Greece Cooking Vacation: Interview With Chef Katerina
Our chefs, and their passion for cooking, are the heart of all of our cooking vacations. In this series of interview blog posts, hear the chefs in their own words as they talk about their background, their love of food, and what they hope you gain from your next culinary vacation.
Chef Katerina grew up on the Greek Islands, and today she leads Greek cooking classes during our vacation "Greek Cooking Odyssey." Here, she shares some history about Greek food, what she loves about cooking, and why she hopes you visit her on this gorgeous island!
When did you first start cooking? What's your first cooking memory?
My parents started the restaurant SPIROS in 1980 I was 16 years old. My father had other tavernas before and my grandfather (my mother's father) had the only taverna in her village (Trizina a small beautiful place opposite of Poros). My mother would tell us all the stories of the time she was a child of how everything was operating and how her parents were cooking basic Greek peasant food with love and care.
When my parents started the restaurant I had to help with serving but also cooking different dishes so I would help my mother in the kitchen. My first cooking memory was Christmas and Easter at our home from the age of 4 or 5 years old and all the family in Greece celebrated with us, which means that aunties and cousins were coming to our place to prepare all the seasonal goodies. Melomakarona, kourambiedes , Christopsoma for Christmas, coulourakia smirneika kai boutirou, tsourekia kai pites for Easter. My mother had an oven built in her yard and she would "burn" wood from the olive trees in it and we would bake in it for all the family. It was something that would take a lot of time, sometimes a week.
Where (and from who) did you learn about cooking?
On Poros in the 70's the cooking was something mainly for women-girls, learning was a part of everyday life. My mother would spend hours cooking, preparing or getting ready for things. Even in days that she did not have to cook so much for the day itself she would prepare for other days. Depending on the season we had to prepare food for the coming season. In early spring we would go out in the fields and get "horta " (wild greens) that you get to know and learn to identify while helping your mother or grandmother, such as what is nice for salad and what is for boiling, what gives an aroma in the pie and which one is better to use for drying. As far as I know that is a Greek tradition that is unique and still today the tradition is going on.
Because Greece is the end of a peninsula (Balcan) and at North there is a very high mountain range, it has a very specific fauna and flora that is unique in the world. Because the area has been inhabited at least 15,000 years the locals have exploited all the food possibilities. The ability to pass the tradition to next generations and the knowledge of the wealth of our nature has helped Greeks to go through difficult times as wars and occupations by being able to feed on what is available.
Later on I went to Hotel cooking school where I learned basic, and not only the traditional, cooking methods . Since cooking has become my passion in life, I have followed and I am following cooking lessons in Holland and Athens for more modern cooking skills and methods.
What's your favorite ingredient or food to cook with? Favorite dish to make?
Of course the lemon is the dominant ingredient of our area. Born next to Lemonodassos you learn to use it with everything. I love cooking traditional dishes that are specialized for the fasting period. In Greece we have traditionally very long periods of fasting. The Greek Orthodox Church has dictated approximately 170 to 180 days of fasting per year. Because of that we have a huge number of recipes that are based on fresh vegetables and olive oil: beautiful food, colorful and aromatic! A poem for the senses and… good for us. But coming from an island, fish is very very often on the menu and a diversity of local cheeses. Desserts I love as well.
What's the best piece of advice you'd give to someone just starting to cook?
Choose fresh and seasonal ingredients. Create simple dishes, avoid complicated things. Take your time and love what you do. But the most important: follow the philosophy Epicurus said: "Share your dinner with friends, as the most important is not what you eat but with whom you eat it."
What do you hope people gain from your cooking vacation and classes?
Cooking guests that are coming to Poros and are cooking with us, are getting used to using fresh herbs and vegetables. They get to know how to combine herbs and seasoning. But most important, we make sure that they take in their suitcases when they go back home not only some new and interesting recipes but also the feeling of the Greek cooking and sharing the cooking arts with others. They take a part of Greece with them.
I am sure that the power of Greek cooking is not on how we cook but that we share cooking and food with friends. The target of a week cooking on Poros is not only to try, make, and taste some traditional wonderful food made with local fresh ingredients that sometimes the guests themselves have picked up. And it's not only tasting local wines and drinks and tasting different cheeses and olive oils. The main target is to taste Greece in real life and see for yourself the history of a nation by meeting local people.
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Chef Katerina's Greek 7-night cooking vacation includes 4 hands-on cooking classes, all meals, and wonderful adventures, such as a visit to Hydra island and a trip to a lemon grove.