Based in Toronto, Ontario, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Chief Among Chefs

In the quiet, Long Island, NY, town of East

Northport where chef Michael Psilakis grew up,

a home on a half-acre lot and a swimming pool

in the backyard symbolised suburban American

success.

Psilakis’ Greek immigrant parents acquired

those trappings but they also clung to their old country

roots. Neighbours didn’t really get the

open-air grilling of a whole lamb on a spit, the

20 to 30 relatives who would gather at the house

every weekend - up to 200 for major feasts - or

the way Greek religious and family life left the

Psilakises no time for “American” ways and

friends.

Home life revolved around mum’s

impeccable yiouvarelakia and other Greek

classics, which she conjured in her kitchen from

memory.

“I didn’t know what ‘fine dining’ was,”

Psilakis says. “I can count on one hand the

number of times we went out to a restaurant to

eat.”

It was this insular upbringing that makes

Psilakis’ journey from sleepy East Northport to

the pinnacle of the Manhattan restaurant scene

- only 40 miles to the west, but on another

planet in every other way - the unlikely success

story it is.

Only five years after lighting out of the

suburbs for the big city, Psilakis at 40 is the

chef-owner of three Manhattan restaurants.

Anthos is the only Greek restaurant in America

to hold a Michelin star, and one of only two

Greek restaurants in the world - Athens’s

Varoulko being the other - to have earned the

distinction.

Two more Psilakis establishments are slated

to open later this year, one in Miami and

another in Manhattan, and the chef’s first

cookbook is due out in the autumn. The kitchen

wizard who neither attended culinary school nor

apprenticed with anyone other than his mother

has been showered with awards, including top

chef accolades from Food and Wine, Bon Appetit

and Esquire.

On March 25, he added a new line to his

already glittering resume: White House guest

chef. Psilakis celebrated Greek Independence

Day by whipping up some of his much-heralded

modern Greek cuisine for President Barack

Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden, Archbishop

Demetrios and 200 guests at a reception hosted

by the president and his wife Michelle.

Hugging Obama

“I was fortunate not only to meet [President

Obama],” says Psilakis, who sports a hipsterish

chin beard, bald head and a cerebral intensity.

“I hugged him. He was very inquisitive about

the food and who I was and what we were

doing.”

Working with three of his own chefs and

five White House chefs, Psilakis served some

of his signature Anthos dishes, including raw

meze of tuna with feta, trahana in a rabbit jus

with dehydrated halloumi, and roasted octopus

with pickled morel mushroom, baby fennel and

leeks.

“It was the first time in a long time I felt

nervous about anything. I never feel nervous,”

Psilakis recalls. “All the heads of the church

were there, many of whom I knew from when I

was young because my father was president of

our church. There were so many text and email

messages from people telling me how proud

they were. At a certain point I felt that I was

carrying the weight of Greece on my shoulders.”

As a 22-year-old waiter at the chain

restaurant TGI Friday’s, Psilakis met the

woman who would become his wife, Anna. He

moved on to a Long Island trattoria called Cafe

Angelica, not exactly a formal restaurant, but,

to Psilakis, the fanciest restaurant he’d ever

been to.

“I was exposed to levels of service, to the

professionalism and integrity that came with

really being in love with what you do,” he

recalls. “I immediately fell in love with that.”

He quickly moved up from waiter to manger

and then owner of the establishment, renaming

it Ecco. The real epiphany came when the chef

failed to show up for work one day and Psilakis

had to step in and man the stoves.

“As soon as that happened, I just knew I

was meant to be in the kitchen,” he says. “I

don’t know how, but I just knew this was it.”

Gifted novice

Soon the gifted novice who had just

discovered fois gras was devising elaborate

tasting menus featuring the fatty goose liver,

truffles and other luxury items.

His perfectionism led him on a quest to

build a first-rate wine cellar, which put him in

touch with wine professionals and other chefs

from Manhattan. Rave reviews from The New

York Times and New York Magazine followed,

placing him on the radar of urban foodies

heading for the Hamptons for the weekend.

Psilakis opened the Greek-inspired Onera,

his first Manhattan restaurant, in 2004, which

he later transformed into Kefi. The more formal

Dona followed in 2006, marking his first

collaboration with restaurateur Donatella

Arpaia (it closed in 2007 after losing its lease),

then Anthos and the more casual Mia Dona.

Psilakis’ growing fame has lured curious

visitors from Greece and Greek-Americans

from across the country eager to sample his

haute take on their beloved foods. Not all have

embraced his innovations.

“There have been people who have come in

and said, ‘How is this Greek food?’” Psilakis

admits, noting that many Greeks are

traditionalists fiercely proud of their heritage

and loath to change the way things have been

done for millennia.

Psilakis says he wants to modernise the

cuisine of his culture, retaining its soul while

updating its form.

It is easier for him to do that in America

than it is for top chefs in Greece “because

there’s an unbelievable amount of pride in

[Greek] history there”, Psilakis says. “When you

start playing around with history in Greece,

you’re really playing with fire.”

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