CHICAGO, IL – Over a dozen of Chicago’s finest chefs greeted some 400 guests for the National Hellenic Museum’s (NHM) celebration of gastronomy at the annual Kouzina food and wine fundraiser the evening of October 16.
Clanking stainless steel warmers, unique floral arrangements, bright lighting, chic black tablecloths, shiny drinks glasses, and suited chefs serving delectable mini dishes amidst the modern-designed Greek Monsters exhibit set a rich tone for the evening. “Kouzina has definitely evolved into an event that goes beyond the scope of the Greek community,” said celebrated cook and author Diane Kochilas. “Just by looking at the range of restaurants represented here tonight… it’s become a Chicago event,” she added.
A night of fine dining and mingling, Kouzina is one of NHM’s most anticipated events of the year. The $100 in advance, $150 at the door ticket bought four hours of dining experiences with a twist on the classics.
Participating in Kouzina for the first time this year was Chef Cleetus Friedman of the Fountainhead Restaurant in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood. Serving up a fried dish, green lentils and cauliflower with tzatziki sauce pita chips, Friedman advised attendees on where to get the best tips on cooking up some of the tastiest dishes. “Don’t watch the television shows,” he suggested, “Get into the restaurant and start from the bottom up to see how things are made. Get in and train with chefs,” he added.
In the sweets section, frying up traditional loukoumades with pumpkin accents was Athena Manolakis of the PanHellenic Pastry shop located just across the street from the NHM. “I love it when people try to think outside the box with twists on traditional recipes,” she said.
Frank Georgacopoulos of Meli Cafe and Juice Bar just up the street in Greektown offered breakfast and lunch tastes with pure milk and honey ingredients. John Gatsos of the famous Tavern on Rush contemporary steak house said his “yiayia” inspired him to take on cooking, serving up her very own “dolmades” recipe at Kouzina in her honor.
“Comparing Greek cuisine to the American diet… it seems like there isn’t as much fast food. Things take a little bit longer to cook, but they taste better and they are good for you,” Gatsos said.
Executive Chef at Avli Restaurant Louie Alexakis who says he’s been the only Greek eatery representative at the Chicago Gourmet Fest for the past five years served up sweet cheesecake balls with “melomacarono” crust.
“Traditions are important and we have many of those,” Alexakis said. “Greece just has a wonderful variety of good foods and in general was blessed in some ways by having such a harsh environment. We have our olives, we have our seafood… these hardy wild greens called “horta” and it turns out that they are very good for you. It’s fortunate that this is our background and that people have learned how healthy it is for everyone,” he added.
Popular globally, the Mediterranean diet has indeed in recent years gained much attention in the United States as a healthy alternative to many foods. “The Mediterranean diet has been known for a long time for being one of the healthiest diets on the planet, and the Greeks have it in their DNA,” said Kochilas, whose family originates from the island of Ikaria, known for the remarkable longevity of its inhabitants. “I think it’s this marriage of health and pleasure is something uniquely Greek and we celebrate that around the table every day,” she added.
The Ikarian secret to a long and healthy life, Kochilas explained, is having a very healthy take on life as a whole. “What I found was that [Ikarians] eat very little because there was very little to eat. A lot of what they ate maybe up until the early 1960s and 1970s was plant-based…very little meat, and a lot of it was wild. Ikarians have a very healthy take on life. They shun stress and they enjoy themselves without a lot. They have this uncanny ability to just be here now,” she said.
Greece to this day produces a number of unique and bold-tasting fresh foods whose aromas, flavors, and healthy attributes cannot be found elsewhere in the world. As for local dishes, Chicago is famous for its stuffed pizza, and juicy steaks. But how does it compare to other major U.S. cities? “I just got back from New York this past weekend and it’s easier to find good restaurants in Chicago in my opinion,” said Devon Quinn, executive chef at Paramount Events, a catering group which cohosted Kouzina. “I think Chicago has an amazing cuisine with some amazing chefs from around the world that have made the city a hub for all different kinds of food,” he added.
From chefs who love to cook at home to those that serve the taste buds of hundreds daily, food is what you put into it, and making a good dish takes effort and passion. “It’s the satisfaction of making something from scratch, but it’s also the satisfaction of sharing that is a big part of cooking,” Kochilas said.
This year’s Kouzina marked the museum’s 7th annual food and drink fundraiser. “The event has come alive over time,” said Angelo Petropoulos of the Greek Islands Restaurant. “We see a lot of new faces, which is wonderful for Greektown.”