Maria Benardis, a Gourmand award-winning chef and author, has been featured in The New York Times and Vogue, on the Today Show. Her “Cooking with Agapi” classes have been held at prestigious venues including The Natural Gourmet Institute, Brooklyn Kitchen, Sur La Table, and Williams Sonoma. Benardis is also a food and health blogger for The Huffington Post, Thrive Global, and Mind Body Green. She took time out from her busy schedule to talk with The National Herald about her fourth book, My Greek Family Table.
TNH: What inspired you to write My Greek Family Table?
MB: I was inspired to write My Greek Family Table when I firstly went on a life-changing trip to Mykonos. I visited the small church of Saint Fanourios. It was there that my decision to pursue my passion for food was sealed and my destiny set on a new course. It was in this church I experienced an epiphany and saw all that was about to happen in my life pass before me. I realized it was time for me to reinvent my life, and in that church, I saw a new path set out for me to follow. I decided then and there that I was going to dedicate myself to bringing Greek food and culture to the world but also the healing wisdoms and philosophies attached to Greek food and the ingredients.
I was aware when I came out of the church that a very important decision had been made in my heart and soul, and I felt empowered and inspired. I could not wait to embark on my new adventure in food. It was in Mykonos that I began to write the book.
Later, when I returned to Australia I decided to add ancient Greek healing wisdom to the book. This was following my many illnesses. Following my traumatic youth, I suffered a number of chronic illnesses, such as precancerous cysts. I healed myself from her illnesses including the cysts all over my body which according to doctors were incurable. My frustration with doctors and my many surgeries lead me to search for alternatives and to heal myself by practicing the ancient Greek wisdoms and philosophies. Learning the ancient medicines of my Greek ancestors – meditating on classic Greek texts and incorporating the Greek approach to food, music, nature, and more into her lifestyle regimen. Not only did I completely heal any traces of illness, but also found my passion and purpose in life: to reawaken the ancient Greek “diet” (a Greek word that actually means “way of life”) and I therefore teach people that the power to heal lies in their very own hands.
TNH: What was the writing process like?
MB: It was a challenging and exciting process to write the book. I had to undertake research into the foods of ancient Greece and their healing properties so I can include these in the book. I had never written recipes before so each recipe had to be cooked several times and measured for the book. I also found the writing process emotional and healing in that by sharing my personal story and other women’s stories in the book that influenced my cooking did bring some up emotions that I had not personally resolved or some of the ladies. By sharing our stories, this helped us all heal.
TNH: How long did it take from concept to publication?
It took 5 years. This is not just a cook book. It includes modern, traditional, and ancient Greek recipes and stories. It contains my personal story of growing up on the Greek island of Psara, my family’s World War II stories and the personal stories of the women that influenced my cooking. I also have a lot of healing wisdom throughout the book as well as a glossary of the “Healing Ingredients of Greece” to show readers how to choose ingredients to treat particular ailments. The book also includes ancient Greek healing wisdom from Hippocrates and other ancient Greek healers.
TNH: Were you always interested in food and cooking?
MB: I was always passionate about food, however, I did what every Greek girl did and that was to follow my aunties’ advice and pursued a more stable career in accounting and taxation law. I also spent many of my childhood years growing up on the Greek island of Psara. This provided me with many of the basic fundamentals and the kitchen lore of Greek cooking. I would help my grandmother make our bread, cheese, yoghurt and meals on a daily basis. The produce was organically grown and the freshest ingredients were always used. It’s no wonder I am still passionate about cooking with fresh and organic ingredients whenever possible!
My mother’s side of the family and especially my Aunt Stavroula have been my biggest influence in terms of my fascination and love for cooking. When I cook I sense their spirit and energy is with me and guiding me to produce dishes that capture cultural traditions, family secrets, and something different.
TNH: Where in Greece is your family from?
MB: My mother was born in Kalamata, the famous home of the best olives in the world, as well as figs, pastelli (sesame and honey sweet), lalagia (sweet bread twists that are deep fried), sfela cheese, and balsamic vinegar with tones of figs, and my father was born on the island of Psara, known for its lobster, sea urchin, and thyme infused honey.
TNH: What are you working on next?
MB: I am working on my next book that will be an extension of my two books- My Greek Family Table and Cooking & Eating Wisdom for Better Health. It will be focused on the Diet Wisdom of Ancient Greece and how one can develop their individual diet. There is no one diet but many and off course diet is an ancient Greek word meaning “way of life.” A term that is unfortunately misunderstood, misused, and abused nowadays.
I am also working on more speaking engagements and collaborating with other prominent chefs.
More information about Maria Benardis is available on her website: https://greekalicious.nyc. Her books are available online and in bookstores.