NEW YORK – Celebrity chef and cookbook author Diane Kochilas visited the offices of The National Herald to talk about the second season of her popular show My Greek Table, airing on PBS, check your local listings.
Following a successful first season, broadcast to nearly every part of the United States, My Greek Table with Diane Kochilas premiered its second season in early January.
The show, which is also available streaming online in North America, is a project of Maryland Public Television and is supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the National Hellenic Society (NHS), among others, including many prominent Greek-Americans.
Kochilas told TNH that the show “is a labor of love.” The first season took her to Athens, the Peloponnese, the mountainous north of the Greek mainland, and to islands in the Aegean. The second season, she told TNH, focuses more on themes including grilling, Greek breakfast, and the living traditions of music and food.
Season 2 dives even deeper into the world of Greek cuisine, including into its rich history. In one memorable episode, Kochilas talks with Dr. John Camp, director of the Athenian Agora excavations and Stavros Niarchos Foundation Professor of Classics at Randolph-Macon College, about Athenian cooking practices stretching back two and a half millennia, then prepares “an ancient feast for modern cooks.”
“My dad was a cook, I always cooked, from at least the time I was in my teens,” she told TNH.
“We’re Greek, so food was always a big part of the family spirit, we always had dinner together, every night of the week, I tried to do that, too, with my own kids. Kids are a lot busier today, so it’s not always easy to manage that… My dad was the cook in the family… Food is the thing that most people hold onto as immigrants, certainly, the Greeks do.”
When asked about her favorite Season 2 episode, Kochilas said, “I love all 13 of them, but my favorite one that’s running right now is called Taste the Music and it’s about the traditions of the Asia Minor Greeks. We filmed in Piraeus actually and there’s a lot of historical information and historical imagery, too, and it’s really about their contribution to food and music. My daughter, who is 26, introduced me to this band of young rebetika musicians and we filmed at a place called To Eidikon in Piraeus which has been a bakaliko/taverna since the 1920s. The atmosphere was kind of like the atmosphere that the people who were immigrating to Greece at that time would have encountered and the musicians are very young, one is half Greek and half Dominican and he doesn’t look like the typical Greek rebeti, but they are amazing musicians, the point is that the music and the food are both living traditions and young people have embraced both and a lot of people don’t really know about that food in the United States, about the Greeks who came from Asia Minor, they don’t know the story, so it’s also very relevant in light of what’s happening today, this mass movement of people in duress from all parts of the world to the West. I guess that’s my favorite episode, but I love them all.
“Another great episode is the one that’s called Ancient Greece for Modern Cooks. I had this amazing experience about two years ago, Art Dimopoulos [NHS Executive Director] was in Athens and called me, ‘come down, [Professor] John Camp is going to give me a private tour of the ancient Agora.’ I’ve been in Greece 26 years and it is by far the best thing I’ve ever experienced in Greece. Dr. Camp is an amazing human being, he’s incredibly erudite and must have been an ancient Greek in some reincarnation and he basically brought ancient Athens to life, he’s such an amazing storyteller, that I wanted to do an episode that included that experience again, so we did the ancient Agora and I concentrated on food and cooking utensils and how the people were living. It was a sweltering hot day and the food is very good, inspired by ancient flavors.
“Then we did the opposite, an Athens vibe episode about the hip, cool, happening Athens, and how it’s this amazing city that’s very much alive and it dances to its own beat and there’s a lot to discover. The food in Athens is also amazing, a modern city with really ancient roots. We went to hip bars, and a young chef, a friend of mine, we cook together. It’s really about sharing Greece, every aspect of Greece. Sometimes that’s about going to specific places, sometimes that’s just about covering specific topics. For the grilling episode, we went to this amazing psistaria, called To Trigono, and I never had lamb chops like that and it’s a really simple place, nothing fancy, no fancy barbecue secrets, just really, really great meats.”
When asked if that had to do with technique or the local lamb, Kochilas said, “I think it’s both, because the food quality is definitely better in Greece.”
About the increase in tourism to Greece with a focus on food, she said, “We have to give credit to the Greek National Tourism agency and Tourism Minister Elena Kountoura they really made a concerted effort to market Athens as a weekend destination or a three or four day destination and I see it. I live in Athens and at this time there are foreigners everywhere, the hotels are booked solid, and its February, that’s great, and gastronomy is a big deal for them, understanding that people travel because they want to experience the food. I think they invested in that messaging and I think they’re participation in the show is an expression of that. I get messages from people who are not Greek, ‘I never knew that Volos was such a great food city, it’s on my bucket list next time I go to Greece,’ ‘Pilio looks like an amazing place,’ that’s a good example of how tourism does have a vision and you see it. Travel from the United States is up and I think the show has something to do with that, people are watching it, it’s got 2 million viewers an episode, and they’re not all Greeks.”
With roots from Ikaria, Kochilas is also aware of the drawbacks of unregulated tourism to the islands and other places off the beaten track. “I miss having the beach all to myself,” she said of Ikaria, adding that with increased tourism, “something is gained and some things are lost… There’s got to be some regulation to preserve some sense of authenticity, the unique culture… It’s hard on the environment.”
Of the places Kochilas would like to visit in the upcoming season 3, she hopes to focus on the sea and the islands, possibly Lemnos and “do one or two episodes on Chios, on masticha and shipping, and how that relates to Greek history, I may go back to Lesbos to do something, the Northeast Aegean has always been interesting to me, the Cyclades, some of the Dodecanese, Kalymnos, I want to find a Greek island wedding in Karpathos or Crete, so if you know anyone…”
In 26 years of living in Greece, Kochilas noted that the key to really great food, is simple, “real food that’s in season and fresh, simply cooked.”
When asked about her favorite ingredients, she said, “I love to use my Ikarian honey on all sorts of things, I love to use masticha, I like to cook with ouzo,” and, of course, “Greek olive oil.”
My Greek Table: Authentic Flavors and Modern Home Cooking from My Kitchen to Yours, the companion book to the TV series, is also now available online and in bookstores. An event, part of a series of book signings and dinners in the U.S., was held at Ousia in Manhattan on February 5 with Kochilas cooking recipes from her book in celebration of its publication and her show’s Season 2 premiere.
More information about Diane Kochilas and My Greek Table as well as upcoming events and book signings is available online: dianekochilas.com.