Greek-American chef finds opportunity in Greece financial meltdown

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Ari Vezene, a Greek-American chef, is the owner of a high-end restaurant in Athens. (Photo by Clark Boyd.)

The European Union holds a summit in Brussels later this week, with Greece at the top of the agenda. The new Greek prime minister has said he wants to renegotiate the tough austerity measures being imposed on it by the EU and the International Monetary Fund.

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But some in Europe, chief among them Germany, want the Greeks to hold to their agreements.

Meanwhile, the situation for many small Greek businesses is very difficult. But one Greek-American, Ari Vezene, is finding his own path through the crisis. As the head chef and owner of Vezene Restaurant in Athens, Vezene said it was still kind of strange how he ended up here.

"I cannot say that I was one of those examples where I knew I wanted to become a chef, a restaurateur from the age of five," he said. "That would be a total lie."

Vezene was born in New York City to Greek parents. His family returned to Greece when he was eight. Vezene went back to the U.S. to go to college in the Chicago area. To make ends meet, he got his first restaurant job at a Burger King in Orland Park, Ill.

"As funny as it sounds, that was my very first job," he said.

But Vezene didn’t last long at Burger King. Instead, he ended up in Chicago’s "Greek Town" working for a restaurant. He moved up from dishwasher, to waiter, and finally into the kitchen. Vezene said he fell in love with the food business.

Then in June 2005, he decided to return to Greece.

"I was losing my father," he said. "Since I’m an only child, the family aspect of our culture is very important. So I felt it was my obligation to return to Greece to reunite with my family."

Vezene wanted to start his own business right away. But the rents in Athens were too high so he got a job working at the restaurant in the Hilton Hotel. He worked double shifts to earn more money — and he learned about Greece’s unusual approach to credit.

"The term 'line of credit' in this country had no substance," he said. "There were no credit bureaus, no background checks. What does that boil down to? We had companies coming to the restaurant hosting parties of 30 to 50 people and expecting to pay us three months later."

In 2009, Vezene started his own restaurant, an Italian place on the Greek island of Meganisi. He didn't get a loan; he paid for it all out of his own pocket.

The restaurant was so successful that he decided to take another big risk and opened his place, Vezene, in Athens last year. He admits that opening in the midst of a financial meltdown seems "a bit crazy" now. But he did his homework. He got a good location — in the shadow of the Hilton where he started out.

Vezene serves a mixed menu — some Greek stuff, some Italian. His specialties are top quality beef and fish dishes. Vezene said he prepays in cash for everything, which means he gets better deals.

Vezene caters to a higher-end Greek clientele, many of whom have stopped going out quite so much — not because they have less money, he said, but because they don't want to draw attention to the fact that they still have the money to go out.

There is a secret to his success, according to Vezene.

"I have to say that my winning point was being Greek when I need to be Greek, and being American when I need to be American," he said.

The American side comes out when he has to negotiate and make tough business decisions without letting personal feelings get in the way, he said, and the Greek side helps him adapt to reality.

"I cannot just go to city hall and turn everything upside down," he said "I’m not going to change it. There’s no point of my fighting the system. I don’t have to like it, nor can I entirely change it. It takes more than one or two or 100 romantics to change this whole thing."

So far, Vezene’s mix of old and new worlds has been successful. The restaurant is fully booked most nights. But Vezene said he knew it could all change at any moment, particularly with the economic situation in Greece.

If the restaurant fails, he's already decided that he’s not going back to the U.S.

"If all hell breaks loose tomorrow and for some reason this doesn’t work out, I would much rather go back to my home island, or any island in the Aegean, and do a little business there," he said. "Make less money but wake up everyday and look at the crystal clear sky, and the crystal clear water. This is me being Greek, and saying no to the American dream."

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