The soul of “Grande Bretagne”

This year the Hotel Grande Bretagne commemorates 150 years of enduring luxury and rich heritage since it first opened its doors, in 1874. The Hotel Grande Bretagne is an Athenian landmark that has borne witness to all the major events in recent history. It was the first luxury hotel in Athens, offering private bathrooms right from the beginning.

First owner of the hotel was Savvas Kentros. However the transformation of the hotel into something of an institution started with Stathis Lampsas. Having refined his culinary expertise in Paris, he returned to Athens with a significant fortune. He collaborated with Kentros and their partnership thrived. The Hotel was renovated as entered a new era.

In the 60th issue of Business File (summer 2021) Spyros Petrounakos presented Stathis Lampsas’s story, who began his working life as a grocer’s assistant, moving on to become an apprentice chef, a star student at “La Maison Dorée” in Paris, “Grande Bretagne” manager and eventually owner.

Humble beginnings

His father Dimitrios Lampsas, and in part Efstathios himself, was exposed to the vicissitudes of 19th century life in the Balkans and Russia. Like many of his compatriots, he left the extreme poverty of Kalavryta, Greece, in search of a better life in Russia. However, a brief spell of work at his father-in-law’s business there ended abruptly with the latter’s death, plunging Dimitrios once again into abject poverty. This left him with no other option but to return to Greece, though this time to Athens, where he arrived in 1864 with his wife and a very young Efstathios, after “a perilous journey of six months”.

Dimitrios eventually opened a mattress shop but sent Efstathios to work instead as an assistant at a grocery store on Ermou street, Athens’s main commercial thoroughfare and the destination of a daily “pilgrimage by the capital’s women seeking the latest in fashion”, according to a journalist of the era. Efstathios’s duties were less glamorous and mostly confined to advertising the business’s “aromatic sardines” at the shop entrance. Unbeknownst to him, however, his professional star was already rising: the shop was one of the suppliers to the Royal Palace, which meant that every so often he would arrive laden with groceries at the palace’s service door.

His budding friendship with the royal chef and then subsequent employment there as a kitchen porter did not prevent Efstathios from emulating his mentor’s art, eventually finding his way, through talent and helpful recommendations, to the famed restaurant “La Maison Dorée” in Paris. This turned out to be a golden opportunity for Efstathios, whose pallet “was graced with the ability to make subtle discriminations of taste”. His days as a student of the culinary arts in Paris is anecdotally rich. According to one account, Nasreddin Shah of Persia, then on a European cultural immersion tour that allegedly also included an introduction to the guillotine, asks the manager of Maison Dorée if the restaurant serves pilau rice. The manager, eager to please, delivers an anxious message to Efstathios who soon produces the dish to the admiration of all. But it so happens that Nasreddin is accompanied by a friend, the famous banker Armand Oppenheimer, who is dazzled by Lampsas’s subtle and unprecedented combination of French and Middle Eastern cuisine. Eager to claim him for his own kitchen, Oppenheimer offers to pay off Lampsas’s tuition fees from the Greek Royal Palace and proceeds to hire him as his own personal chef at his mansion. By the time Oppenheim died, Lampsas had already amassed a small fortune, enough to allow him to donate 20,000 gold francs to a church in Tousson.

You can read the rest of the story here