THEO PANAYIDES meets the founder of a Nicosia supper club and finds his entire life revolves around meals. And his comfort at being the head of a large family
The house is cosy, casually strewn with the clutter of a six-person family – Thomas Peccini, his wife Ioanna and their four boys, Sebastian, Maximilian, Julian and Alessandro. Thomas himself sits on the sofa opposite me, a week or so after his 47th birthday: sharp nose and chin, black-rimmed glasses, garrulous manner, slicked-back hair standing up at the top. He’s enthusiastic, shading into flamboyant. “We don’t advertise this,” he muses, “so it’s going to be the first time that people will be hearing about this in print. If they haven’t heard about us on social media.”
‘This’ is Cerines supper club – which admittedly I’d never heard of till recently, even though it’s been going for nearly four years. My own trail to this 10-room house on the outskirts of Dhali was rather convoluted, starting two months ago when I profiled London-based clinical psychologist Jessamy Hibberd at TEDx University of Nicosia, then happened to check her Twitter feed a few days later. “Take me back to Cyprus,” pleaded Dr Hibberd, clearly shell-shocked by the foul UK weather: “the 22 degree heat, the wonderful people we met and this amazing cake at #cerinessupperclub made by @cerinesdotcom”. An Instagram link displayed the cake in question – but I was more intrigued by the fact that TEDx had obviously taken its worldly, high-achieving foreign visitors for dinner to a place I’d never heard of. And what exactly is a ‘supper club’?
“This unique dining experience launched on 31 March, 2014 with 12 diners taking seats,” explains the website at cerines.com. “What was originally intended as a one-off event for foodies and food enthusiasts has grown into an inclusive, invitation-only, private club that has hosted 59 suppers over three seasons”. That was written a few months ago, the number of suppers having now grown to 73, with a total of about 1,100 diners (including repeats) having availed themselves of the Cerines experience – but the actual experience remains much the same: the venue is the Peccinis’ family home (also called Cerines), the food is home-cooked by Thomas (the first course is always pasta, made with organic eggs from his own chickens), and all six members of the family take a hand in hosting the 18 or so guests, even if the boys tend to go into “a steep decline” after a couple of hours. “But I definitely put them to work,” he insists. “They need to understand that this is part of our life. This is – what helps us survive, subsist”.
Hosting supper clubs isn’t what he does for a living: Thomas and Ioanna are both schoolteachers, teaching high-school Italian in the state system, their various sidelines (they also rent out part of the house as an Airbnb) forced upon them by the crisis. Still, Cerines isn’t just an occasional pastime (nor is it free, the diners supplying a ‘contribution’ of €35/person). Preparation time for each dinner is about four days, only half of which is devoted to cooking: the rest has to do with what he calls “life’s little luxuries” – not just sprucing up the house but setting the tables with candles and fresh flowers, laying out crisp white tablecloths, arranging a cloth napkin for each diner and a hot towel “to wipe your hands at the end of a lovely meal”. Thomas is a foodie, a lifelong – if self-taught – cooking aficionado, yet the supper club isn’t just about preparing good food. It’s also about what he calls “the art of hosting”.
It’s also about something else, probably the most intriguing aspect of the whole story – but first we should take a step back and talk about Thomas’ experience in Cyprus, as an Italian-American from Massachusetts who’s been here since 2001. He and Ioanna (a refugee from Kyrenia, ‘Cerines’ being the old Venetian name for that town) met at Rutgers, where both were studying Italian Literature; she wanted to stay in America but he lobbied for Cyprus, having fallen in love with the island since his first visit in 1994. “I love it, I think it’s a great place,” he raves. “It’s special to me. I think most people who live here don’t truly appreciate what blessings we have here in Cyprus”. He’s integrated about as much as an outsider can. He’s learned Greek, has been working as a civil servant for over a decade, and was recently baptised Greek Orthodox; he even makes kourambiedes and melomakarouna for Christmas, sighs Thomas – yet “the culture of Cyprus is still very closed. People here have been very kind, and very nice, but there’s a limit”. This, lest we forget, is a language where the word for ‘foreigner’ (ksenos) is also the word for ‘stranger’.
Cerines supper club shouldn’t really have worked in this culture – because the real gimmick here isn’t the food, or the house, but the company. In theory, all the guests sitting at his table are meeting each other for the first time (in practice, many have been there before), making the club something of a social experiment. “It’s really about bringing people together,” he explains. “People are hungry for more than just good food. People are hungry for connections”. The art of conversation is in trouble, Thomas believes – and the culprit is largely social media, where dialogue has been replaced by grandstanding, violent arguments, and the echo-chamber effect of hanging out with people with identical views to oneself.
Yet, after six dozen suppers and over 1,000 guests sitting down with total strangers, the atmosphere at Cerines has always been friendly and sociable (though he does get the occasional feedback about other diners having made “inappropriate comments”). Partly, I assume, it’s the civilising effect of being served good food in an elegant environment; partly it’s that Thomas ‘meets’ each guest (if only online) before the supper, allowing him to weed out obvious psychos. But it’s also the magic of eating together, the same trick employed by the UN at peace summits: “If we put everybody around a table – yeah, there might be some things you hear that you might not like, but nobody’s going to get obnoxious like they do on Facebook. It’s about breaking bread”. It’s also a question of Thomas’ own stewardship: he never sits down with the guests, but he does keep an eye on them – especially in the ‘cocktail hour’ that precedes the meal, where some are understandably shy. It’s not always easy walking into a party where you don’t know anyone. “I mean, that puts you back in your high-school days. And nobody wants to go back there!”.
I assume that’s a veiled reference to some teenage troubles of his own; after all, he ticks a lot of boxes (a boy who loved cooking and literature? in the 80s?). Turns out my assumption is wrong, however, because Thomas had a fine time in high school: he got along with everyone and was senior class president, making such an impact that his old classmates still like to call him ‘Mr President’. Looks like he’s always been a people person – and indeed a person in charge of other people, a leader, a connector.
Who is Thomas Peccini? The supper-club idea points to one of Nature’s nurturers, but I’m not sure that’s right. (For one thing, though we talk for hours, he doesn’t bring out lots of food and drink, as the nurturing types tend to do reflexively; he’s too busy talking.) He’s really more of an enthusiast, a maven, a persuader – and a pedagogue, a teacher, a man who doesn’t just serve wine at Cerines but “presents” the wine (his winery of choice is Zambartas, which he calls world-class). “I need to tell them how it’s made, who makes it, where it’s from,” he explains; the “stories” he tells about the food – “what it means to me” – are almost as important as the food itself. A recent supper club, just after Thanksgiving (he called it ‘Friendsgiving’), actually had an explicit educational element, including talks by “resident bartender” Vangelis Spetzouras, floral designer Sophia Charalambous and Thomas himself, who presented a ‘holiday food guide’ giving tips on Christmas cuisine.
He has no false modesty, nor any of the British tendency to self-deprecation. “People always said, ‘You’re so talented at cooking, Thomas, you’re talented with your home and how it’s decorated, and your lifestyle – you really should share your ideas!’,” he recalls without embarrassment, on the origins of Cerines. He’s also a proper dad, a paterfamilias, a man who consciously set out to have a large family and considers fatherhood one of the highest joys of life: “I love it. I love it! I tell my kids – I was telling them just the other day – that the greatest gift, every day, is seeing your children grow and develop”.
All four boys sail, for the Famagusta Nautical Club in Limassol. All four, as already mentioned, help out with the supper clubs. This is the old Italian idea of family, where everyone is part of the tribe. It may lack something in rugged individualism, but the kids seem to thrive on it – and Dad, of course, is the head of the tribe. I ask nine-year-old Alessandro if he minds being the youngest of four, and he shakes his head: I like it, he says proudly, because my dad was also the youngest of four (Thomas’ sister, who visited over the summer, also has four kids; seems to be a Peccini thing). At one point we’re interrupted by Julian, who’s come to deliver his report before going out to play:
“Papa, Alessandro is done with his homework and Maximilian is done with his work.”
“OK, make sure your mother knows. Thank you, honey.”
He’s always had this mindset, he explains, more European than American (he doesn’t feel too American, especially these days, and will only refer to Trump as “this person”). “I subscribe more to the way of life here in Europe, with the attention on family and what we do in our free time – which is not so much an American ideal, [which] is really about work, work, work. Making a name for yourself. Becoming someone”. Being a high-school teacher of Italian in Cyprus may not count as a huge professional success – but then Thomas pauses, and holds up a hand so we can listen to the sounds of the household, plates clattering, voices raised, a vacuum cleaner humming. “There’s always something going on,” he marvels. “We are living this life, fully… It’s insane, it’s intense, it’s amazing. I mean, there’s never a dull moment.” He himself grew up “practically an only child”, seven years younger than his next-oldest sibling; the life of a big family – especially with himself as its head – seems to fulfil him on a deep level.
Is there a link to the supper club? Very much so. One thing he noticed when his sister came over, he notes, was how she and her kids were forever on the go, grabbing something to eat in mid-activity – whereas, for his family, mealtimes are sacred, a chance to sit down with your loved ones: “Our whole life revolves around meals”. It’s surely not too fanciful to see Cerines as an extension of that, a grander version of a family mealtime, equally cosy and homely, infused with his own personality rather like the flavoured gins and vodkas (infused with elaborate tastes like desiccated cranberries with apple and cinnamon) in this season’s cocktail hour. Kids, supper clubs, Airbnb guests; I recall the tag-line on the Instagram page, ‘At home with a big family on a small island’. The bigger the better.
“I see the big picture,” says Thomas. “I’m really good with the little details, [and] I’m really good with the big picture. The in-between stuff I’m not so good with – Ioanna’s very good with this, that’s why we make a good team”. Speaking of the big picture, the New Year’s Day photo on that Instagram page (cerinesdotcom) speaks of “some changes coming up for 2018… Time to untie the mooring line, push off and head out on uncharted courses”. All a bit cryptic – but it surely has to do with the supper club, the unexpected project that’s transformed the life of this teacher, home-cook and consummate host.
Diners at Cerines fill in comment cards at the end of the meal, he tells me. One recent comment read: “This, I think, is the future of dining”. Another read: “Thomas, you are an experience-maker”. That’s the crux of the matter, he raves excitedly. “People can go anywhere and have a meal. That’s nothing, it doesn’t mean anything. But why do people come back to the supper club, again and again? It’s because, today, people want experiences… It’s like travelling. It’s transportive”. It’s like Disneyland, only with food. And a six-person family. And just outside Dhali.