LOCK HAVEN - Get ready for some mouth-watering, pan-sizzling, senses-tingling Mediterranean food at this year's Fall Harvest Cooking Show sponsored by The Express!
That's because the show, scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 12, at the indoor/outdoor Castanea Picnic Grounds, will feature Stella A's Bar and Grill's head chef Eli Valentin, who will cook up some delicious Moussaka as the featured dish.
A Greek dish, he'll layer it with beef or lamb, eggplant, potatoes, red wine and sauce.
Chef Eli Valentin stands
outside Stella A’s Bar &?Grill
in Lock Haven.
Chef Valentin will also make crab cakes, hummus (complemented with garlic and oil), lamb chops, and baklava, a rich, sweet pastry, layered with filo pastry and filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey.
Those are among many Anastos' family's recipes ... recipes using fresh ingredients with a homemade touch.
Located at 219 E. Main St. in downtown, Stella A's is named in honor of the Anastos family matriarch, Stella Anastos, and since opening two years ago, has built a reputation of serving a variety of foods with its signature Greek dishes.
Besides the Greek dishes, Stella A's prides itself on serving fresh, homemade foods, including including Italian dishes, steaks, plentiful seafood, various pastas, wines, liquor and more.
The family, which includes brothers Lou, Phil and Tony Anastos, also owns The Texas Restaurant, another popular downtown eatery located across the street.
Tickets are on sale for the show, which will be held inside and outside the Castanea Picnic Grounds reception building. Also, see Page D6 in today's edition for a form to fill out to buy tickets. Doors open at 4:15 on Sept. 12. Chef Valentin will take the stage at about 6:30 p.m.
As a self-taught chef at 25, Valentin intellectually gorges on cook books.
"I'm always reading, looking for new recipes. I have boxes of books. My mentors have guided me, like the Anastos family. Uncle Paul (Anastos) taught me their recipe for Moussaka," he said.
But cooking isn't a strict science with formulas to follow; for him, it's an art form.
"I use recipes for guidelines and I like to put my twist to it ... I'll take a recipe and make art out of it. Nothing makes me happier than putting a plate of food in front of someone and seeing their face (expression) explode! Seeing their eyes pop!" he exclaimed.
Louie Anastos praised Valentin's dogged work ethic and cooking repertoire.
"He likes the challenge; he likes to take anything and turn it into a nice dish," Anastos said.
One of his favorite dishes to cook at Stella A's is tender tips and fettucini.
"But my favorite dish is my homemade lasagna, which I learned from my mom," Valentin said.
Valentin was one of the original chefs when Stella A's opened two years ago at 219 E. Main St., and he remembers his first interview with Louie Anastos.
"One of my first interviews with him, he asked what I do in the kitchen, and what kind of food I cook, and I said, "It depends on what's in my fridge," Valentin said.
Anastos jumped in saying, "That's what I do, too, be creative."
From that moment, it just clicked.
Though the Anastos family is Greek and Valentin is Puerto Rican, it just comes together and works.
"He's a Puerto Rican doing Greek food it's an interesting mix," Anastos laughed. "Eli and I are from two different ethnic backgrounds," and they can come together for food. "It's a good mesh."
But Valentin is a quick study. When Anastos decided to make Wednesday nights the sushi theme night, Valentin undertook the task of learning how to make sushi.
He mastered it in under four days.
He'll also create different dishes for customers to sample and based on the response, make it a permanent menu fixture.
"That's how we got the whiskey shrimp and the sushi rolls," he said.
Valentin also enjoys buying fresh produce at the local farmer's market weekly, and tending the herb garden behind the restaurant.
He's loved cooking ever since he can remember, and he attributes it to spending so much time with his mom, Blanca, in the kitchen in their home in Paterson, N.J.
"I've been cooking since I was younger. I've always been in the kitchen with my mom. Being around my family, mom cooked every night. I would cook mostly Hispanic food like rice and beans, different meats....
"I love cooking because it reminds me of my family Dad (Elieser) is also a fantastic cook. His first job was at a small Greek restaurant ironically named Valentin, as a cook in the 1970s," he said.
His parents, his little sister, Dione, and he moved to the Poconos when he was a sophomore in high school, and he started Lock Haven University in 2005.
He started cooking professionally while in college. He went to LHU for a couple of years for business administration and worked at various restaurants.
He started to cater for some events, like a black and white ball at LHU. He and one other friend cooked for over 90 people and "took care of it."
Even so, he never really saw himself taking that and making a career out of it.
"Even in college, I still didn't see (cooking as a career). It was just a hobby for me," he said.
But the clues were obvious early on.
"When I was young, I'd be hanging out with friends, and they'd be hungry. The only thing we'd have in the house was some bread and meat, but I'd whip out bangin' sandwiches; they'd think it was the best thing because I put some Old Bay on it. They'd say, "You're going to be a great chef someday. I didn't really listen to them.
"Growing up, I never saw myself doing this; I didn't know what I wanted to do. Maybe a priest or an architect," he said.
But as he continued on, he fully embraced his love of cooking and now, not only does he love what he does, but it pays the bills.
"Even when I'm not working, I'm cooking," he said. He motioned toward Anastos. "I made some great stuffed zucchini from the recipe Louie gave me the other night."
Now, he feels pretty at home in Lock Haven. Being here for seven years, "I guess I can call myself a townie, now!" Valentin laughed.
Louie Anastos' story is similar to Valentin's. His father came from Greece to Lock Haven in 1951 and "has been serving food here and in the surrounding communities" ever since, Anastos said.
His dad bought The Texas Restaurant in 1962 and celebrated its 50th anniversary this week. Their family franchise has expanded since.
Besides Stella A's, Phil, Tony and Louie also own the Anastos Brothers Auto Sales along Church Street at the entrance to town off of Paul Mack Boulevard.
"We're very proud to name Stella A's after our mother,' Louie said. "I saw Mom cooking in the kitchen all my life."
Stella still works at The Texas, and "pops in" every once in a while at Stella A's.
"Stella's the real owner! She pops in to see what we're doing. She keeps an eye on us," Valentin laughed.
She also makes some of the dishes there.
Stella A's was actually on the drawing board for 25 years, but came to fruition two years ago.
"We wanted to do something different, put a Mediterranean spin on it. We also have outdoor dining, a patio out back. We have a liquor license and serve Greek and Italian food. There's a private room that can hold up to 40 people. We also do catering," Louie said.
The Anastos Family's investment in Lock Haven are born from their love of this area - their home.
As a result at Stella A's, Louie said, the family works hard to have a variety of foods, not just Greek fare.
"We mix it up, with a lot of seafood dishes, besides the Greek dishes, and we have Italian food, steaks and more, along with a variety of wine and beer."
The Anastos are also very proud of their popular outdoor patio for dining.
Bringing outdoor dining to Lock Haven is something the family has always wanted to do. In fact, the family has invested in a canopy and heaters to extend the outdoor dining season.
"We try to do things that people in Lock Haven and the area don't have the luxury of doing - and our outdoor dining patio is something people may not know about," Louis said.
For Chef Valentin, working at Stella A's helps fulfill a lifelong desire to cook. And he loves the people he works with.
"I wouldn't be me without my boss, without my staff, the person that I am. When people say you're a great person, my response is, 'If it wouldn't be for you to be this kind to me, I wouldn't be this person.' People come first in my life - family, then friends," he said, then shared a memory that illustrates that attitude.
"When I was young (around 11), it was my parents' anniversary. I was up all night making them a menu on the computer. I woke them up in the morning and presented them with a menu, and cooked them breakfast in bed."
Ultimately, he cooks with his heart.
"There's a lot of love in what we do," Valentin said.
Looking back on his journey so far, he's proud of where he's at.
"For my age, and what I've been through, I'm on the right path," he concluded.