The restaurateur and TV personality reflects on food, family and the catalyst that pushed his Greek cuisine to the next level.
As a young chef, I challenged myself to create dishes that would break boundaries. The goal was to show the world that Greek food should (and will) stand alongside the great cuisines of the world. So I cooked highly evolved food that garnered critical attention. My crowning jewel, Anthos, was the first Greek restaurant to earn a Michelin star in the U.S., and I appeared in food magazines and on TV. Accolades poured in—I had achieved the dream.
All of this changed as I sat next to my father’s hospital bed in 2007, holding his hand, watching the life that he so cherished flee from his ailing body. Ultimately, he passed into a better place. It was during my period of mourning that I began to recall the stories he shared and the lessons he taught. His wisdom guided my actions and helped me become the chef and man that I am today.
During this period, what struck me most was the critical role that food played, not only in our relationship, but in the growth of our family. Food was present at every turn, happy and sad, marking the occasion. Food was a catalyst to bring loved ones together, to teach lessons and to shape our lives and our destinies.
During Easter a few months later, I was preparing a baby lamb to be spit-roasted over an open fire, as is Greek tradition. It was the first time in my life that my father was not there to assist me and my brother Peter, as he had done over the years.
Along with us was my two-year-old son, Gabriel. He stood next to me, eagerly waiting his turn to help. As I reached for a glass of water that was necessary for preparing the lamb, I asked Gabriel to cup his hands so he could catch the water. I instructed him, as my father had done with me years before, to rub the animal with his hands so we could season the lamb. What happened then changed my perception about food forever.
Towering over my son, I watched the water bounce off his little hands, and I remembered the feeling of the tepid water splashing off my hands before I rubbed the cool, dry beast that was before me.
At that moment, I knew what Gabriel was experiencing, as I had felt the same thing when I was his age, and realized that I had made my father proud. Life had come full circle. The lamb in front of us had been transformed from a cooking lesson to a life lesson. It was the lesson he had learned from my grandfather and he paid it forward to me.
I realized that food has value as a vehicle to plant a seed, a memory that can be revisited over time. Cooking blooms into a lesson that can guide and teach. To cook together or for one another is a gift. The intimate relationship that is developed with these simple actions is worth more than any materialistic item one can obtain. The Greeks have a word for this: kefi.
Kefi embodies a state of being where the combination of food, wine, music and company brings a sense that memories hold the greatest value life has to offer. It is this reason that we, as Greeks, symbolically relieve ourselves of possessions by throwing money in the air or breaking plates. It is the ultimate celebration of life. It is what my father lived by and for. It is his legacy, and I hope something that will ultimately become yours. So cook a meal, raise a glass, gather your loved ones and begin the lifelong journey of creating your own kefi!
Pairing Greek Wine and Food
Kefi has an extensive Greek wine list that complements the rustic Mediterranean menu. Here are some of my favorite wine pairings:
A lush, stone fruit-driven white wine, Tselepos Moschofilero (Mantinia) pairs beautifully with our seasonal Rustic Tomato Salad.
A bold wine like Hatzidakis Santorini, with intense minerality and floral flavors, can stand up to seafood with a hard char off the grill. Think Grilled Octopus & Bean Salad or Grilled Branzino.
Gaia Estate Agiorgitiko (Nemea) can be compared to a very full-bodied yet smooth Cabernet, and it works perfectly with deep and rich pastas. Our Sheep’s Milk Dumplings with tomato, pine nuts and spicy lamb sausage is an ideal pairing.
Michael Psilakis is author of How to Roast a Lamb: New Greek Classic Cooking (Little Brown, 2009) and is the executive chef/owner of Kefi, Anthos and FISHTAG restaurants in Manhattan, and MP Taverna in Roslyn, New York.