By Shannon Thomason
A short film about Birmingham’s tradition of Greek-owned restaurants premiered recently during the Southern Foodways Alliance’s 2021 Spring Symposium.
The documentary “Philoxenia,” by Birmingham-based filmmaker and University of Alabama at Birmingham alumna Jessica Chriesman, of Homewood, featured Ted’s Restaurant, Demetri’s BBQ, Johnny’s Restaurant, The Bright Star, The Fish Market and Gus’s Hot Dogs.
Philoxenia is the Greek notion of “friend of the stranger,” and the film connects that idea with Southern hospitality as practiced at the Greek eateries.
“I am so excited to highlight Birmingham’s hidden history of Greek restaurateurs in this film,” Chriesman said in a statement. “Birmingham’s Greek immigrants have shaped the hospitality industry in our city, and I am proud to share this legacy through the Southern Foodways Alliance’s platform.”
Other films shown during the symposium were “The SugarBeat Project,” by Roni Henderson Day; “A Bit of This, A Bit of That,” by Vonnie Smith; and “Drowned Land,” by Colleen Thurston.
Multidisciplinary artist Jon-Sesrie Goff was the symposium’s guest curator.
The symposium usually takes place in Birmingham but was held in a virtual venue March 13 and 14 this year.
Timothy Hontzas, chef and owner of Johnny’s Restaurant, said he was honored to be in the film.
“This piece is especially important to me, as it correlates Southern and Greek cultures,” Hontzas said in the statement. “The two parrot one another on many fronts, but especially as it is titled ‘friends to strangers.’ It shows how food and family are intricately woven together. Everyone has a place at the table, in my restaurant and in my home — always.”
Sam Nakos, owner of Demetri’s BBQ, said that, as a son of a Greek family in Birmingham, he was happy to pay tribute to the Greek culture that shaped his life.
“Memories of my family and the Greek experience meant so much to me,” Nakos said. “As I was being interviewed, I was proud to mention other Greek restaurateurs who have overcome the difficulty of persevering in their family business.”
Lee Pantazis, who now owns Gus’s Hot Dogs, said he also felt honored to be included.
“We wanted to continue the legacy of the Birmingham hot dog and of Mr. George (Nasiakos) specifically, who was the person responsible for Gus’s from (1995) to 2017,” Pantazis said. “When we took over, our main goal was to continue his legacy and keep serving people the way they deserve to be served, with kindness and respect.”
“Given the history and significance of hot dogs in the city of Birmingham, being a part of that is something special,” Pantazis said. “We are the last one downtown. Letting that tradition die was not an option, and we are really proud to be able to continue it.”
Chriesman’s work has been shown in festivals across the country, including at the Green Mountain Film Festival in Montpelier, Vermont; and ARTlightenment Art and Film Festival in Nashville; as well as in Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival and the George Lindsey UNA Film Festival in Florence. She and a partner were finalists in the Tribeca Film Institute’s 2019 IF/Then Pitch Competition for an idea for a film about A.G. Gaston. She is chairwoman of the Alabama Humanities Alliance Young Professionals Board. Her work can be found online at jessicachriesman.com.
Shannon Thomason is a Public Relations Specialist at UAB.