GLADSTONE PARK — Ioannis Tasopoulos came to the United States from his native Greece eight years ago with only $1,000 in his pocket and a dream to open his own bakery.
Tasopoulos quickly landed a job as a pastry chef and started a side hustle making custom cakes for extra money. His Greek pastries — and especially his decadent cakes — were a hit. Soon enough, he had a following — so much so that he earned awards for his pastries and confectionary art.
This weekend, the 34-year-old pastry chef will open Zymi Bakery at 5806 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tasopoulos said he is excited and slightly nervous to see his vision unfold, promoting his Greek culture and hospitality to his Far Northwest Side neighbors.
“I want to give to the people through my knowledge and the flavors I took from my family and my home,” Tasopoulos said. “I was raised by my grandmother and mother, so I want to bring to my customers.”
Tasopoulos grew up baking and cooking with his family in Greece and remembers being in the kitchen from the time he was 7. Coming from a family that owns two bakeries in Filiatra, Greece, it was natural for Tasopoulos to study as a pastry chef in college.
“I was always in the kitchen with my mom, so all of this is about memories. The food is about memories and flavor,” he said.
Within a year of settling on the Far Northwest Side, Tasopoulos got a job as a pastry chef at Fresh Farms International Market in suburban Niles, working 15 hours a day.
At the same time, Tasopoulos went back to school to perfect his art. He studied at The Wilton School of Cake Decorating & Confectionery Art in Darien and The Nicholas Lodge School of Cake Decorating in Atlanta, Georgia.
Tasopoulos won two consecutive gold medals from the Greek Taste Beyond Borders as its official ambassador for Greek Gastronomy for 2020 and 2021. He is also the ambassador for Chicago at Georges Grunenwald President of Best of Gastronomie and was named the 2021 Pastry Chef of the Year at Estiatoria.gr’s Golden Awards, a competition celebrating Greek culture through food.
Last year, Tasopoulos added yet another title to his belt and was named a certified pastry chef by the World Association of Chefs’ Society.
“I started from zero when I came here, and I did this in eight years with no help,” he said.
Zymi, which means “dough” in Greek, takes over the space of Kazik Bakery, which moved to Norridge. Tasopoulos knew the owner and decided to take over the space last April, though city inspections and licensing delayed his opening.
The location is ideal since it is close to the highway, the local Greek community and Tasopoulos’ home, he said. Its spacious backroom gives the chef room to bake in large quantities, which is helpful since he supplies desserts for Downtown and suburban restaurants.
The bakery will serve a plethora of traditional Greek pastries like baklava; galaktoboureko, or Greek custard pie; paximadia cookies and European-style cakes, which are heavy on the cream and have less sugar than American baking, Tasopoulos said. Folks can also get their hands on traditional Greek pies and American sweets like red velvet muffins and chocolate truffles.
With almost two decades of experience, Tasopoulos is ready to pass on his knowledge to the younger generation. Nikolaos Chondroginnis, an employee at Zymi who is also from Greece, has been helping Tasopoulos bake hundreds of sweets ahead of the opening.
The two met through the local Greek community and quickly developed a brotherly relationship, which makes working at Zymi feel less like work and more like a fun learning experience, Chondroginnis said.
“I went to school for cooking [in Greece,] but I want to learn more about cakes,” Chondroginnis said. “It’s not only about cooking; it’s about art. Cake is about art — you combine cooking and art together and you have a cake.”
As Tasopoulos expands his staff with four or five other workers, he hopes people can learn in a fun environment that makes them happy — while baking that energy into the desserts for sale.
Zymi Bakery will open 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday. It will be open every day except Sundays so Tasopoulos can catch up on sleep, he said with a smile.
Tasopoulos is planning a grand opening celebration at the end of the month. The owner was going to wait until then to open the bakery, but he decided he couldn’t wait any longer after getting eager messages from people who want his baked goods.
“We are opening the doors for the public Saturday because the people keep asking me every day, ‘When are you going to open?’ … so I have to open the door,” he said.
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