Images and words by Andrea Hubbell and Sarah Cramer Shields.
When we arrive at his home early one summer morning, Chef Angelo Vangelopoulos is already hard at work in the kitchen. There are large rounds of phyllo scattered across his dining table as Angelo divides, layers, pats, rolls and tosses dough into paper-thin disks the size of a large pizza. This is a scenario that he woke up to often as a young boy, when his family would make phyllo dough for pita, the traditional Greek savory pie. Before phyllo was available commercially this was a daily occurrence. “It’s amazing, how hard people worked [for a meal]. It’s staggering to think about!” These days even Angelo’s 70-year old aunts only make phyllo for special occasions. “This is one of those food traditions for me that, if I don’t learn it, it’s gone.”
Angelo’s father is the primary cook in his family. He moved to the United States in the 60s and eventually opened a gyro shop in the historic Georgetown neighborhood in northwest Washington, DC. This is where Angelo spent most of his childhood and teenage weekends, so that he could spend time with his father. “I grew up in a restaurateur family, so that is what I became.” Immediately after high school Angelo attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. He’d grown up working in restaurants and knew exactly what he was getting involved in. Even though he hated high school, he enjoyed culinary school. After graduating he worked in restaurants around the country and traveled the world before moving to Charlottesville in 1995 at age 24 to purchase the Ivy Inn Restaurant with his new business partner, his father.
“Starting out…I had no idea.” Angelo looks back at old menus from his first years at the Ivy Inn and wonders what he was thinking when he created them. “Experience is everything. To me, this is much more a craft than it is an art. When it comes to craft, the more you do the better you get. Period. The day I decide that I’ve figured it out I should have quit ten years [prior].” Angelo is the only professional cook in his family, but everyone in his family considers themselves to be a food person. He chuckles as we discuss the term ‘foodie’, pointing out that every European he knows is a ‘foodie.’ It is a way of life for Europeans, and he is thankful for the appreciation and intensity that Americans have newly found for food. “Eat good food. Eat homemade food. Learn to cook. Learn to buy from your local farmer. Learn to take those greens that you don’t recognize and turn them into something you want to eat. That’s the most important part of our future in this country.”
When he first owned and cooked at the Ivy Inn, the food business wasn’t about buying local. It was about buying the freshest ingredients you could find. This is the way that Angelo has always operated. “If you can make it yourself, make it. We make our bread. We make our ice cream. We make our cakes. [This] is as it should be. But, also have enough respect to say ‘If I can’t smoke salmon as well as what I can buy, find the best that I can buy and use that’.” Angelo acknowledges that we are lucky to live in Charlottesville. “Restaurants in Charlottesville are just rocking it. There are some really good cooks all over [this town]. There are a lot of towns with a similar demographic, but they don’t have what we have.” Today, the Ivy Inn has relationships with many local farmers and food producers, as well as an on-site garden where many greens and herbs are grown.
“Experience is everything. To me, this is much more a craft than it is an art. When it comes to craft, the more you do the better you get. Period. The day I decide that I’ve figured it out I should have quit ten years [prior].”
Angelo’s wife, Farrell, is his partner at home as well as in the restaurant. At the Ivy Inn, she manages the front of house, the wine list, and special events. At home, she is with their ten-year-old son, Alex, when Angelo can’t be. “I am a chef. I work a lot and I work late. To find balance, regardless of how late I get home, I try to spend mornings with Alex every day. We do breakfast and go to the bus stop or ride bikes to school. I get some good quality time that way but I don’t get to cook at home for my family very often.” While Angelo loves to cook for people at the restaurant (he calls that the best part of his job), he fears that he is missing a chunk of Alex’s life and doesn’t wish this career on his son. “All you can hope for is that you raise a well-rounded kid. I want him to know how to cook a good steak at home and go shop at the farmers’ market and identify good, fresh produce…but he doesn’t need to make a life of that. I’d really like for Alex to be able to enjoy food with his family more than enjoy cooking for other people.”
With the phyllo dough made and dried, Angelo starts to assemble the first of the two dishes he will prepare for us this morning. Hortopita (wild greens pie), is in honor of his Uncle John and Aunt Effie, who showed and taught Angelo’s family many of the Greek food traditions that they cherish today, including how to make phyllo from scratch. On one visit to Charlottesville, Uncle John was especially excited to make hortopita using wild greens from The Ivy Inn garden. However, on the morning he was meant to prepare the dish, Uncle John discovered that the gardener had pulled up and thrown out all of the greens, thinking they were weeds. “He was just furious!”, remembers Angelo, laughing. This version combines a filling of wild greens, egg, and feta with thin layers of the phyllo made that morning, all baked to golden, crispy perfection.
The second dish utilizes commercial phyllo dough, store-bought and kept in the freezer. “They really are two different ingredients…” says Angelo, referring to the difference between homemade and commercial phyllo, “…but that’s okay!” The commercial dough adds a delicacy to dishes that the homemade just can’t provide. For this dish, Angelo rolls peach preserves and phyllo into a thin log for a simple, baked dessert that can be made easily on a whim. Growing up, Angelo spent his summers in northern Greece. His father’s family comes from a small village in the north, where the people are talented at growing their own food, especially peaches. “It was hard for me not to [make] something with peaches and phyllo, just because of how I grew up.”
As we enjoy our peaches in phyllo with homemade yogurt and wait patiently for the hortopita to emerge from the oven, Angelo perfectly summarizes his food philosophy (and ours!). “Food is so much more than just sustenance for your stomach. It’s so much here and here (pointing to his head and to his heart). That’s everything to me. Keeping that connection, whether it’s with my customers or with my staff or with my family. That’s what’s important. That’s what really excites me about cooking. Doing this (waves his hand at the dishes he’s prepared) and sharing it with you. That’s what makes it all worth it. We are not getting paid to be here [today], but this will be worth more to me this week than anything else I do.” We agree, Angelo. Thank you.