Michael Psilakis: New York’s self-taught chef

He was brought up and raised in Long Island by Greek parents.

michael-psilakis2He studied Finance but he opted for a career of serving at TGI Fridays and Café Angelica, a trattoria that he bought and renamed as Ecco. And then, when one night his cook didn’t show up for work, he raised up his sleeves and started cooking by himself managing to attract New York’s Times’ flattering remarks.

In his Manhattan restaurant “Onera” – which in the meantime he has renamed as “Kefi”- his fame really took off. He was the first foreign chef to cook for Barrack Obama’s guests in the White House on March 25th 2009. He is the author of the book “How to Cook a Lamb” which has -among others- won the “Gourmand World Cookbook Award for Best Foreign Cuisine”, he is co-producing BBC’s America adventurous show “No kitchen required” and he is also running the restaurants “Kefi”, “Fishtag” and “Taverna MP”, where he proves that the new Greek cuisine can be exquisitely sophisticated.

“Why a chef? I was going to college when I started working as a waiter and later on as a manager. I started cooking one night that the chef didn’t show up for work.

The dish my clients prefer the most: Crispy cod, a meze served with potato-garlic puree and tomato sauce.

bookI never cook: “traditional” Greek dishes. In my menus for instance there is no spanakopita. I use Greek ingredients but only in order to produce something entirely different.

Source of inspiration: my mother’s traditional dishes. I’m evolving her recipes by using modern cooking methods and food presentations.

What Greek cuisine means: a reflection of time, history and geography. Greece is in the sphere of Mediterranean products and its kitchen has attracted many historical influences. In addition, after 400 years of ottoman occupation, it has acquired a unique flavor and taste profile.

Authentic is: a taste that can take you back to a particular moment in the past.

A taste I’m reminiscent of: my father’s garden vegetables. All vegetables remind me of him. When he came to America, he brought with him various seeds from Greece.

The most interesting and the most indifferent cuisine: I love exploring the secrets of all ethnic cuisines but I’m in love with Greece. I’m also an enthusiast of Italy and Spain and there are no cuisines that I wouldn’t be willing to try.

My teacher: It’s my mother. To her I owe my unquenchable pride in my Greek origin, which sparked my desire to prove that Greek cuisine can be a world-class cuisine.

Favorite materials: Cinnamon, lemon, olive oil, bay leaves, oregano.

Always cook with: Olive oil.

The weirdest ingredient: When we were shooting the show «No kitchen required», I cooked with caterpillars and beetle larvae. For me it was something completely new.

michael-psilakisI never use: Cilantro or coconut milk.

Unacceptable combination: I believe there will be a proper time for each combination of ingredients, the point is to find the right proportions.

Best recipe of a colleague: I love the rabbit ragout orecchiette served in the Italian restaurant “iTrulli”. In my restaurants we also make pasta, but this dish is really wonderful.

Chefs I appreciate: I would like to cook with Michel Bras. In my opinion, he’s a cook that really captures the soul of the Mediterranean food culture.

Typical dish: An entire roasted lamb. There is nothing better than lamb on a spit and the procedure of roasting it on an open fire with friends and relatives.

Future plans. I look forward to the opening of the third “MP Taverna” in New York city’s Astoria.

What an amateur should watch: My advice to anyone trying to make something in the kitchen is to cook with his heart. Food is a gift. Let the love you feel for those you’re cooking for pass on to your food and I guarantee you that the pleasure you‘ll get will be beyond your wildest dreams.

The simplest recipe with the fewer ingredients: My soutzoukakia (meatballs). Simply mix pork, lamb and beef minced meat with finely-chopped onion, garlic, dill and parsley and roast it in a tomato and garlic sauce.

This is a MLGFB translation of an interview taken by Mrs Kiki Triantafilli and published in the newspaper Ta Nea on March 2nd 2013.

 Photo Credits: Photo 1, Photo 2, Photo 3, Header Photo

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