At the Altadena Farmers Market, the alluring smell of charcoal and mesquite reaches a crescendo at the Calamaki booth, where an orchestra of flavorfully grilled meats, seafoods, and veggies greets your appetite with a smoky embrace.
Just over a year ago, Chef Kostas Katsaros started Calamaki with a small kebab grill that he covered with rows of skewers, called “kalamaki” in his native Greece. Now he busily hovers over a large custom charcoal grill and rotisserie spit, alternately searing chicken, pork, fish, octopus, sweet potatoes, and farm-fresh vegetables, though not all are necessarily cooked on skewers.
“I love charcoal grilling, so I said skewers might be a great idea for the market,” Kostas explained. “I wanted to do Mediterreanean Greek with local ingredients. Sometimes I just do whatever I feel like.”
After moving to Los Angeles four years ago, working alongside renowned chefs at notable seafood restaurants gave Kostas quick insight into the local food landscape. To source ingredients, he frequently visited farmers markets and connected with local fisheries and trustworthy suppliers. The similarity of ingredients available in California and Greece were part of what inspired him to revisit his culinary roots.
“A lot of produce that we have in Greece, we have here too,” he said, specifically mentioning figs, olives, and grapes. Fresh local seafood also reminds Kostas of fishing with his father, who taught him to dive for sea urchins, crabs, and octopus. “Sometimes I feel like I’m home.”
In addition to learning from his mother’s traditional Greek cooking, Kostas spent 18 years in Holland, where his tenure at fine restaurants added French and Northern European influences to his culinary resume. With Calamaki, he brings these skills and flavors together to showcase meticulously seasoned grilled dishes, along with lively traditional sauces, salads, and handcrafted beverages.
On the grill, the skewers are the signature dish, featuring octopus, fish, or vegetables such as Brussels sprouts and summer squash. “Definitely try my octopus. That’s my specialty,” Kostas recommended.
Having caught and prepared octopus since he was a kid, his techniques to tenderize and precook the delicate meat are like second nature. Grilling is the tricky part, since undercooking octopus can leave it rubbery, while overcooking can make it mushy. But Kostas consistently achieves a tender meatiness similar to crab with an expertly charred surface.
The fish skewer options depend on what’s available from fresh fishery catches, which must be sustainably wild caught. So far, Kostas has served rockfish, halibut, and snapper. “I’m trying to get local seafood as much as I can. It helps the local fisheries, and it tastes good,” he said. Grilling the fish over mesquite brings a complementary smokiness to its natural flavor.
Suspended on a long spit above the heat of the grill, plump whole chickens and pork roasts are regularly turned and slow-roasted for an hour or more. These rotisserie meats are among Calamaki’s latest offerings. Adding a rotisserie spit to the grill allowed Kostas to meet the growing demand for chicken and pork more readily than he could when he was cutting the meats and prepping individual skewers.
Kostas uses Mary’s free range air-chilled chickens, taking the same approach he took to prepare duck at other restaurants. First he brines the chicken, and then blanches it in hot water, and puts it in ice water. “That way you seal it. You can see juices inside under the skin,” Kostas described while pointing out the drumsticks.
Each whole chicken is also stuffed with herbs and rubbed with roast garlic and preserved kumquat to add flavor inside and out. At the market, you can enjoy individual drumsticks, wings, and thighs for a quick meal, or you can pre-order a whole or half chicken to take home. Kostas has also started offering flatbreads that can be topped with either rotisserie chicken or pork, accompanied by sweet tomatoes, pickled red onions, salsa verde, and tzatziki.
“And I have my sweet potatoes and seasonal salads,” Kostas noted. “I mostly try to buy organic from the farmers markets. I want to support the local communities.”
He shops selectively for produce at the markets and samples them for freshness with an intuitive sense of when they’ll reach peak ripeness. Once he has his goods, he chops them up and lets the natural flavors take over. Ripe tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, and fresh purslane bring brightness to his seasonal Greek salad, along with the boldness of olives, capers, oregano, and a chunky rectangular slice of feta cheese placed on top in true Greek fashion.
The sweet potatoes roast patiently on the grill, absorbing the smoke and earning a few stripes of char. Once the potatoes soften, the vibrant colors of Calamaki’s arugula pistachio pesto and pickled red onions enliven both the look and flavor of the dish. “I like color. Color means taste,” said Kostas.
It wouldn’t be overkill to accompany those sweet potatoes with a side of Calamaki’s version of potato salad. To create these tantalizing scoops of crushed potatoes, Kostas makes his own parsley aioli, roasts the garlic, and adds lemon zest and a few other spices for a balance of striking flavors and smooth textures. It’s another demonstration of Kostas’ ability to draw complex gourmet flavors out of simple farm-fresh ingredients.
“It’s a lot of work to be here. But I love it,” Kostas said. “I like it because people like the food, and I appreciate that. It’s been an amazing experience.”