SURREY GREEK FOOD FESTIVAL: Come for the lamb, stay for the vibe

The 25th annual Surrey Greek Food Festival kicks off is as true-to-its-roots food you’ll find in the Lower Mainland, organizers say.

Ron McKave prepares skewers of pork for diners at Surrey Greek Food Festival

WHALLEY — The 25th annual Surrey Greek Food Festival kicks off Friday (June 3) and it’s as true-to-its-roots food you’ll find in the Lower Mainland, organizers say.

“We don’t want to be trashing the other festivals, but we toot our own horn when we get the opportunity,” said head chef Ron McKave with a smirk. “We’re the little guy.”

McKave, a Langley resident, is the “chief” of the cuisine. And he’s proud of the grub.

The festival’s food is more traditional than most, he explained.

Lamb cooked on coal. Traditional gyros made with a gyro machine. It’s done the way they do it back in Greece.

“We’re the only festival that has charcoal lamb. All the other ones are done in ovens,” McKave revealed. “We have four spits that do two lambs each. Friday we’ll be doing six whole lamb.

“You have to get the coals on for about half an hour. Once the coals are good, it takes about four hours. It’s very popular. It’s got a lot of flavour.”

In fact, it’s his favourite dish.

“Oh, yes, definitely the lamb,” McKave said. “But I’m one of those guys that likes to ‘smush.’ You cut up the lamb, smush it with the tzatziki, rice, potato, everything, and just eat it like that. Some people like to have their lamb and they’ll eat their rice separately. But it’s good this way.

“Do the smush,” he urged festival-goers.

But the lamb is just one menu item, and prep work began more than two weeks ago with ladies making the pies.

“They did 750 spinach pies, 350 cheese pies, about 300 bougatsa desserts, about 10 trays of baklava,” said McKave.

Then there’s the meat – lots of it.

“Pork, probably about 400 pounds. Chicken about 800, and I’ve got 100 whole lamb.”

On Monday evening, a few families arrived at the church’s basement to skewer pork souvlaki. The aroma of olive oil, garlic, oregano and lemon filled the air.

What else is in his marinade recipe?

“That’s all I can tell you, without having to kill you,” McKave said, smiling.

But he revealed all about his favourite dessert they’re serving: bougatsa (pronounced boo-Gat-sa).

“Ohhhh, you have to try it,” he oozed. “So it looks like a spinach pie with a Cream of Wheat type of filling with a honey syrup. It’s crazy.”

Friday is day one of 10 for the festival, which takes place at the church at the corner of 96th Avenue and 132nd Street. Lambs will go on in the morning, fires will be lit and a small army of volunteers will arrive to help get the show on the road. The event couldn’t happen without them, said McKave.

There are a group of women in the church’s auxiliary McKave likened to TV’s “The A-Team.”

“It’s magic,” he said excitedly. “It’ll be about 20 minutes before we open and we’re waiting for these ladies, there’s about six of them. Then all of the sudden it’s like superheroes, ‘The A-Team.’ A van pulls up and out fly these ladies and they get to their stations. They should have capes and masks.”

Look for them at the wrap station, McKave said, and behind the bar helping with desserts.

The “quarterback” of the kitchen this year is an 84-year-old man, he said.

“He’ll quarterback the hot. And my father-in-law, he’s 83, he’s quarterbacking the produce and salads. Then there’s other helpers to make sure everything is all prepared. There’s a lot of longtime helpers. You’ve got almost 200 years between those two.

“But we could always use more,” McKave said of volunteers.

A few key kitchen volunteers passed away this year, he said, but they’ll be there in spirit.

“We’ll leave a chair in their place and an apron in their memory,” said McKave. “Just so they’re still with us.”

Natalia Pardalis, the festival’s spokesperson, said the event is for people of all ages.

“There’s something for everyone,” she remarked. “It’s about people coming together and enjoying good food.”

Like McKave, her favourite dish is the lamb.

“Literally the only time I get that kind of lamb is here at the festival and on Greek Easter when my dad makes it.”

So come for the food, she said, but stay for the entertainment.

“I love just coming with friends and eating this amazing food, people watching, listening to the amazing music, or dancers. Just absorbing it,” said Pardalis.

It’s a multicultural experience lead by the melange of Greek culture.

“We have pretty much any Greek dance group in the Lower Mainland come to perform and other ethnic groups come too,” said Pardalis. “Pop singers, dance groups, hip hop, a little bit of everything. It’s really a celebration of everything.”

New this year is a “Surrey Greek Fest Idol.” Auditions are at 6 p.m. on Monday, June 6, with finals on June 12 at 3:30 p.m. Email to register.

Also new this year is a kid zone on weekends.

“Our theme this year is Kefi, which means joy and celebration,” said Pardalis. “So everything will be related to that, all the crafts.”

Click here for more information.

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