Why George’s Kitchen Should Be Everyone’s Kitchen
The Place: George’s Kitchen
The Dish: Greek Platter (spanakopita, souvlaki, gyro meat, rice, tzatziki, and homemade Greek dressing)
The Location: 6102 N 16th St, Suite 1, Phoenix, AZ 85016
By: Laura Stoddard
“My name is Jim, but most people call me crazy.” That’s how Jim Deligiannis, owner of George’s Kitchen jokingly introduces himself. And maybe he was (a little) when he became a restaurateur, having no experience with either cooking or running a business, but after talking with him and learning his story—which is pretty much the epitome of the American Dream—I’d definitely substitute the word ‘determined’ for ‘crazy’. His restaurants, Crazy Jim’s (now under new ownership, but still making his recipes), and George’s Kitchen produce, in my humble opinion, the best Greek food in the valley.
Jim was born and raised in Greece, the son of a baker and a stay-at-home seamstress, and even though home life included big, sumptuous family meals, he had no desire to aid in their creation. “I didn’t even know how to turn eggs,” he said. “I was never interested in learning anything about cooking.” He was more mechanically inclined. At about fourteen years of age he began apprenticing as an electrician, and that would become his career for the next few years, even into joining the air force. It was during his time on an American NATO base that he developed a keen interest in coming to the states.
He moved to Phoenix when he was twenty-three, with no job prospects, no connections (save for his grandfather), and probably the greatest hurdle: “I didn’t speak English very well, so no one wanted to hire me those days.” Jim took what jobs he could get, and ended up working on home appliances. But he wasn’t satisfied. He’d come to America to establish himself and make a good life. Because he couldn’t get a job in his preferred field, he started looking at other options, and determined that the restaurant business seemed to be a steady, potentially lucrative, and honest profession, so he decided to give it a shot. “I never cook in my life,” he reiterated. “So it’s kind of funny, all my friends called me crazy and said, Don’t do it!” But he did, and succeeded on a massive scale. He’s a good-humored guy, so naming his first restaurant Crazy Jim’s seemed only appropriate.
There was no culinary school for Jim. No professional training. With the aid of ‘an old, retired Italian guy’ Jim learned to make pizza. “Then I start creating salads and all different things. Once I start learning, I was very interested.” Eventually he and his pizza mentor opened a restaurant at 15th Avenue and Indian School Road in Phoenix, which evolved from an Italian-inspired kitchen, to a Greek one, thanks to the influence of Jim’s recipes. And in 1985, Crazy Jim’s officially came into being. He said it took a few years for the restaurant (a tiny, hidden gem of a place) to take off, which is hard to believe, considering the almost crazed popularity it enjoys now. Good luck trying to walk in without a reservation and get a seat. The menu is relatively straight-forward, but every dish is delicious. There never was, nor is, anything complicated about Jim’s food. It is simply timeless, authentic Greek fare, like he grew up eating at home. He won’t serve you anything he wouldn’t serve his family.
Speaking of family, that brings us to George’s Kitchen, which Jim opened about two years ago to bring his family into the fold and get everyone involved. He “retired” (which means still working at the restaurant about 85 hours a week), and is teaching his children the business so they can take over. This includes instructing them on how to cook, how to run the kitchen, how to pick out quality ingredients, and so on. It’s refreshing to find a family-owned, (now) family-run business. Especially one you really want to support. You’ll find daughter Stacey behind the register, son George running things both out front and in the back, and wife Ellen crunching numbers.
George’s is a bright, open self-serve restaurant. Along with friendly hellos from the Deligiannis family, a large blackboard greets you on the wall when you enter, proclaiming in colorful letters, the day’s menu options. Many of the dishes are staples that will always be on the menu (like their Greek chicken and gyro salads and pitas), but now, the admittedly old-fashioned Jim has allowed his children to sway him to start branching out and offering other types of food (like pasta and fish and chips) and offering daily specials. They also sell individual items at the register, like homemade bread, jars of homemade Greek dressing (I could drink the whole jar!), and their decadent baklava.
On every occasion that I’ve introduced someone to George’s Kitchen, they’ve taken one bite and become immediate converts (and hugged me and thanked me for introducing them to their new favorite Greek place). Truly, from the rice to the gyro meat to the chicken, everything is perfectly seasoned and cooked; not to mention, beautifully presented. Jim orders only the best and freshest ingredients (whether it’s feta from Italy or spring-mix from a local farm), and always strives to remain loyal to his heritage. He isn’t into spicy, so you won’t get it at George’s Kitchen. He isn’t into plain, so at George’s Kitchen you’ll get full, fresh punches of flavor in every bite. Even his basic greens are better than what you’d get other places. He isn’t satisfied with just placing lettuce on the bottom of a plate before adding the protein or main component. “I want more bite to my spring mix. I add more arugula, Greek cabbage, Romanian hearts, radicchio…”
The one thing Jim was emphatic about all during our conversation was how important quality is to him. “When I need an item, I’m going to use quality and make it right. And it’s always fresh. Everything in my restaurant is fresh. I’d say we’re very detail-oriented here, especially when it comes to food. We’re not just going to serve what we think is okay—we’re going to serve what’s good.”
Of his enormously popular pizzas, Jim says, “I use the best mozzarella from Buffalo, NY, good flour, fresh yeast, sea salt, and I use spring mountain water only.” And you can tell. The freshness, fragrance and flavor of his pies are on a whole other level. Some of the other most popular dishes at the restaurant (and I’d literally recommend any of them) are the chicken and gyro salads and pitas, chicken and gyro picatta pitas, spanakopita, and chicken lemon soup (which is in extremely high demand).
Jim merely brushes away any mention of his success or how good a chef he is—he doesn’t even consider himself one! George’s does very little advertising, mostly relying on word-of-mouth—and it’s working. “If food is good,” he said, “you talk about it.” Go there one time—I guarantee you will talk about it.
From a young man in Greece more interested in electronics than ingredients, Jim’s story is pretty incredible. He found his calling in Phoenix doing something he’d never even considered. Now he’s in a great place. After more than thirty years laboring in this industry, he can now sit back (a relative term for him) and watch his children develop and manage his legacy. He’s still back there in the kitchen to throw our directions or tips when needed, but, “Now,” he smiled, “I’m having really fun.”