A cookbook in Greece was once called, ’Vivlio Mageirikis’. But, in the thirties, a chef named Nicholas Tselementes published the first completed cookbook in Greece that became in an instant the most popular and beloved cookbook in the country. Before then, recipes were typically handed down from one generation to the next. Born in 1878 on the island of Siphnos, he traveled abroad to study cooking in Vienna and the United States where he worked in the St. Mortiz Hotel in New York before returning to Greece, where he had his recipes published with vast success. Unfortunately, little could be found about his personal life.
Some saw his recipes as uncustomary because of ingredients and practices not traditionally Greek, like the French Bouillabaisse and Béchamel that replaces olive oil with butter or uses less herbs. However, including those recipes in his collection and with others, he forever changed the arc of the country’s cuisine. Siphnos is between Milos and Serifos in the Cyclades, about 80 miles from Piraeus. In the small, sleepy whitewashed town of Exambela where the famous chef was born there are no fast food places to eat but an annual gastronomy festival that begins every year each September has been held since 2007. It’s the most popular event on the island that’s usually headed by the mayor. Representatives from other islands and mainland Greece set up stalls to showcase their particular foods. Much of the island’s traditional foods are produced from the soil there that is very fertile. In another part of the island, a different soil can be found that cooking vessels, jars, and pots are made that can withstand high levels of heat – that means dishes can be placed directly onto the wood-burning flame ovens for six to eight hours. Overnight, Revithada (chickpea stew) and Mastelo (lamb with wine and herbs) became the most traditional and popular fare.
Residents of Siphnos proudly tell anyone who asks where they’re from will inform them, “Siphnos, where Tselementes originates.” An owner of the tavern, To Kelaro, where traditional Siphnean dishes have been served since 1988, will also proudly tell customers about their famous chef, Tselementess. At times, arguments will break out over how Tselementes had changed the ingredients to some of the oldest Greek recipes, his adding foreign ideas, and his changing ingredients or the style of serving. But, someone like Aglaia Kremezi, a woman who runs a cooking school from her home in Kea, has become Tselementes’ best fan, telling those who dare to criticize, “how dare you? That man is the best thing that ever happened to Greek cooking!”
Whenever Tselementes returned to the island for a vacation, many women would pay him a visit with offerings like cheese, tomatoes, or homemade noodles then begging him for a recipe, he’d respond, “Tell me! What are you putting in your Revithokeftedes? What about Revithada? Just change the herbs to your taste! A little imagination, please!” Usually, it would be something the original recipe had recommended. One of Greece’s foremost culinary experts, Illias Mamalakis, who studied Tselementes’ methods said, “people accuse him of distorting the traditional, which is wrong. The kitchen always evolves. That’s the way of it!”
Despite the publishing of numerous cookbooks, only Tselementes’ most famous book had 15 official reprints in the decades following his first success. He made everything with a ‘meraki’ which means doing things from the heart, with joy and devotion. Anyway, whatever one chooses to say about his recipes or the way he had changed the original, how can you turn away from a dish yiayia made or the way the great chef did it? Either way, so many chefs, dieticians or yiayias will agree that the Mediterranean diet, with whatever herbs or seasonings, is the finest, most nutritious in the world of food.
Unfortunately, I could not find anything about his personal life, whether he married, had other interests, or did anything else but cook and teach. He died March 2, 1958 at the age of eighty. Geez! What time is it? What’ll I make for tonight’s dinner? I need some ideas. Will someone pass me the Tselemente, please? Or should I dig up yiayia’s recipe? I’m hungry!