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Johnny Monis of Komi
Creating a place with soul.
Wunderkind chef Johnny Monis grew up hanging around La Casa, the Alexandria pizza place owned by his parents. By the time he was 24, he'd opened a restaurant, Komi, off Dupont Circle, where he puts a modern spin on Mediterranean cuisine. A year and a half later Monis is riding high on critical laurels and a Rammy award nomination for best new chef, given by DC's Restaurant Association.
Have you always been into food?
My grandmother talks about when I was seven and asked her if she wanted breakfast. I made scrambled eggs for her and my brother.
I really liked eating and was interested in food. Every summer I would go to Greece, where my parents are from. I'd see where the vegetables grew and collect eggs every morning with my grandfather. It was very hands-on, and it just continued.
Did you cook for friends growing up?
It wasn't until I got to James Madison University that I started cooking for friends. We'd have Sunday dinners and invite 15 people to the house and cook. The more they started trusting me, the more freedom I felt I had. It had to taste good.
I ended up leaving JMU after three years and going to culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Charleston. I worked at McCrady's in Charleston and ended up leaving Johnson & Wales because I was learning so much more at the restaurant. Culinary school gives you a good base as far as fundamentals. I just preferred to be more hands-on.
Any early kitchen disasters?
Not disasters. But I remember my worst kitchen job. I was washing dishes in Harrisonburg. If you want to cook at this restaurant you had to do your time at the dish station. So we'd save the peelings of carrots and potatoes and scraps, and when a dish would come back from the dining room we'd scrape it into this big bucket. At like 1 AM we'd have to haul out the bucket of slop and store it, and in the morning a pig farmer would pick it up to feed his pigs.
How did you deal with the pressure of opening a restaurant that had a lot of early buzz?
It's never been about that. It's always been about creating a place with a soul. I tried to create the restaurant that I would want to eat in. I am here for every single plate that leaves this kitchen.
Where does the name Komi come from?
Komi is a beach on the Greek island of Chios, where my parents were born. It's the inspiration for the restaurant—the tavernas that line the coast serve the freshest ingredients in a comfortable atmosphere.
Where did you get the idea to serve lollipops after the meal?
I thought it would be fun to give people something they could take and remind them they were here. The first time I tried to make them it was 1 in the morning, and we're messing around with sugar and temperatures, and we made a complete mess. It looked like taffy all over the place. I was ready to give up on them, but I gave it one more shot, and they came out.
What kitchen utensil could you not live without?
I love my chef's knife. I use a Misono UX-10. It's the nicest knife I've ever put in my hands.
What's your favorite foodie splurge?
White truffles—it's unexplainable how fantastic they are.
Favorite junk food?
I love barbecue Fritos. They're getting harder to find. Now there are twists and honey ranch and flavors I'm just not into.
Any childhood restaurants you still frequent?
Four Sisters in Falls Church. Whenever I'm out there I'll pick up lunch and bring it for my staff. I get rice-vermicelli bowls with grilled pork and crispy spring rolls.
The best meal you've had in the past month?
The last meal I had at Palena. I had the hot dog, which is fantastic. And [chef Frank Ruta's] gnocchi with butternut squash.
Any Iron Chef aspirations?
It's fun to watch. But I don't have any desire to do that—at least I don't think so.