Thursday is Take Your Child to Work Day, and Katerina and Antoinette Kyrtatas have a busy schedule planned.
Katerina, 13, and Antoinette, 10, of Medford, will spend the day at their family’s restaurants – SweetWater Bar & Grill and Hathaway’s “Diner-Style’’ Restaurant in Cinnaminson. Their paternal grandparents Angelo and Antonia “Toni’’ Kyrtatas operate Hathaway’s “Diner Style’’ Restaurant, where they’ve fed hungry South Jersey patrons for 32 years, while their dad, Executive Chef George Kyrtatas, and uncle, John Kyrtatas, run the adjoining SweetWater Bar & Grill.
On Thursday evening, the girls will accompany their father to the Food Bank of South Jersey, where the celebrated chef, cookbook author and TV personality will serve as a judge for the “Hunger Games’’ fundraising cook-off. (See box for details).
Kyrtatas, who is considered an expert of modern Greek-American cuisine, often lends his culinary expertise to good causes. In fact, his daughters and his wife, Frances, often volunteer at soup kitchens, food banks, the Ronald McDonald House and other relief organizations. He is working with the Food Bank to help develop more community outreach events, and in May he will participate in a special benefit for Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen Foundation. (See box for details).
While Hathaway’s continues to offer traditional diner fare for breakfasts and lunches, SweetWater Bar & Grill provides a stylish but casual restaurant with fresh and from-scratch, family-friendly fare, a well-stocked bar and daily specials. Kyrtatas describes his approach as “American cuisine with Mediterranean fare.’’
Sweetwater is celebrating its fifth year, and the locals have embraced the family’s decision to subdivide the original restaurant to offer different dining experiences.
“It was an interesting transition,’’ recalls Kyrtatas, whose brother, John, runs the front of the house. “There was a little confusion at first, but we’ve converted so many customers. It’s a one-stop shop for everybody.’’
Kyrtatas grew up in the family business, as he was only 8 when his parents purchased an existing diner.
When an electrical fire destroyed the original building, the Kyrtatas “almost lost everything they had,’’ but committed to rebuilding.
“It was a situation where both of my parents were here full time, the first six or seven years without a day off, so they would pick us up from school and we would do our homework in the office. When we were done, they might throw a bag of carrots or potatoes in front of us, and say, ‘Start peeling!’ ’’
His mom, Antonia, says she knew son George would wind up in the kitchen from a very young age.
“I knew when one of his favorite TV shows was Julia Child,’’ she recalls with a smile. “He just loved watching her. And he also loved being in the kitchen with the chef.’’
The Cinnaminson High School graduate went onto attend the Academy of Culinary Arts in Mays Landing, graduating in 1999 with a Gold Medal award. At 20, he became the youngest person to receive Chef de Cuisine certification from the American Culinary Federation.
Since that time, he has been featuring on numerous TV shows, both here and in Greece, most notably PBS’ “The Cooking Odyssey’’ (which followed his culinary travels) and The Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen.’’
His 2004 cookbook, “My Big Fat Greek Feast’’ sold 80,000 copies. (It is now out of print but you can find copies on Amazon.)
And in 2011, Attica Media (Greek Playboy/Esquire) voted him one of the top Modern Greek chefs in the world.
While his Greek heritage and passion for fresh and seasonal ingredients influences his dishes, Kyrtatas steered away from the concept of opening a Greek restaurant.
“First and foremost, it was environmental,’’ he says. “This town, I grew up in this town … and I have a feel for what would work in this town. If I were to open a Greek restaurant in Cinnaminson, I wouldn’t have those regulars coming in here, entire families, year after year.
And the Greek influences are not hard to find, from the grilled sandwiches to the salads to the small plates and healthful entrees. “We take pride in making 95 percent of everything from scratch,’’ he says, “all of our breadings, all of our sauces. Our chicken is antibiotic-free and vegetarian fed.’’
It is always about the customer.
“I feed my customers as if I am feeding my family,’’ Kyrtatas confides. “The town is our family. … We wanted (SweetWater) to be something the town would be proud of, and happy to have as part of their community.’’
Kyrtatas’ aspirations are about learning, both acquiring more culinary knowledge and of sharing it with others.
“I am always, always trying to further my education … trying to better myself and better the business.’’
He is taking classes to become a sommelier, and is proud of the SweetWater bar, with its wine list and its 24-tap beer menu which focuses on craft brews. Spellbound, Evil Genius, Double Nickel are all on tap, and Flying Fish brews SweetWater Amber Ale exclusively for the eatery.
A visit to Kyrtatas’ website offers the chance to watch 12 episodes of “Cooking with Keffi’’ (the Greek word for ‘excitement’), an international cooking program about Greek and other cuisines which has been renewed for a second season.
“It was great fun and a lot of guests came out and cooked with me,’’ Kyrtatas says, including Hope Cohen (“Simple, Fast and Fresh’’), Garrett Dutton of G Love and Special Sauce, chef and nutritionist Diane Hendericks, and “Real Housewives of New Jersey’’ cast member and cookbook author Kathy Wakile (“Indulge’’).
“I even had my girls on one of the episodes. It was a huge success.’’
While Kyrtatas is not encouraging his daughters to enter the restaurant business, mostly because of how much work it requires, he and his wife make it a priority to take them along when the chef lends his name and his food savvy to community events and fundraisers.
“We try to teach them to give back as much as possible,’’ he says.