant circa 1984. (Photo courtesy Mackenzie and District Museum)
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When I was a child, my favourite dessert was (and still is) galaktoboureko, a custard pie layered with sheets of phyllo and drenched in syrup. Growing up, we would occasionally eat diples, sheets of light, airy dough, folded and fried then drizzled with honey and sprinkled with walnuts, or ecmec, a layered dessert made with kataïfi (shredded phyllo) and whipped cream. To us, these treats were as familiar as a brownie or a chocolate chip cookie would be to any Canadian child growing up in the ’80s. 

Dad was proud of bringing a piece of his homeland and his heritage to his restaurant. I believe he was born to be in the business — naturally charismatic and very sociable, he is a master storyteller who can capture the attention of everyone in any room. He developed friendships with every customer who walked through the door, with his staff and with other locals. “It wasn’t only about the food. It was about bringing people together to share and to make good memories with their friends and families. I still remember many of the friends we made during our time there,” he says. 

There was the fire chief, Larry, and his wife, Kim. There was the French- Canadian trapper, Pierre, and his wife, Joanne, who lived on a self-sufficient farm on the outskirts of the tiny town. There were Gerry and Angelo, two fellow Greeks who had also found their way to work in restaurants in remote B.C. There was Annie, one of the waitresses at the restaurant, and her husband, a renowned taxidermist, and the Zieglers, who had made their way to Canada from Austria and Germany. All of these lives were brought together in my Greek-Canadian dad’s restaurant in Mackenzie, B.C.

The author is on the far left of the car's hood. (Photo courtesy Alexia Kontolemos Calvillo)
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When the family moved to Montreal in 1984, they drove in the station wagon from Mackenzie, B.C., stopping at many Greek diners along the way. (Photo courtesy Alexia Kontolemos Calvillo)
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Eventually, Dad’s brothers enticed him to join their aluminum and glass business in Montreal, and we left Mackenzie in 1984 to be closer to our extended family in Quebec. We said goodbye to our good friends and to a town we loved and hopped into our family station wagon. We drove through the Rockies and the grasslands of the Prairies, making stops at the Terry Fox monument when we reached Thunder Bay, Ont., and for a swim near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. 

Many times along that journey, when we stopped to eat at pizzerias or diners, my dad would notice the telltale signs — a picture of a Greek landscape on the wall or menu items he recognized, and he would ask the waiter, “Is the owner here Greek?”

Most times, the owner or a family member would come out of the kitchen or back room and greet my dad, whom they had never met, as if he were a long-lost friend. They were friends, in a way, with a shared place of birth, a similar story and a similarly adventurous spirit.

Greek food is an inextricable part of the Canadian culinary landscape. Next time you tuck into a plate of souvlaki or nibble on kalamata olives, think of the immigrants, like my dad, who made it possible. Canada gave them a new home, and they, in return, gave us their recipes, rich food traditions and that so very Greek brand of enthusiasm and joy known as kefi.

 

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This story is from the November/December 2022 Issue

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