He left his hometown, Patras, a port city often called Greece’s gateway to the west, carrying two suitcases, one with clothing, the other with books and records. He was 19, the son of a retired military judge, intending to study criminology at New York University.
Nothing went as expected. Today, Costas Spiliadis, 72, who says he arrived in this country “nervous, scared and totally intimidated,” owns and operates an international dining empire, with restaurants in Montreal, New York, Athens, Las Vegas, Miami and London. An Estiatorio Milos will open next week in the new Hudson Yards development in New York, while one in Los Cabos, Mexico, is planned for the summer and another in Dubai for later in the year.
Milos on West 55th Street in New York, which Mr. Spiliadis opened in 1997.CreditAndrew White for The New York Times
All his restaurants are named Milos, and they are famous for their impeccable seafood, extravagantly displayed on ice and, at prime dinner hours, extravagantly priced. But his obsession with perfection is wide-ranging and merciless, not limited to fish. It encompasses all that he sees, tastes or possesses.
Sheila Kussner, a Montreal philanthropist who once brought Pierre Trudeau to the Milos there, points out that the restaurant’s website opens to a vista of flawless ripe tomatoes. Mr. Spiliadis buys them seasonally from Florida, the Carolinas or New Jersey; never permits refrigeration; and stacks them in pyramids, which he said assures exemplary ripening. Then they must be sliced to his specifications.
The Milos kitchens do not dabble in haute cuisine. Their focus is meticulous cuisine. Milos is a triumph of the authentic over the artistic.
Mr. Spiliadis opened his first restaurant in 1979, a time when chefs began disregarding tradition, and innovations like California cuisine and molecular gastronomy emerged. His response was to ignore them all, to remain faithful to simplicity and purity. Taste, he says, does not originate in the head, but in the mouth. His Greek yogurt is not fat-free. His Mediterranean fish has never been blackened. “Blackened is violence to the delicacy of the fish,” he declared.
A similar intensity extends to his other passions, from Greek history to his six grandchildren. His own history has a dramatic arc: A nearly impoverished immigrant prospers by transforming Greek dining in North America from rustic to classic, helping banish its widespread image as little more than flaming cheese and lemon-soaked lamb.
“Costas Spiliadis made Greek food a thing, the most hyper-copied restaurant of his ethnicity,” said David McMillan, a celebrated Montreal restaurateur. Before Milos, he said, a Greek restaurant was a place with a couple of guys in “paper hats standing in front of a shawarma machine.”
Mr. Spiliadis loves the United States, and can even describe its greatness in culinary terms: “Here is true democracy in everyday life. When the prime minister of Greece came to Milos in Athens to eat, the newspapers wrote about it and the people there said, ‘This must be a great place, but it is not for me.’ Bill and Hillary Clinton are regulars in New York. Here the public will say: ‘Bill Clinton is at Milos. It must be a great place. I’ll go.’”
Yet as all-American as his success story appears, the credit belongs not to this country but to Canada, where he opened the first Milos and where he is esteemed by other restaurateurs.
“He’s the most focused, the most driven of us all,” Mr. McMillan said. “I’d see him at the airport getting his Dover sole, and I knew I’d never beat him at fish.
“And he’s a lone wolf. I’ve been around for 26 years. I ran into him three years ago at an event, and he pretended to know who I was, but I’m not surprised if he didn’t.”
‘I Was Totally Lost’
Mr. Spiliadis’ father came from Filia, a mountain village in the Peloponnese region of Greece. His mother was born and raised in Istanbul, her roots in the culture of Greek refugees forced to leave rural Turkey and resettle in the early 20th century.
The boy grew up loving music. When he came to America, he carried with him the songs of the mountains and the refugees, traditional music that was undergoing a revival in Greece. “This music made me who I am,” he said.
On arriving in Manhattan in 1966, he roomed in a Y.M.C.A., and cried every night. “I missed my home, and was overwhelmed by the city,” he said. He soon moved to a private home on 14th Street, taking a room so tiny he had to climb over the bed to get to the window.
Because he was on a student visa, he wasn’t allowed to work. And the money his parents were permitted to send him was severely limited by the Greek government.
In his room, he cooked chicken necks, which cost at most 15 cents a pound. “Another Greek guy also going to N.Y.U. was working at a hot-dog place on 42nd Street,” he recalled. “Greek friends and I would walk from Washington Square to Times Square because the guy working there would stuff two or three hot dogs into the bun and cover them with sauerkraut so nobody would see.”
He added, “I was totally lost.”
He soon left for the University of Maryland to be closer to his older brother, Stellios, who was at Johns Hopkins University. “If a gypsy had come by and said that restaurants were the future for Costas,” Stellios said, “I would have said this was a know-nothing gypsy. Costas was always an intellectual and political person.”
A military junta was ruling Greece, and Costas Spiliadis took part in protests and political action, even though his student visa forbade it. He admired the academic environment of the university, where he studied sociology, but not the Maryland of that era, with its segregated buses and bathrooms.
He also felt humiliated that his Greek identity was not appreciated. Everyone, including friends, called him Gus, not Costas. To him, that was no small thing — he had been named after his father’s cousin, who was executed by German soldiers in a massacre of 3,000 civilians during World War II.
By the end of his four years in Maryland, without a diploma, Mr. Spiliadis was in trouble with both the university and the Greek government, in danger of having his passport renewal rejected. He feared that if he returned home, he would be drafted or arrested. In 1971, he and a friend, a young woman, set off for Canada.
“I knew Montreal had a very strong Greek community, very anti-junta, and that was all I knew,” he said.
There, he found what he says he couldn’t in America: a multicultural atmosphere that allowed newcomers a place in society without pressure to abandon their cultural identity.
“In Canada,” he said, “you integrated, you were not assimilated. Canada opened doors, provided education, civic lessons and job opportunities. You were provided every means to become part of society.”
Mr. Spiliadis earned a B.A. and started graduate studies at Concordia University, although he never completed his master’s thesis on the political economy of Greek immigration. “I was always writing and rewriting,” he said. “I’m the type of person who leaves things unfinished.”
He helped found Radio Centre-Ville, a local station where he directed Greek programming and hosted a daily show that incorporated news, interviews and cultural information about the Greek community. He acted in local theater, his favorite performance a starring role in a drama about the Greek revolution against the Ottoman Empire.
In 1979, he left the station to open the first Milos, in the Mile End neighborhood. His original kitchen staff consisted of a dishwasher and himself as cook.
“I did it out of a need to prove that Greek cuisine and culture were not as bad as everyone thought,” he said. The quest was fundamentally unsound: “I wasn’t able to cook at all. I would call my mother in Greece, ask her, ‘How do I do this dish?’”
‘There’s a Fear of Failing’
Mr. Spiliadis is philosophical, cultured, intellectual, artistic, romantic and proud — particularly of being Greek. Every night, for at least an hour, he reads poetry and literature, and can recite dozens of Greek poems from memory. The boy who loved music now sponsors concerts by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
Self-possessed he is not. He can be obsessive, thin-skinned, insecure, melancholy and unforgiving — especially when he walks into one of his restaurants and all is not as he wishes.
The Milos restaurants are sleek and airy, reminiscent of open markets, with a minimalist Mediterranean style. They are accented with ancient urns and well-to-do customers who stroll past the iced displays, selecting their seafood.
On a given night, Mr. Spiliadis might be found at any one of them. He will be in the kitchen, in the dining room or observing the arrival of fresh fish. He is never in his office because he does not have one. If he notices something amiss, he will pounce.
To unwary employees come emails in the night. When a front desk sits unstaffed, a reprimand will follow. If wilted flowers perch atop the Milos display of fish, his unhappiness will intensify, his grievances spelled out in enraged capital letters. No detail escapes scrutiny.
“I expect perfection because my culture expects perfection,” he said. “For what I charge them, people expect perfection. Otherwise I have nothing else going for me. I am not a star chef. People judge me on their experience.”
His son, George Spiliadis, beverage director for the Milos group, conceded that “it’s not easy to work for him,” using those flowers as an example.
“He wants to make a statement to the guests who walk into the restaurants, a huge bouquet,” he said. “They are expensive, $1,000 a bouquet, 52 weeks a year. Do you know how many shrimp we have to sell to pay for the flowers? And he gets frustrated if he’s challenged. His ways are set. You’re with me or you’re not.”
David Samuels, an owner of the Blue Ribbon Fish Company, in New York, recalls the early days of Milos in Montreal. Mr. Spiliadis would make the 750-mile round trip to and from the Fulton Fish Market in a Chevrolet Impala borrowed from one of his waiters, carrying American cash in his pocket. Eventually, he put so many miles on the car and sloshed so much ice on the upholstery that he had to buy the fishy-smelling vehicle.
In those days, Mr. Samuels’ father had a rule: Never sell to restaurants. They were untrustworthy. When Mr. Spiliadis offered cash, he changed his mind.
“Back then we were selling in 100-fish units,” Mr. Samuels said. “Costas wanted individual fish. Usually a buyer would look at a box of fish, we’d negotiate a price, and he’d say, ‘I’ll take it.’ Not Costas. Every fish had to be picked out.”
By the end of 1980, after a year in business, Milos was full every night. David Dangoor, an early customer, recalled, “I had gone to the best restaurants in the world, and then I came to this hole-in-the-wall in Montreal — narrow entrance, ugly wood planks, looked like it had never been decorated — and had one of the best meals of my life.”
Mr. Spiliadis had difficulty believing in his success. “It was a Friday,” he said. “The restaurant was empty. I thought the magic was over. I panicked. The next day I told that to friends and they said, ‘It was the Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur.’ So many of my customers were Jewish, and they were fasting.”
At first, the food of Milos was homey, the menu limited to seven or eight items. Then his unconventional culinary education began. He perfected his Milos Special, delicately fried eggplant and zucchini, with the help of a Greek doctor interning in a Montreal hospital. The secret? The flour coating had to be as thin as the flour-and-water mixture used to glue together bamboo kites in Greece.
A jeweler with a shop next door, a native of Pyrgos in the Peloponnese, told Mr. Spiliadis, “You do not know how to cook fish,” and gave him lessons. A Jewish customer, who came from a neighborhood in Alexandria, Egypt, where Jews and Greeks lived side by side, upgraded his lamb chops.
In turn, Mr. Spiliadis took care of his customers. One who came five days a week for 25 years always asked that the air-conditioning be turned down. When Mr. Spiliadis renovated the restaurant in 1987, he blocked the vent over the customer’s regular table.
His closest professional friend in Montreal, Lenny Lighter, the former owner of the venerable Moishe’s steakhouse, heard about Milos and went. “From my table I could see into the kitchen,” Mr. Lighter said. “Costas was taking a sliver off each melon, taking a bite, and throwing it in the garbage. I realized he was checking every melon himself before serving it.”
Asked if Mr. Spiliadis had mellowed over the years, Mr. Samuels, of Blue Ribbon Fish Company, laughed. “He’s gotten worse,” he said. “It’s not arrogance. It’s the tremendous pressure he puts on himself. You see it in athletes. No matter how many victories they have, there’s a fear of failing.”
Mr. Samuels said he and Mr. Spiliadis are “like boyfriend and girlfriend.”
“Every eight or 10 years he’ll dump me. It’s happened three or four times. I try to talk to him. He says, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ Eventually he comes back.”
Asked the current state of their relationship, Mr. Samuels replied, “We’re in love again. He’s a great customer. He pays his bills and he’s well-respected — by everyone but himself.”
‘I Sleep on the Floor’
Mr. Spiliadis’ home is in Montreal, where he lives with his wife, Dina, but he keeps an apartment in New York, close to Carnegie Hall. “I pass by it every night,” he said of the music hall. “I see the beautiful concerts taking place. I want to go, and I never make it.”
He rarely rests. He has opened every Milos restaurant himself (including the New York location, in 1997), remaining on premises for months, no matter how far from home it might be.
“The biggest enemy of our industry is food being taken over by corporations,” he said. “Hospitality and corporate structure are a contradiction.”
Struggling with that contradiction, he tries to instill what he calls “family values” in each of his restaurants, but admits that has become more difficult as his organization grows. The Milos corporate structure is skeletal, just him and about a half-dozen other executives. He seldom seeks partners. Milos in Las Vegas, built by and located in the Cosmopolitan hotel, is an exception. The hotel shares the profits, but the operating decisions are all made by Mr. Spiliadis — “with no interference,” he added.
It is he who steadfastly and single-handedly safeguards the Milos brand, ignoring nothing. “I wish I could,” he said with a sigh. “It is not rational to be obsessed, but it is a part of me. I am not always happy about it.”
His son, George, asks him to slow down. It is useless. “I try to tell him he’s 72 — if he lives to 100, that’s 28 more years,” George said. “Don’t you want to go on your yacht and sail the Mediterranean, do more than spend your life opening restaurants?”
The answer: Mr. Spiliadis hasn’t sailed the Mediterranean on his yacht, Milos At Sea, in the last two years.
“My memories of growing up with my dad,” George said, “is that he worked a lot, but he also taught us core values: dinner with the family at 6 o’clock with a discussion — and then he would leave and go back to work.”
“He is a great dad and a great-grandfather,” he added. “When my wife was pregnant, he would go to the Jean-Talon Market (in Montreal) and buy things. If it was a pork roast and lettuce and asparagus, it would be enough for four families. He gets carried away when he sees good food.”
Mr. Spiliadis speaks often of his adoration for his grandchildren, three by way of George, three by his daughter, Evridiki. He appears bewitched by them. Everyone speaks of how he is a different man when they are around.
He is also consumed by love for Kythira, an obscure and idyllic Greek island between the Aegean and Ionian Seas. “I’ve been to hundreds of places,” he said, ”but what I felt there I had never felt before.”
He has bought up the historic center of Aroniadika, the all-but-abandoned village near the center of the island, and plans to open an academy of Greek gastronomy there. He owns about 20 buildings, half of them in ruins, and two houses. One he describes as “comfortable,” the other, 100 to 200 years old, as “primitive.”
The primitive house he reserves for himself. “I prefer to stay in the one with the worms and the scorpions,” he said.
The house is about 300 square feet, with a sandy floor, a small kitchen, a fireplace and a plywood board covering a hole where grape pressings were stored.
“In this one little room was everything,” he said, “including a family of mother, father and five children. It is maybe 300 square feet. This wasn’t beauty, this was necessity, but to me it is a piece of art. I sleep on the floor in pajamas and socks to protect me from the insects. I sleep in fear, but I sleep better than anywhere else.”
This is the essence of a man who thinks of himself more as a Greek than as a restaurateur. Once, thousands of years ago, the greatness of Greece was unmatched. Mr. Spiliadis wants to help restore his nation’s image.
Other missions remain. He plans to preserve Greek gastronomy through his culinary academy, to prove that his restaurants can stand steadfast against corporate culture, and to look after his grandchildren.
Asked if they also must be perfect, he laughed at himself. “They better be. So far, so good.”