By Dion Benetatos
Immensely successful chef Michael Psilakis – whose Anthos is one of only two Greek restaurants in the world to receive the prestigious Michelin star- is a first generation Greek-American true to his roots. Psilakis, who learned his trade growing up in the kitchen alongside his mother, has brought new life to Greek cuisine. Breaking free from the glass-on-the-floor tavernas that are so closely associated with Greek food in the US, Psilakis’ sophisticated twist on classic dishes has the critics abuzz with praise.
As a first-generation Greek-American from Long Island, Psilakis grew up immersed in Mediterranean culture and surrounded by other Greeks (cousins, probably). Food was the center of day to day life for the Psilakis clan, and the young chef recalls boisterous family gatherings complete with spinach pies, baklava, and, of course, lamb roasting in the back yard. His passion for food began as he helped his mother crumble feta and layer phyllo at Christmas one year, and from there he learned to master the classics. Greek cooking was Psilakis’ childhood pastime, and to this day he takes great pride in his culture and heritage. Without having received any formal culinary training, everything this chef knows he learned from his big fat foodie family.
Chef Psilakis’ flavorful upbringing plays a large role in his affinity for Greek cooking, but it is the American influences that helped shape his creative interpretations on traditional dishes. His wildly popular restaurants are some of the best New York has to offer, but don’t go expecting to order that comforting dish your yia yia used to make on Easter. You won’t find any form of a recognizable Spanakopita or Mousakka at his restaurants. Without losing the identity of what makes food Greek, Psilakis expands on his mother’s teachings and then some. His is the next generation of Greek standards, the same flavors and ingredients you know, inventively deconstructed for the global audience. Chef Psilakis brings an adventurous element to Greek cooking that has long kept it detached from the advanced culinary pedigree displayed by other regional cuisines. He is exposing people to Greek food and demonstrating that it can be executed at the haute level. What Jean-Georges and Wolfgang have done for French, Psilakis is doing for Greek. Americans have been familiar with Greek food since the first diners opened in New York City in the 1900s. Ironically, it took a Greek-American to elevate Greek cuisine to take its rightful place as a distinguished culinary art.