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The Daily Evergreen

The student voice of Washington State University since 1895

The Daily Evergreen

The student voice of Washington State University since 1895

The Daily Evergreen

Pullman restaurant nominated for Outstanding Hospitality James Beard Award

The Black Cypress offers local fine dining experience
Staff of the Black Cypress pose for a group portrait outside of their award-winning restaurant.

“We opened hoping to create a venue reflecting the qualities of our region that keeps us here – goodwill, self sufficiency, solidarity: generally, an understanding that time is precious and seems to be best spent with friends and family, connected with the land we live on, the community we live within, with minimal fuss, a healthy regard for the ridiculous, and a deep appreciation for good, honest food, company, and drink.”

This is the 2019 mission statement of the Black Cypress, a Pullman restaurant the James Beard Foundation nominated and later named a finalist this year for a James Beard Award in the Outstanding Hospitality category. Owner and founder Nikiforos Pitsilionis said he is proud the restaurant has yet to waver from it.

Pitsilionis was born in Greece, and one aspect of Greek hospitality he said he has adopted is treating a customer well for the sake of its inherent goodness and not for anything in return.

Pitsilionis’ foundational principles of hospitality at the Black Cypress molded its customer service experience, which would earn the restaurant the nomination.

“For me the goal is that you come in, and there is a genuine warmth and hospitality where you feel received … having a real human experience among other people in the real world is a rare opportunity but also a major responsibility,” Pitsilionis said. “We don’t wanna fumble that up.”

While Pitsilionis believes in his employees engaging with customers and having genuine caring interactions, it is not something that he would impose upon the guest, he said.

Instead of interrupting a table to ask about guests’ needs, a minimalistic approach of refilling water or clearing the table lets a guest express their needs without the server being disruptive, Pitsilionis said. This way the server also gets their job done.

Once internalized and made routine, the technique of practices like clearing tables can free the server’s mind to maximize hospitality, Pitsilionis said.

Some of these techniques are derived from fine dining, but do not just function to be “fancy” and are instead implemented to minimize intrusiveness, Pitsilionis said. He emphasizes retaining classiness through technique; however, he does not want Black Cypress to seem elitist.

The Black Cypress can be described as a bistro or an Astoria and is intended to be comforting, Pitsilionis said. Being a family neighborhood restaurant, the Black Cypress provides a fine dining experience while also retaining a sense of informality.

“I am proud of the fact that the principles I started the [Black Cypress] with, I’m completely married to now,” Pitsilionis said.

Pitsilionis said he loves restaurants that have been around for a while and yet are unchanged through the food’s sense of familiarity.

Thomas Keller, chef at a restaurant Pitsilionis worked at called the French Laundry, was someone who understood this idea very well, Pitsillionis said. Pixar consulted Keller for the award-winning film “Ratatouille,” and Keller made the actual Ratatouille dish the studio used in the film.

Pitsilionis related the central idea of “Ratatouille” to his goal of crafting a nostalgic experience, referencing a scene from the film where a hardened critic eats food that reminds him of his childhood.

“If you cook a certain way, you can get people to travel back in time,” Pitsilionis said, quoting Keller.

Besides encouraging new specials, Pitsilionis said he hopes to retain some of the Black Cypress’ menu items, including the Carbonara. 

“It might not even be the greatest one in the world, but it’s the one that they knew and the one that they like, and that makes it the best one because they grew up on the darn thing … if I tweak it, I want to make it better in a way that feels even more like the one that you remember,” Pitsilionis said.

The Black Cypress’ hiring process is oriented to find those who have a natural disposition for hospitality, Pitsilionis said.

Philixionis, Greek for “the love of a stranger,” is something service manager Grace Navarette (she/they) said they intend to continue with the Black Cypress legacy as a practice Pitsilionis has imparted on them.

“I love people, I love humans and I want to take care of them,” Navarette said.

Navarette, being service manager, said she seeks emotional intelligence, communication skills and attention to detail in upcoming hires. One of the questions posed to new hires is if they have ever felt sad or grumpy and if a professional was able to turn that around, Pitsilionis said.

There is not much that has been done when someone who is always happy leaves a restaurant happy, Pitsilionis said. Instead, when you take someone who is in a bad spot and engage and restore them through service, they feel good to go back out into the world.

“Everyone’s proud of the work that they’ve done, and to be a part of something that is bigger than them … sure, you might serve a couple tables, but you can really change someone’s life … you can really turn people’s nights around,” Navarette said.

Despite the James Beard nomination, Pitsilionis said he does not feel pressured to change anything at the restaurant post-nomination.

“Are we any different restaurant before or after in terms of who we are as human beings and individuals and work?” Pitsilionis said. “Of course not.”

The Black Cypress is open 5–8:30 p.m. Mondays–Wednesdays and 5–10 p.m. Thursdays–Saturdays.

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About the Contributor
NIKHIL GANTA, Evergreen reporter