CULTURE

A culinary expert opens her kitchen

As the group of culinary aficionados gathers round the stove, food expert Diane Kochilas welcomes them to her home. This homemade cooking course is about tasting, feeling, listening, asking questions and interacting in a relaxed, informal kind of way. «The fast-food and the food industry in general have done a great job in making people afraid to cook, by directing them to convenient and easy foods through intense marketing,» says Kochilas. «During the classes, people come together and by the end of the session, they’ve warmed to each other.» A series of courses focusing on the cuisine of Greece and the broader Mediterranean region which began earlier this month and runs through early June – at a recent session, Kochilas went through the gamut of soup making in the Mediterranean basin – are mostly based on cooking with olive oil and a plethora of the finest ingredients. Signing up are professional chefs and restaurants owners, but for the most part anyone who enjoys cooking and is looking for exciting dishes, dinner solutions and some fun can join. A leading connoisseur of Greek cuisine – Kochilas is a Greek American born and raised in New York City who finally settled in Greece in the early 1990s – she frequently acts as link between Greece and the rest of the world. Besides her weekly restaurant review in the daily Ta Nea, she is a regular contributor to authoritative publications, such as The New York Times and Gourmet magazine. She also frequently returns to the US, teaching Greek food courses at culinary schools while collaborating with the International Olive Oil Council, and lecturing in Argentina, China, Thailand and Japan, among other countries. She is due in Norway and Britain this spring for a series of seminars sponsored by natural Greek food products Gaea. «I enjoy communicating the good things about Greece – and there are lot of these,» she says. «I like teaching people about misunderstandings.» Kochilas educates people through her writing as well. Her award-winning book «The Glorious Foods of Greece» (published by William Morrow in English and by Ellinika Grammata in Greek), for instance, is the fascinating labor of a 10-year journey which took the author all over the country, hunting down traditions, recipes and stories. Kochilas has also penned «The Food and Wine of Greece,» «The Greek Vegetarian» and «Meze.» During the summer months, Kochilas and her family take off to the northeastern Aegean island of Icaria and the Villa Thanassi, where she organizes weeklong cookery courses in English – along with Greek and English day classes. Besides cooking, students spend time in the villa’s organic garden, learning about growing food, while they also go on a series of excursions, visiting a cheesemaker and a winery, among others. «There are a lot of things people don’t know about Greek food,» says Kochilas, today off to New York, where she’s organizing an artichoke festival at the city’s Pylos restaurant. «Few Americans associate artichokes with Greece, they think more of Italy.» So with what do Americans and others associate Greece with when it comes to food? Rustic moussaka and Greek salad? «In Greece, the tourism industry has destroyed local cuisine,» says Kochilas. «Greeks have little foresight. People were out to serve the worst food, no ethics in terms of what they were serving, no sense of pride. There used to be a separation between what you ate at home and what you gave to tourists.» But things are changing and, according to Kochilas, Greeks are now ahead of the game when it comes to their own cuisine, while visitors are increasingly surprised at the quality of the restaurants in general. «Certain restaurants are taking simple Greek food and turning it into an art form,» says Kochilas. «Milos [Costas Spiliadis’s celebrated New York restaurant now at the Athens Hilton], for one, is setting the example with excellent raw materials and respect for these raw materials – presenting them in a pure way and is not interested in doing creative cuisine, but keeping it in as pure a form as possible.» Greek food products are also making a splash both locally and abroad, mostly by showing a sleeker image. «The packaging is much better nowadays – the products themselves have been good for a long time,» says Kochilas. «Companies such as Gaea, for instance, are more cutting-edge, not just in terms of raw materials, but with recipe-driven products, such as meze dips and sauces.» These products are a far cry from the kind of goods Kochilas was used to when growing up in the US, where necessary raw materials, such as olive oil, were very hard to find. Meanwhile, Greek restaurant cuisine was based on small-scale diners run by hardworking immigrants eager to earn a living rather than promoting the old country’s gastronomic delights. «Greek food is not difficult to translate into restaurant food,» says Kochilas. «But they didn’t have the education for it.» And so for a long time in the US, Greek cuisine remained at a standstill, with many Greek restaurants enjoying success but unwilling to undergo risks in taking their trade a step further. «Greek food is simple, but not simplistic. It’s not trendy yet – perhaps after the Olympics,» says Kochilas. «There is still a sense of uncertainty when it comes to (the Greeks’) relationship with the rest of the world.» Meanwhile, food and nutrition remain at the heart of daily needs, and for Kochilas, the most important aspect is taking care of how products grow, are stored and eventually bought – as well as the quantities that are ultimately eaten. «People approach cooking as if it were brain surgery,» says Kochilas. «It doesn’t take that long to put some food on the table every night. It only takes half an hour of your time, but it’s worth it. It’s very good for kids and their families; it gives them a certain structure.» From Lent to risotto Diane Kochilas’s courses currently being held in Athens include the preparation of four dishes. Lessons are conducted mainly in Greek, but Kochilas does not discard the possibility of holding English sessions. With her students, Kochilas uses Gaea Extra Virgin Olive Oil PDO Sitia-Crete and Kalamata as well as AMC’s pots and pans. Still to come are courses on: unusual Greek and Mediterranean Lenten dishes; a tribute to cheese, from appetizers to cheesecake; the magic of dough, from homemade pasta to pizza and pies; Mediterranean seafood; meze, Mediterranean style, Spanish tapas and Italian antipasti included; the secrets of risotto and a variety of flavors based on fresh vegetables. Cost per session is 48 euros. For more information call 210.689.8877 and 6947.847.833 or e-mail [email protected]