The next installment of our series of Chef interviews is with Chef Diane Kochilas, cookbook author, TV personality, and one of the most well-known names when it comes to Greek cuisine!
What is your first memory of cooking?
My very first memories of cooking are all centered around my dad, who came from the island of Ikaria and was the family cook. He was old-school and cooked very traditional Greek foods like lentil soup (my memory of that was NOT wanting to eat it!) and boiled greens. To an American kid, child of immigrants, I was much more interested in pop tarts and Chef Boyardee! Needless to say, we become our parents and I came around full circle many years ago to understanding how good I feel when I eat the foods my father cooked. These are the dishes of the traditional Ikaria and Mediterranean Diet.
Where or from whom did you learn about cooking?
My dad was the family cook as I mention above. I learned to cook by osmosis! I am serious. Just being in the kitchen with him, watching him chop, watching him stand over his big old pots, watching him put slices of pineapples on the bottom of a cake tin then turning it over an hour later, voila, to make his famous pineapple upside down cake. To me that was magic. When I grew up and moved out, I could cook. I can’t really explain it beyond that. I “had” it, so to speak, the gene, that is.
What is your favorite ingredient or food to cook with? Least favorite?
I love to cook with all and any sort of vegetables and we feast on them almost daily, especially when we are on Ikaria, where my husband creates a beautiful garden. We cook from his garden during our classes. As the summer approaches, I relish the unusual, all the amazing edible shoots that are like little bursts of energy; as the summer comes to a close, I pickle! As for least favorite, well that’s a tough one. I am not a great fan of offal. I guess that’s my least favorite food.
What’s your favorite dish?
That’s like asking me which of my children I love more! I suppose one of my favorite dishes is savory pies, especially the savory pies with greens and vegetables that are so much a part of the Ikaria longevity diet and so much a part of Greek traditions. But I also love soup. That’s the New Yorker in me, warming up to soup on cold winter days.
What is the best piece of advice you would give someone just starting to cook?
Use fresh, seasonal ingredients and common sense and don’t obsess over recipes.
Have any funny or embarrassing stories you’d like to share?
The first time I did a public cooking demo. It was at the Macy’s in San Francisco. I was so nervous I lopped off a lentil-size piece of my thumb. It was pretty embarrassing.
Why do you like teaching cooking classes?
I love people, I love to communicate and share, and I love Ikaria, Greece and Greek cooking. When I teach, it’s really about exchanging experiences. People have told us that we are in the “consciousness raising” business in what we do on the island. They’ve told us that we have changed the way they look at vegetables and that we’ve created memories they will have forever. You can’t imagine how gratifying it is to hear that from guests who travel across the world to spend a week on our remote, magical Greek island.
What’s unique about the food from your region?
Its simplicity. I think this is the most startling “lesson,” people take home with them. The foods are so pure, unadulterated, unprocessed, fresh, and seasonal, bursting with flavor. The prevalence of plant-based dishes, there is such a wealth of them, such a variety. People are always very surprised by how many different dishes you can make with a good tomato or eggplant! The foods of Ikaria and of Greece are the foods of the Mediterranean Diet and people really do feel better when they eat this way, something evinced in even a short week on the island.
Anything else you’d like to share with clients of The International Kitchen?
What we do on Ikaria is far more than a cooking experience. The island is special. People who visit us experience it in a very complete, holistic way. They experience the social and family connections. They experience village life, its lack of pretense, its simplicity, the total lack of stress. They dance. We visit farmers and other food artisans, but these people don’t consider themselves “artisans,” in the way that an American foodie might mean it. They are just doing what they’ve done forever, what their parents and grandparents did. Ikaria is a throwback to another era and people react to the experience positively because it is so deeply human. I really can’t express it any other way!
Learn to cook fabulous Greek cuisine with Chef Diane Kochilas on our unforgettable week-long itinerary, Culinary Secrets to a Longer Life with Diane Kochilas.
Learn more about all of our foodie trips.
If you have questions about these or any of our culinary vacations, don’t hesitate to contact us!
By Peg Kern
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