Interview by Vassilios Nicolaos Vitsilogiannis
Diane Kochilas, a Greek-American cookbook author, celebrity chef, and cooking school owner, has made a significant impact on the culinary world through her numerous television appearances and publications. Born in New York to a native Greek father and a Greek-Italian-American mother, Kochilas developed an interest in food and cooking at a young age, inspired by her father’s profession as a chef. At age 12, she visited her father’s native village in Greece, where her passion for Greek cuisine began to take shape. Kochilas’ father passed away when she was 10, but his influence continued to shape her career path.
Kochilas’ extensive list of accomplishments includes hosting the TV cooking show “What Are We Going to Eat Today, Mom” in Greece and Cyprus, as well as appearing on numerous American television programs, such as “Throwdown! with Bobby Flay,” “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern,” “The Today Show,” “PBS News Hour,” and “Martha Stewart.” She has also been a frequent contributor to publications like “The Washington Post,” “The Huffington Post,” “Saveur Magazine,” “The New York Times,” “The Los Angeles Times,” “Gourmet,” “Food & Wine,” and “EatingWell.”
Kochilas’ contributions to the culinary world extend beyond her media appearances. She has consulted for several Greek restaurants in North America, including Volos in Toronto, Canada, Axia in Bergen County, New Jersey, and Avli in Winnetka, Illinois. She was also the consulting chef at Pylos Restaurant in New York City from 2004 to 2013, which received a Michelin mention during her tenure. She also helped open and was a consulting chef at Boston’s Committee Restaurant, one of the most creative Greek restaurants in the United States, for four years.
Kochilas’ dedication to promoting healthy eating options has led her to collaborate with Harvard University Dining Services and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she has designed Greek dishes for student dining menus. She has also received numerous awards for her work, including the IACP Jane Grigson Award for Excellence in Research for her book “The Glorious Foods of Greece” in 2002 and the IACP International Award for her book “Ikaria: Lessons of Food, Life & Longevity from the Greek Island Where People Forget to Die” in 2015.
In addition to her professional accomplishments, Kochilas runs the Glorious Greek Kitchen Cooking School on the Blue-Zone Greek Island of Ikaria every summer. Her passion for Greek cuisine and culture is evident in all aspects of her work, from her cooking school to her media appearances and publications. Kochilas’ contributions to the culinary world have earned her a reputation as a leading authority on Greek cuisine and culture, and her impact on the industry continues to grow.
Can you tell us about your early culinary influences, especially how your father, a professional chef, impacted your love for cooking?
For me, cooking was a way to connect with my roots. I grew up in a Greek-American home, where food was always the center of our day. My dad was a professional chef and the family cook, but my mom was one of those people who remained 45 kilos her whole life and never really “loved” food! My dad passed away when I was a kid, and I think cooking somehow reconnected me to him and helped me understand what it means to be Greek.
Given your background in journalism, what inspired you to pursue a career as a cookbook author, celebrity chef, and cooking school owner?
Sometimes things just happen by chance! I was working as a magazine editor and reporter in NYC and met a well-known food writer, whose column I ended up editing. It was NYC in the 1980s, a crazy time of martini lunches and excess of all kinds! I was young, He took me under his wing and taught me about food writing. At the time, there had not been a Greek cookbook published in English in about a decade. He introduced me to his agent, I wrote a proposal, and a year later was able to sell the idea to a publisher, after getting rejected by every publishing house in NYC! I approached the cookbook as a journalist, researching but also of course testing and retesting the recipes. It is still in print 33 years later!
You’ve appeared on numerous American television programs. Could you share a memorable experience or story from your time on shows like “Throwdown! with Bobby Flay” or “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern”?
They were all different and all fun! The size of those productions is huge compared to what we do here in Greece, and compared to how we produce My Greek Table on public television in the USA. For Throwdown, had no clue. They had the policy of not telling their guests what the show was, and by doing so they kept the surprise element. At some point before we filmed it, they started to say odd things, such as…ask your good friends and family to be in the audience, etc., I figured out what the show was and when I asked, they still denied it. It was fun but I lost the moussaka contest to Bobby’s Southwestern version, with cumin and chili peppers!
Bizarre Foods was different. Andrew is incredibly intelligent and well-versed in so many aspects of food and culture. Working with him was incredible. We didn’t do anything so bizarre together – if I recall, it was an octopus dish.
How did your first visit to Greece and your father’s native village of Christos, Raches, at age 12 shape your interest in Greek cuisine and culture?
I couldn’t speak a word of Greek then, but when I arrived in the village, I knew it was home. That simple. It is still home. Everything I know about food – in terms of freshness of ingredients and seasonality and local eating and environmentally sound practices of producing and consuming food – the entire basis of the Mediterranean Diet in other words, comes from those first experiences on Ikaria in my aunt’s garden.
“The Glorious Foods of Greece” received the IACP Jane Grigson Award for Excellence in Research. What was the research process like for this book, and what do you believe sets Greek cuisine apart from others?
That book became my life’s mission and it was before its time. No one had ever researched or written about regional Greek foods, at least in English and to that extent, before that book came out. Almost 8 years of my life went into the research and I traveled to most places with my young daughter. The layers of history, the social, historical and geographic idiosyncrasies from place to place in such a small but physically diverse country – Greece –also a crossroads between the East and the West, are what make our cuisine so unique.
Your book “Ikaria: Lessons of Food, Life & Longevity from the Greek Island Where People Forget to Die” won several awards. Can you share some key lessons from Ikarian cuisine and lifestyle that contribute to longevity?
First, cook real food, mostly plant-based, and do so with an eye to what is in season.
Second, don’t stress about dinner or much else for that matter.
Third, add love and generosity as your most important ingredients.
Fourth, share the table with others.
And fifth, embrace greens and mushrooms, both important foods on the island.
You’ve consulted for various Greek restaurants in North America. What challenges and opportunities do you encounter when introducing Greek cuisine to a new audience?
Everyone wants to stick with moussaka and souvlaki! Introducing regional recipes is harder than deconstructing moussaka and serving it as a drink in a glass! The challenges are many and in today’s restaurant environment in the USA there is very little wiggle room for trying new things because the costs of operating are so high.
Could you tell us about your experiences as a food critic and columnist for “Ta Nea” in Greece? How did this role influence your perspective on Greek cuisine and the culinary scene?
The glory days! I loved my column at “Ta Nea” and was very lucky to land it soon after arriving in Athens from NYC, especially since my Greek at the time was pretty limited. It was a great time to be writing about food in Athens, as the city and country were undergoing tumultuous social changes, very different from what we are seeing today, of course. There was optimism in the air in the ‘90s, lots of money thrown around on fun things like going out. Greek wines were coming into their own. Cooking became a revered profession. There was a period of “Californiazation” – an unbridled “anything goes” mentality in restaurants. The rising stock market fueled a lot of the craziness. Everyone was experimenting. It was the era when things had settled down after the junta, after the country’s return to democracy and during the PASOK years, when bravado and EU funding seemed to be everywhere. Then, as 2004 approached, restaurants and chefs began to embrace their Greekness and there was a renaissance in the kitchen. It was a lot of fun to go out to eat and there was always something to write about. Then, of course, the party ended, black-eyed peas popped up on menus as restaurants had to reduce prices and tone down the glitz to survive. Many of those huge 90s places shut their doors. But the return to the root was a good thing, sobering and Greek. Now, I don’t know. I walked down Aiolou Street the other day, at the foot of the Parthenon, and it was simply a global junk food row. It was pretty awful and a mirror of what is happening in the country – we’ve sold our soul to the gods of money and not much else! There’s very little vision. It’s sad, but this, too, shall pass.
What inspired you to establish the Glorious Greek Kitchen Cooking School on the Blue-Zone Greek Island of Ikaria, and what types of culinary experiences do you offer there?
I ran a restaurant there with my husband for two summers, out of our home! It made me respect the poor people I spent twenty years criticizing in print and it was very humbling! I hated it! But I held daily classes as a way to attract business and that morphed into the Glorious Greek Kitchen. I love to teach. It’s basically what drove me to television, too.
You’ve contributed to numerous American and international publications. Is there a particular food-related topic or story that you are most passionate about sharing with your readers?
Not really! There are many, and they are all about scratching beneath the surface to find real food beyond the usual suspects and clichés…