In 1957, John Livanos left his home country of Greece and emigrated to New York City. John worked as a dishwasher for his uncle at a local NYC restaurant, but three years later he was able to save up enough to buy his own restaurant.
In 1985, Mr. Livanos opened the beautiful Livanos Restaurant in White Plains, New York, establishing himself as a reputable restauranteur in the greater New York culinary circle.
John’s children, Nick, Bill, and Corina were inspired by their father’s love of food, and entered the family business, growing the Livanos Restaurant Group with the elegant midtown restaurants Oceana and Molyvos, Moderne Barn in Armonk, New York, and City Limits in White Plains.
Now, John’s grandchildren Johnny and Enrico, sons of Nick, are continuing the great tradition of food, family, and warm hospitality, managing their own restaurant, Ousia in Manhattan.
I recently spoke with the brothers Livanos to talk about running their own restaurant, honoring the Livanos family model, and what inspired their passion for food and drink.
Going into a family business isn’t always easy and for Johnny and Enrico, the example that their grandfather, as well as their father and his siblings, set is a massive one to live up to. Maybe it’d be easier to find something else to do, far away from the pressures of the previous generations. But for the Livanos brothers, food and hospitality just runs in their blood.
Johnny recalls a particularly formative food experience when he was 9 or 10 at his grandparents’ house in Greece, “enjoying an amazing dinner outside on the patio; grilled fish we freshly caught that morning on the boat, tomatoes from the garden, and some Greek delicacies my grandmother made for us.”
His father Nick was drinking a glass of wine and Johnny was intrigued by the drink, as he says, “not because of its effects, but more that I was curious why something so disgusting could be loved so passionately” by his dad and grandfather. His father gave Johnny a smell and taste and asked his son what flavors the Riesling evoked. When young Johnny responded excitedly, “Peaches!” his father was shocked by the accuracy and sophistication of his son’s palate.
That palate has led Johnny (28) to become a licensed Sommelier, closely studying the relationship between food and drink. His mastery of this relationship has him oversee the bar program at Ousia, while his younger brother Enrico is in charge of the restaurant’s service operations.
Enrico (25) knows food, but he also knows people. On any given night, you can find the younger Livanos brother parading around the restaurant floor, striking up conversations with guests, shaking hands, refilling glasses, always wearing his magnetic smile.
It’s a pretty dynamic duo. But obviously working with your own brother is a sort of double-edged sword at times. Enrico and Johnny told me that although there is occasional friction between them at times, at the end of the day, they share a unique and specific vision,
“We are working for the same common goal – growing as individuals and helping our family business grow. We sometimes have issues – we’ve got opposite personalities and sometimes our ideas clash. But any argument we have ends to a constructive resolution.”
While Johnny and Enrico bring different skill-sets to the table, this also allows them to complement each other in crucial ways. It also allows them to streamline the entire management process. Johnny told me, “I am more of a deep thinking, sometimes overthinking, analyzer of sorts. Enrico is more action-oriented and quick to move on opportunities. Together we don’t leave any stone unturned.”
Enrico and Johnny mirror the rest of their family. They are admirably close-knit and self-sufficient, each member of the family bringing something different to the table. But in the Livanos family, a crucial part of the maturation process is spending some time away from the family business and learning the craft on their own.
To that end, both of the Livanos brothers studied at the Culinary Institute of America, Johnny at their campus in St. Helena, California and Enrico in Hyde Park, New York, studying the science and art of food and drink.
Johnny worked at two restaurants outside the family businesses and said these experiences were extremely formative for him as a restauranteur, bringing in ideas or techniques from outside sources. But, at the end of the day, Ousia is a Livanos restaurant very much in the tradition of their pioneering grandfather.
When I ask Johnny and Enrico about the tension between continuing the culinary tradition of their family, but simultaneously eschewing in a new era of the Livanos Group, they tell me it’s all about balance,
“Balance is the key to everything in the restaurant industry, whether it’s balancing sweetness to bitterness in a cocktail or balancing acid with body of a dish. But the same is true in our style of restaurant management. We always strive to be a nice balance of classic and cutting edge.”
And Ousia is just that. As soon as you walk into the location on the western stretches of Manhattan (629 w 57th st.), you are greeted with a warmth typical of Johnny and Enrico’s grandfather’s home country. And while the personality and charm of the restaurant may be old school, the decoration, menu, and aesthetic of Ousia is very much modern.
Again, the brothers said it’s about balancing between their roots but adding a new twist,
“The décor and feel always have to match. Our vibe in the restaurant is subtle, comfortable, and not particularly Greek. Our menu has similar things going on where we create a Mediterranean inspired Greek menu while not being too Greek.”
It’s this blend of new age and old country that makes Ousia such a memorable dining experience. Ousia’s combination of cosmopolitan Manhattan aesthetic and Greek personality has the Livanos brothers bringing a new flair to their family’s sterling reputation in the restaurant community.