Feeding the Soul: Jason Chacko Keeps Little Rock All Greek to Eat

Jason Chacko, in a crisp suit and tie, has a friendly smile and a firm handshake. He is the picture of a young professional, flowing with fresh ideas and enthusiasm — not someone that you would expect to reach into his briefcase and produce an ancient leather-bound book written in the Indian language of Malayalam.

“I’m the 42nd generation of a priest who was baptized to start the Indian Orthodox church back in 57 A.D.,” he explains. “St. Thomas the Apostle baptized four priests to start the church, and I can trace my lineage all the way back to them with this,” he says, flipping through the pages.

Chacko’s parents, both raised in southern India, ended up in Little Rock after his mother was recruited as a nurse at UAMS in the 1970s. At the time, Little Rock’s Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church was the only Orthodox church in the state, and Chacko’s parents quickly joined the congregation. Chacko was born in January 1984, and the International Greek Food Festival (IGFF) debuted the following May. “I used to joke that the festival was a celebration of me joining the church,” he jokes. In actuality, the church had just built a new facility and needed to fund it any way it could. “A lot of times, what you find is that immigrants or first generations own or are involved in restaurants, so a food festival was an easy way to do fundraising, and it panned out well here.”

The festival proved to be both a fundraising success and a way to educate the public on the rich diversity of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church. The “Greek” in Greek Food Festival is a bit of a misnomer, as both the church and festival represent more than 20 different officially recognized cultures present in Little Rock and the congregation. “We have people from all different walks of life,” Chacko says. “From Greek to old Soviet Union, Ukrainian, Russian, Egyptian, Indian, even Nigerian. That kind of cultural exposure and immersion is important for making sure we have a proper world view.”

To highlight this, the festival features entertainment each year, showing traditional garb from Greek, Russian and Middle Eastern cultures, and dances that have been passed down through the generations. Inside the church, festivalgoers can browse an indoor market filled with things like Russian nesting dolls, handmade trinkets and hard-to-find groceries.

Credit: Jason Masters

Holding Out for a Gyro

And then, of course, there’s the food. Steaming gyros topped with cool tzatziki sauce, grilled chicken souvlaki kabobs, spanakopita – delicate filo pastry stuffed with spinach, herbs and cheeses. The options are sundry, and all worth trying. Greece native Lea Ging has been staffing the pastitsio booth since the IGFF’s inaugural year, serving up her own recipe for this traditional Greek lasagna dish. Nowadays, her daughter Fofe works alongside her, and this year, Fofe’s daughter Kristina will model clothing at the festival.

Pete Vratsinas runs the festival’s grocery store and can be found at the church on Saturdays two months before the festival, folding spanakopita by hand. His sought-after Greek salad dressing is sold exclusively at the festival. “For a long time, the IGFF was the only way to get Greek food outside of Leo’s in Hillcrest,” Chacko says, referring to Leo’s Greek Castle restaurant. “We provide access to food that people may not have had access to try before now.”

Being born the same year that the festival began has given Chacko a lifelong tie to the event. As early as age 6, he was modeling traditional Greek clothing on stage, or putting out flames in the charcoal pit with a Super Soaker. In high school, he split his time in the Eagle Scouts and Catholic High’s ROTC with being president of the church’s youth group and serving as an altar boy for 12 years.

Chacko left Little Rock to attend college in Missouri, where he was hit with what he called a spiritual double whammy in his freshman year. “I took Intro to Philosophy and World Religions at the same time,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t know what to believe for a long time, so I took it upon myself to find out.” Chacko read the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Dao De Jing, the Torah and the Bible before eventually finding his way back to both Orthodoxy and the church he grew up in. With a new understanding of his own faith and a passion for protecting the event he’d spent his life participating in, Chacko moved into a leadership role with the IGFF, and is now in his second year as festival chairman.

But 32 years have come and gone since the festival’s inception, and as the church members who started the festival grow older, the demands of pulling off a successful event for upwards of 40,000 people each year become even more demanding. “The people who have been doing this for 32 years are either starting to get tired or they’re already past the point where they can keep working,” Chacko says. “My focus as a 30-something is to try to figure out how the next generation is going to pick up the slack and make sure that this event isn’t something that the greatest generation created and left.”

Luckily, as a financial manager at Morgan Stanley, Chacko says growth and sales are right in his wheelhouse. “Trying for growth and trying to always be better is my core strategy, because I’ve always known this festival can be so much more than it was last year, or the year before that.”

As chairman, Chacko walks a fine line between preserving the traditions of the festival and expanding on the event to keep it relevant. Over the years, the festival’s founding members have honed their contributions into a science. “The woman who runs our pastry department knows how much it costs to make one pan of baklava, down to the amount of electricity we use,” he says. “We don’t run into problems anymore. We don’t have to worry that we’ll run out of ingredients or that we won’t start cooking at the right time.” He admits that making any sort of changes to the festival is a challenge, because he doesn’t want to risk losing what’s been built over time. But then again, he has a strong foundation to work from.

“My current focus is working on an inheritance strategy,” Chacko explains. “We want to make sure that each booth has someone who has been there for the last 30 years, but also someone who is being trained on how things are done and learning the ins and outs of every detail that goes into it.” He hopes that once the new generation has a strong grasp on traditions, it can look to expand or modernize them. “My job is to make sure the festival happens again 20 years from now. Their job is to make sure the quality remains.”

Credit: Jason Masters

Chic & Greek

Keeping up quality is a constant battle. The festival, held at the church at 1100 Napa Valley Drive, has expanded as much as it can without changing locations entirely, and moving upwards of 30,000 people through the area in a single weekend is hard on the entire neighborhood — which isn’t developed for that sort of traffic. These challenges have forced the IGFF board to get creative, figuring out new ways to get food to the people. One of the few major changes the festival faced in its first 20 years was the addition of a drive-through in 2004. “It takes up a lot of space, so we had to be sure we were willing to commit to it,” Chacko says. The drive-through also marked the first time food was taken off the grounds, which meant the team had to ensure that the dishes could travel well. But 12 years later, even the drive-through is no longer enough to satiate the growing demand.

Last year, the festival began a partnership with Chef Shuttle, which made it possible for people who aren’t able to attend the festival to at least try some of the food, even if it is from their cubicle or office. “Chef Shuttle filled a totally different demographic for us. We served areas that had never been served before and got food to people who had never been able to make it to the festival,” Chacko says. This year, the IGFF’s partnership with Chef Shuttle will fill a new role: bringing baklava to the masses.

“Baklava wasn’t available for delivery last year, even though it was the No. 1 request through Chef Shuttle.” The famous syrup-and-nut pastry requires a team of women who begin making the layered dessert in January from a recipe that’s kept closely guarded in a safe. In 2014, the women prepared 20,000 pieces of baklava, and promptly sold out by noon on the second day of the IGFF. To remedy this, 24,000 pieces were made for last year’s festival, but those were gone before the end of the second day as well. This year, Chacko says they’ve substantially increased their baklava production, hoping that — for a window of time on Saturday — the pastry can be available for delivery through Chef Shuttle. With a per-person limit, of course.

“One of the many things we’ve tried to do is stay relevant,” Chacko says. “People love coming for gyros and baklava, but after a while they start to say, ‘I’ve had that for 20 years.’” It’s a delicious problem to have, but a problem nonetheless, so the IGFF board decided to introduce two new items to the festival menu each year. Last year, the festival invited regional food bloggers to try new items like saganaki, also known as flaming cheese, and loukoumathes — a Greek take on fried doughnut holes covered in honey and cinnamon. “We’ll introduce two more this year,” Chacko says, “but we’re still in the testing phases and haven’t chosen the finalists yet.”

Credit: Jason Masters

Things like blogger tastings and a higher social media presence are not just the result of younger leadership in the festival; they’ve become a necessary way to reach the next generation of festivalgoers. The average patron age, once over 50, has dropped significantly in the last few years. “People whose parents brought them as kids are now coming back and bringing their own kids,” Chacko says. “The festival is more than something that belongs to the church now. It belongs to the community.”

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