00:07 Prathap Nair
This is record of change, a podcast that documents how people’s lives are being shaped by the coronavirus pandemic.
I’m Prathap Nair, your host for this episode.
Today, we’re talking to Alkaios Michail, an architect turned chef who runs a vegan restaurant in Athens.
Alkis - as he prefers to be called - had to shutter his new restaurant almost as soon as it was inaugurated because of the lockdown in Athens.
His busy life suddenly screeched to a halt as he found himself locked down in his apartment and wondered what would happen to his new business.
He says it was scary.
Nevertheless, Alkis kept himself occupied – he picked up his guitar, got on Instagram, overhauled his
restaurant menu in the hope of reopening it soon and started doing calisthenics – a kind of exercise routine.
Let’s listen to him.
01:05 Alkis Michail
My name is Alkaios Michail and they call me Alkis, because it's easier.
I'm from Greece and I have studied architecture in London and at the moment, I live in Greece and I work in Greece.
Right now I'm in my apartment, in Athens, it's like almost 20 minutes from the center of Athens.
So outside the window?
Yeah, there is like a garden, because I live on the, zero level.
So there is a garden around and, basically, yeah, that's it.
A lot of, flowers and trees.
01:44 Prathap Nair
Can you tell me where you were when this pandemic and lockdown and everything was started.
Where were you and how was your life before that and how, it has changed after that?
01:55 Alkis Michail
So my life used to be like very, very, very busy cause I came from London to renovate my family business.
We own a hotel in the center of Athens.
So I came back to renovate the hotel and we renovated the hotel in 2017 and we finished in
2018 and it was very busy years and then we had to make the restaurant inside the hotel.
So, the restaurant opened, in early twenties--2020 and, yeah, so, as soon as we opened the restaurant after like a month and a half, we had the lockdown.
So I was very, very, very busy, like, you know, until the lockdown and, you know, I was like almost like 30 hours a day in the hotel and the restaurant.
I had like very few sleep and yeah, it was very, very, very hard to be honest.
The first week of the lockdown, it was a nightmare.
I was very anxious, very stressed.
I didn't know what to expect - it was, oh my God - I don't even want to remember because, you know, we had put so much money in the business.
03:11 Alkis Michail
And we were waiting for the summer because, you know, for the tourists to arrive and everything.
So, you know, to start, getting some money back and all of that happened, but, yeah, it was, it was tough.
It was really tough.
03:24 Prathap Nair
And when was this?
This was in February, March?
03:27 Alkis Michail
We opened the restaurant in end of January and then the lockdown in Greece happened.
Basically, before the lockdown, the government closed all the restaurants and, most of the businesses in Greece on the 15th of March.
03:44 Prathap Nair
Okay, what was your day to day work like at the restaurant?
What were you taking care of?
Can you give me a little more detail?
03:54 Alkis Michail
Since I was little, I was cooking.
And, apart from architecture, my other passion is cooking and working out, basically.
So, I have done the menu for the restaurant and I'm also cooking for the restaurant.
We have like a chef and a big team in the restaurant, but I'm like the chef.
So I check everything.
I go there very early to make all of the sauces.
I cook some stuff and everything, and then, serving people, talk to people, do stuff, check that everything is right.
So I'm there, like from the beginning, like from around like six o'clock in the morning AM.
until, almost 1:00 AM that we close.
04:39 Prathap Nair
And how many employees did you have, how many people were working in your restaurant?
04:43 Alkis Michail
So in the restaurant at the moment, basically before the lockdown we're almost, 15 people.
And, in the hotel as well 15 people as well.
Yeah, so total, we had like 30 people employees.
04:59 Prathap Nair
So you completely shuttered the restaurant as soon as the lockdown was announced, in mid-March.
So these people were let go, the people who were working?
05:10 Alkis Michail
Basically, we're all on hold.
I mean, we didn't know, you know, they just announced that, you know, you have to close nothing will open on Saturday because Saturday was the 15th of March.
So we all stayed at home.
And we saw that coming.
Like, I mean, I was very worried almost like two weeks before the shutdown and, yeah, I started to reduce all of the orders.
I was very worried.
05:37 Prathap Nair
You made precautions and how was the mood like at that time?
05:40 Alkis Michail
Because we're in the center of Athens, we have the hotel as well.
We saw like a major decrease in reservations, and you know, not too many people were working outside the hotel.
Because we're close to Syntagma square, which is like the parliament of Athens.
If you don't see like many people around that area it's very weird.
Sadly it's completely empty.
So, I mean, the restaurant used to be like, from day one, full, like from the opening until closing.
So yeah, it was very good.
And, the last two weeks it was like empty.
Well, I mean, almost the last week, we only had like, six, seven tables, so, yeah.
And how was the communication by the Greek government?
Were there prior warnings for businesses?
06:43 Alkis Michail
I mean, it was really good because they acted really fast.
I think when they told us to close our businesses, we only had like 40 cases or something like that.
06:55 Alkis Michail
So it was like, you know, very low in comparison with other countries, so, yeah, I mean, it was, it was okay.
I mean they were very fast.
They shut us down and then, almost like, the next day they started doing all the television
advertisements, radio advertisements about, you know, what's going on and everything.
So, we were feeling a bit safe.
So, you stopped, procurement.
You woke up one day suddenly, and then you decided, "Oh my God.
So today we're going to stop the restaurant."
Can you explain that?
07:28 Alkis Michail
I mean, yeah, it was so weird because it was Friday, Friday morning and we have done some work for the weekend because like Sunday used to be our most busy.
07:39 Prathap Nair
07:40 Alkis Michail
So we've ordered like a, you know, tofu and everything.
And by Friday night, we all got like an SMS text on our phones that from Saturday, everything will be shut.
So we were like, "okay, what's going on now?"
you know, this is serious stuff.
So, I mean, it was like, it was very weird.
Because, you know, we were calling each other, you know, to see what's going on.
If it was spam, you know, as soon as we got the message, we thought it was a spam.
So yeah, after a while, we started realizing what's going on.
And, yeah, we couldn't do anything.
I mean I just went there to clean all the fridges to take some stuff to, you know.
08:30 Prathap Nair
All these perishables that you ordered, you're saying you ordered tofu, you must've also ordered vegetables and so on.
What did you do with those?
08:40 Alkis Michail
Basically, most of the vegetables we gave it to my staff and to my family.
And, I got a few as well.
But other stuff that we had, we threw them away cause we didn't know when to open.
So, you know, I mean, it was like March and then we opened almost in June.
So most of the stuff expired, but we didn't know.
I mean, in the beginning we thought that we're going to open maybe after two weeks, maybe a week.
So, yeah, most of the stuff expired.
09:15 Prathap Nair
You said for two years, you didn't have time for anything else.
You were so involved in your work.
And in the middle of March, brakes are slammed, and everything was shut down.
So how did it feel for you to have this sudden quietness in your life.
09:38 Alkis Michail
I mean the first week was very, very tough.
Because you can't sleep, because I almost sleep like four or five hours per day, for me to have like nothing to do.
I mean, I was waking up at the same, you know, same time as usual.
I couldn't sleep more.
I was very anxious, to be honest.
I slept for only like for one to two hours, because I was very anxious about what will happen, because, you know, we were thinking that we have to pay our stuff.
How are we going to pay our staff if we don't have any income, especially from the hotel.
Because the hotel, in comparison with the restaurant, makes like five more, five times more money.
So, for us, it was really tough because, all of the summer was fully booked.
Most of the reservations were, refundable.
And so we had to return all of the money back.
So until now we returned money to our clients.
So it was really tough because suddenly you don't have any income and you have to give, too much money, you know, that you owe to other people.
And the most of that money that we had from the non-refundable bookings, went to renovate and to make the restaurant.
So it was very weird.
I couldn't sleep at all, for me because I was very active, you know, with everything
I was like inside my house, you know, walking, you know, up and down all the time.
And I didn't know what to do.
Sometimes I was really stressed.
Sometimes I was very relaxed.
And because I was like, you know, okay, this is like a global situation, so I don't have to be worried.
I mean the governments around the world will do something, you know, for all of us.
So it was really tough, you know, I was trying to find to do, you know, some stuff just to forget about the situation, but I couldn't.
And, it was very weird for me.
I mean I was like locked, trapped inside my house.
I want to go out to do, you know, to work, to help some for…, you know, to do some stuff.
I couldn't do anything.
So yeah, after the, the first week or the second week, maybe I started to, you know, to get used to the situation.
So I was sleeping for almost like 10 to 12 hours per day.
I started playing guitar.
I started, like, I was working out, two to three times per day.
I was cooking all day long to… for the new menu after the lockdown.
And, yeah, that was basically my, my life.
So you were suddenly emotionally also that this is financial distress of having to repay all your customers who have already booked.
And, but you don't have the money ready because you have, you know, invested that money in renovation and starting a new restaurant.
So did the Greek government do anything financial help, for small businesses.
12:47 Alkis Michail
They did help almost every business.
So, they gave the money that we had to give to our staff, all of the money, for the whole period of the lockdown.
So that was really good.
And they gave almost like 8,000 to the owners of the businesses.
They reduced the taxes that we pay.
So we didn't have to pay any taxes.
We didn't have to pay any bills for the energy, electricity, water and stuff like that.
They sort of made some loans from the bank with very small rating.
So most of us, you know, applied for the loans.
13:32 Prathap Nair
So you're saying that all your employees were on roles, you did not, send them away.
We kept everyone, so..
13:40 Prathap Nair
Not many people can afford to do that.
13:45 Alkis Michail
It was tough.
It was really tough.
I mean, to do that, we got the loan.
If we didn't have the loan, we couldn't do that.
13:55 Alkis Michail
But yeah, most of other, like many other businesses, they haven't done that.
They have fired everyone.
We tried, you know, to keep everyone because they have helped us, you know, over the years.
14:12 Prathap Nair
So you said you started playing guitars and you started planning menus for when the lockdown is eased.
Suddenly you found this extra time and hand.
How else did you spend it?
14:27 Alkis Michail
So, I mean, we couldn't go outside.
We had to text to send the text to the government and then they were replying to us giving us like a sort of permission.
So we had like five, options.
One was to go to the supermarket one.
The other one was to, go out for jogging or stuff like that.
The other one was to go to the hospital and the other was to, go to a family member that needs help.
So that was our routine.
If we want to go out, we had to choose one of the options.
We were texting the government and then they were replying to us.
Yeah this is your permission.
So if they stop us for a check outside, the police, we were showing them the, via text message.
What was this an app or was it just SMS?
15:18 Alkis Michail
It was, yeah, a number.
SMS texting on number
So this was managed by somebody locally or like a mayor's office?
15:27 Alkis Michail
That was someone from the government.
I mean, the government was managing the whole thing.
It was pretty remarkable because, too many texts we were sending, you know, at the same time.
And, they were replying to all of us, you know, at the same time it was very good.
They have done that.
15:40 Prathap Nair
It seems very strict, the lockdown was near total.
You, cannot go out.
You have to get permission even to jog.
15:46 Alkis Michail
15:48 Alkis Michail
Because what happened in the beginning when text message happened, like almost two weeks after the lockdown, and
they have done that because, most of, you know, the Athenians were going all the time out, to, you know, for jogging.
So there were too many people in some places.
So for the government to control that, they have created the text message.
So not too many people can go outside at the same time.
16:17 Prathap Nair
Was it like a major curtailment in your freedom?
How did you take it?
16:23 Alkis Michail
I mean, yeah, it was really weird because, you know, I don't live with my parents, you
know, so to ask from the government to give them permission to go out, it was like very weird.
I was asking the government to go to the supermarket, to go for jogging, to go, you know, to see my parents.
So it was like you had like a big brother, taking care of you.
16:47 Prathap Nair
Did you see your social media consumption going up in the lockdown because that's all we were doing indoors…
16:56 Alkis Michail
For me, I didn't use Instagram or Facebook.
I didn't even have an account.
But, before the restaurant, I've created the account of our restaurant and I was the one that was using the page of the restaurant.
So, during the first two weeks of the lockdown, I was using quite a lot of Instagram.
And, you know, I saw that too many people, were using Instagram almost all the time and my girlfriend, she normally uses Instagram all the time.
After like, the third week of the lockdown, she didn't use it.
17:35 Alkis Michail
Yeah, so I got bored using, you know, all the social media and, you know, this kind of stuff.
So I started, you know, playing guitar, cooking, working out, you know, I was painting, I was doing this kind of stuff around the house, like cleaning all the time.
I didn't even watch like television.
I didn't even watch like a movie on Netflix.
But, in the beginning of the lockdown, I was watching TV.
I was using my phone too much.
I was, watching a series on Netflix.
And after like two weeks, I stopped everything.
I got bored, you know, watching TV, using my phone.
So I found, you know, other interests, here.
Give me some examples of what other interests you found - you were exercising indoors…
18:25 Alkis Michail
I was exercising almost like three times per day.
And, yeah, I mean, I started doing calisthenics, trying to do like a handstand…
18:39 Prathap Nair
18:40 Alkis Michail
So, with my girlfriend, we were dancing.
We were cooking all day, we were painting.
I mean, we were doing, you know, normal stuff.
Wait, you were in lockdown with your girlfriend.
How long have you known each other?
18:57 Alkis Michail
For a year?
18:59 Prathap Nair
For a year.
So have you been living together before that also?
19:02 Alkis Michail
We started living together almost two months before they lockdown, in December.
19:08 Prathap Nair
So how did that go?
Suddenly you found locked up together for four months.
How did that benefit the relationship?
Did you guys have any friction or did you love it?
19:21 Alkis Michail
Yeah, I mean before, if we didn't know that the lockdown was going to happen and someone, you know, told me that
you're going to live for three months just with your girlfriend and you won't see anyone, you will just stay at home and
do nothing… I would be very scared of the situation, but, it was actually really cool because she was calming me down…
19:48 Prathap Nair
Because, in this lockdown, people found out that they're not compatible.
And how did people take the lockdown in Athens?
It's slowly opening up, no?
19:58 Alkis Michail
After the lockdown, we started opening like very slowly, some businesses.
And, then, we had the restaurant, after like 20 days, you know, the restaurants opened with all the regulations and, you know, following the rules.
So, you know, we had to wear masks.
We couldn't sit inside the restaurant, so everyone was sitting outside.
So we used to have in total, 30 tables.
So, when we opened up after the lockdown, we only had three tables because nothing was allowed inside and we had a very, a small area outside.
And with the regulations, we only could afford like three tables.
20:47 Prathap Nair
That's a drastic reduction.
20:49 Alkis Michail
Because we have like staff for 30 tables.
Now for three tables, I mean, I could do everything by myself.
I didn't want, you know, anyone.
21:01 Prathap Nair
But has the situation improved now or is it still…?
21:04 Alkis Michail
Yeah, it's a bit weird again, the situation, because we don't know what to expect.
And we, I mean, like I can plan for, you know, for the winter, because if there is like a
possibility for a new lockdown, it will be, you know, a disaster for us so we can't plan anything.
And we just wait to see what will happen.
21:27 Prathap Nair
So the Greece's tourism industry, it picking up?
You were mentioning the other day that people are not landing in Athens.
They just directly going to the islands.
And how is the situation now?
For the hospitality industry in Athens in particular…
21:43 Alkis Michail
It's really, really, really bad.
Compared to the restaurant, businesses, the tourist, especially in Athens, it's really bad.
Because, as you said, like many people come to the airport and they go directly to the islands, so they don't stop to see the center of Athens.
So yeah, at the moment we only have like two rooms in our hotel and yeah, the total number of rooms we have in our hotel is 30.
To have like two rooms in the middle of summer, it's scary, never happened before.
Most of the hotels in Athens are closed at the moment.
I mean, I don't see it improving any time soon…
22:38 Prathap Nair
The next few months.
You're not very sure what’s going to happen...
22:42 Alkis Michail
Yes, basically what I have done, during the lockdown, I have changed the menu completely.
So, the dishes we serve right now, have less ingredients.
22:56 Alkis Michail
Most of the ingredients we use, I mean, I tried to use almost same ingredients to all of the, dishes.
So if one dish, you know, isn't going, we're going to use the ingredients of that dish to another dish.
Most of our dish are really easy to make, so, I don't need many stuff in the kitchen.
23:17 Alkis Michail
Yeah, basically I have reduced, you know, the number of ingredients I have used and almost all of the dishes have the same ingredients.
So, you know, if one dish, you know, doesn't sell, I'm using the ingredients to another dish.
So I don't have to throw anything away.
23:17 Alkis Michail
And it's very easy to make, all of our dishes are very easy to make, so we don't have to, you know, bring, all of our stuff back.
23:17 Prathap Nair
Can you give me some examples of what you are serving?
What kind of dishes you're serving?
23:22 Alkis Michail
Like one of our most popular dishes is a poke bowl, a Hawaiian bowl.
So we make like a sushi rice, and then we have watermelon like in season now.
So you can find it very cheap and with a big watermelon, I can almost serve 40 dishes.
So what we're doing with the watermelon is we bake it in the oven.
And so it loses all of the moisture.
And then we marinate for at least three days.
So it gets a taste of tuna tartar.
So, it's sort of like a very interesting recipe and a very nice dish and when someone is ordering the dish, everything is ready because we have the rice ready.
The watermelon is ready and marinated...
So, you just have to plate the dish.
24:13 Prathap Nair
Did you say you put watermelon in the oven?
What happens when you…
24:20 Alkis Michail
It becomes much smaller and it has like the texture of meat...
24:27 Prathap Nair
24:28 Alkis Michail
So then when you marinate it longer, I mean, we leave it in the marinade for at least three days, so it gets the texture of fish.
So it loses the qualities that, you know, the watermelon has and, yeah, it gets the taste of the sea
because in the marinade we use seaweed ginger, lime, you know, stuff that reminds you of seafood.
24:51 Prathap Nair
Where did you learn this technique?
Roasting the watermelon in the oven.
24:56 Alkis Michail
I was in Los Angeles like five years ago.
25:03 Alkis Michail
So yeah, we have another dish that is salmon made from carrots.
So yeah, and this is like one of like most popular dish as well.
So we bake the carrot inside the salt, so we cover the carrot with salt.
And we bake it in the oven.
Almost like a salmon lachs.
It's like the same technique.
So then we take the carrots out of the oven, we break the, salt and, we cut it very thinly and we put in the marinade.
So then we serve it, like with the bread, sourdough bread, and my truffle cream and, the carrot, tastes like salmon and it looks like salmon.
If it was a normal day, a journalist, a travel writer would have visited the restaurant and wrote about it.
How these amazing things are being done at a restaurant in Athens.
Now we can only dream about it.
Mostly now your clients are all locals.
How are they taking to this experimental cuisine?
26:06 Alkis Michail
They real like it, I mean, almost 99% of our clients are non-vegans.
And for me it's a huge success, because I want to introduce the vegan cuisine to non-vegans, mostly.
26:25 Prathap Nair
So you think that's a blessing in disguise that this lockdown happened, and then your restaurant is now
catering to the local public… otherwise would be frequented by tourists, do you think that's a blessing in disguise…
26:44 Alkis Michail
I think, yes, it is good because, when Greeks come to our restaurant and see
more Greeks in the restaurant, they say this a nice spot, we're going to stay here.
If they come and see like, mainly tourists, they say ok this is a tourist spot.
27:01 Prathap Nair
You’re saying there is still uncertainty, you don't know how this is going to pan out in the coming months, and you cannot make plans also.
So how's your mindset now?
27:17 Alkis Michail
For the restaurant, I'm pretty positive that it will pick up.
27:17 Prathap Nair
Because you've built a solid local client base…
27:21 Alkis Michail
So when we open again from September, we're going to do a lot of advertisement, we're going to improve some stuff, because I'm sure that it will go well.
27:33 Prathap Nair
There’s a lot of uncertainty, but there's also positive things happening… So I will reconnect with you in a couple of months.
Thank you so much for spending the time, on that positive note, we will end this conversation…
27:56 Alkis Michail
It was my pleasure.
27:57 Prathap Nair
Thank you so much.
He will return in the second season to tell us how his business is coping.
Next week, a Cape Town based playwright and consultant Mike Van Graan reflects on how COVID hit the arts sector in South Africa.
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