By the time Chris Kourouniotis returned to Canada, at 17, he knew he wanted to follow a different set of footsteps. But the trail he took through interior design led him back into the kitchen
By Omar Mouallem | March 1, 2013
Licensed interior designer Chris Kourouniotis looks at a Boston Pizza outlet through the window of his monochromatic red and white boardroom on 124th Street. Though the dated interior of the franchise is antithetical to the sleek and showy spaces that have become his signature, he has fondness for it.
The chain was founded by Gus Agioritis, who was from a ’70s cohort of Greek immigrants who ironically made their Canadian fortunes with Italian food chains. Similarly, Kourouniotis’s father was behind Mr. Pizza and Hawaii Pizza. “My dad got up to seven restaurants, so it was pizzas galore,” says the 40-year-old better known as Chris K. “A lot of the Greeks are out now. Their kids went to university with the pizza money and they don’t do it anymore.”
Chris K is one of them. (Well, kind of. The family fortune was squandered by an ill-advised attempt to build a sporting goods store in Greece.) By the time Chris K returned to Canada, at 17, he knew he wanted to follow a different set of footsteps. But the trail he took through interior design led him back into the kitchen.
He put himself through NAIT and Toronto’s Ryerson University by waiting tables and then got his first job with Edmonton’s Mike Papadopoulos, designer of his father’s Mr. Pizza chain. Now CKDesign Associates Inc. is the go-to company for restaurants chasing discerning customers in search of something fresh. Ever since CK’s first client, Hundred Bar + Kitchen, opened its glass doors in 2008, Guru Fine Indian Cuisine, L1 Lounge, Canteen and many more have paid premiums to get Chris K at the drawing board.
Your new office is in the perfect place for a restaurant designer. Where does your team eat on 124th Street?
Often we eat at Col. Mustard’s – because it’s fast and we can chat on the job. We’ll go to Fadi [Smaidi, owner of Dahlia’s Mediterranean Bistro] , because I like healthy stuff.
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Why’d you design your office space with this stark red and white palette?
We chose white because it’s neutral. There’s a lot of bias in the world of design. But when I’m leading my client to brand their space, I don’t want a CK Dental, a CK Pizza, a CK Coffee – it has to say “you.” We wanted everything white so the client doesn’t feel like anything is biased in our presentation. When I put a colour-board forward, three options, they look around and see no colour except for red, but it’s our brand.
What else are you considering before you present?
We’re always looking for a price point, so we ask for a menu. We need to know what the food offering will be because it drives the design. Hopefully, the owner is “in” the food, but some aren’t chefs. They’re investors.
When we don’t have a menu, like with Chris Lachance [of Century Hospitality Group] , we try to get inside his mind and ask him, “What’s driving this concept?” And he’ll tell us about his travels and what he’s bringing to the city. He’ll tell us about this Italian place he saw, where he last ate spaghetti; we draw it out of him slowly.
Did serving help you with your current career?
I learned a lot about “ops” – operations. So when I sit down at a table, I push the ops side of the restaurant and the owner is like, “Wow. That really works.” That’s because I worked so many restaurants, grew up in restaurants, I only make restaurants that work. Our restaurants are impeccable from the back door to the front – not the front to the back. A lot of restaurants, you walk in and it’s like, “Nice room,” but it’s a gong show for the chef.
But, although we address the chef’s concerns, we want it to be a success to attract the general public. And to do that it has to be the right environment – it can’t be cold, it can’t be hot, colour psychology is huge. If it’s an alcohol-driven concept, it has to be first for ladies, so it can’t be a baby blue, stainless steel sports bar. There’s a certain look for each business.
How do you balance this with their wishes?
We have visioning sessions where we take their feedback. Like, “We’re thinking Italian.” Well, what kind? New York Italian? L.A. Italian? White man Italian – which is Scottsdale to Edmonton? We research heavily, and God’s gift to that is Google Images. We put together 100 images for the vision session. We take the pieces and put together a collage of what the place should feel like – not look like – because we can take not one fricking idea from these pictures and still come up with the same recipe.
What’s your home kitchen look like?
I wanted white and granite tops. But Roula, my wife, is a transitionalist [likes a blend of traditional and contemporary design] , and our home turned out more traditional. But she’s there all day, so I can’t have this [the office palette] there, it’s too cold for her. But that’s how my clients are, too.
Do you have to compromise often?
Everyday. Edmonton is Edmonton. This isn’t Beverly Hills. Our number-one client for that is Lachance, he’s one of the only people willing to spend “that” kind of money, and he even says to me quite often, “Chris K, please relax.” It’s very difficult to aim for the stars and then pull it back.
What about your home decor?
I have furniture, but because I don’t love it,I can’t commit to it. So I’m buying furniture every day. The decor, the artwork, it’s alwayshalf-done. I’m never happy with it. I’m always looking for the best.
What about your personal style?
I’m a “punch-guy.” My look will always have a punch. When people say: “Chris K, I know your look, I saw it at a restaurant,” it’s always something punchy. It’s like a signature on a painting. So, in my fashion, I’ll be dressed pretty normal but I’ll do crazy socks or a crazy tie, or coloured shoe laces.
Is there anything else in interior design that inspires your fashion?
Less is more. I like to wear black. The black in my fashion is the white in my interiors. I can wear head-to-toe black, but if I wore head-to-toe white, I’d look like a clown.
When you returned from Greece for high school, did the way you dress stick out?
I was a fashion victim – loved fashion. I dressed like a monkey. I had crazy flower shirts and custom pants sewn in with crazy designs – I looked like a freak. But it was Euro dance culture.
Have you fallen into any trends since?
Well, it’s easy to say that my shoelaces are a trend, so I might have to punt them. And more and more people are wearing crazy socks, so I might have to get rid of that.
Where do you shop?
When it comes to suits, it’s downtown stores like Holt Renfrew. I also shop in the States a lot, just picking up what sticks out. ButI don’t follow a fashion designer anymore.I used to watch Paul Smith closely.
When did you stop?
Probably after I started having kids. I have a seven-year-old, a five-year-old and a year-and-a-half-old, so going shopping and looking after yourself, going to the gym, there’s no time for that.
Does it excite you to be living in this time of renewed design appreciation?
When I went to design school, the people in my circle who didn’t, the doctors and lawyers, were like, “Good luck with that.” Because 15 years ago, design was for monkeys. Now that there are 30 magazines on design at Chapters, six channels and shows about restaurant design, it looks like I’ve set it up for my own pyramid of success. How did it happen? Destiny or something?How did I set that up? It looks like a set-up.