One of my favorite things to do is debunk preconceptions, be it around gender norms and societal roles or what makes for real Greek yogurt in the era of mass-production. Greek cuisine is no exception to many a trite assumption. Non-Greeks tend to assume we live on a steady diet of lamb and spanakopita, and once someone tried to explain to me how the cuisine is just “meat and potatoes.” (we will call this act of non-Greeks explaining things about Hellenism to us “xenosplaining,” and you’re welcome.) But I once ate a three-course Greek meal that was entirely vegetarian. Greek cuisine is evolving and becoming more nuanced. In the U.S. it’s never quite had the prestige of French cooking or the mass popularity (and bastardization) of Italian food, but its popularity is on the rise. Internet buzz surrounding the Mediterranean diet has given healthy Greek cuisine a chance to step into the spotlight.
And so, I fell in love with the hyper creative and beautiful instagram of Christina Xenos, aka “My Sweet Greek.” She’s a journalist, trained private chef, and exceptional curator. Many of her recipes, such as non-fried kolokithokeftedes, offer a spin on traditional Greek dishes. But she also does justice to the lineage of these dishes, preserving the integrity of Greek recipes by way of letting super fresh ingredients do the talking. We also share something of an obsession with fava.
Christina is incredibly knowledgeable. She’s cooked for many in her current base of Los Angeles – a city whose health obsession with health pairs well with healthy Greek cuisine. She also just released an exceptional cookbook which I recently finished and plan on gifting this Christmas. Read on to learn about her journey from yiayia’s kitchen to private chef and cookbook author in Los Angeles.
P.S. Christina was kind enough to share one of her recipes with our community. You can find it at the end of the interview!
P.P.S. Keep an eye on our Instagram for a chance to win a FREE copy of Christina’s new cookbook, OPA! The Healthy Greek Cookbook.
Tell me a bit about the journey from yiayia’s kitchen to professional chef. What is your background and training as a chef? Where did you get started?
I have/had wonderful yia-yias, and I’ve always been obsessed with food. Growing up, I trailed my yia-yia Chrysanthe and yia-yia Eleni in the kitchen, observing and helping them out. Then during the summers, my mom would take me to our local Greek Orthodox church and I would spend my days with all the yia-yias there and bake everything for the annual festival: spanakopita, tiropita, tsourekia, koulourakia, baklava, etc. I started cooking regularly because my mom started working when I was 15, and with her and my dad both out of the house working, I didn’t think it was fair that my mom had to come home and make dinner, so I started making dishes from the Greek cookbooks in our house. I would make a lot of spanakorizo, and potato soup — I guess the latter isn’t really Greek but it was in that particular cookbook. In hindsight, I should have gone to culinary school, but growing up in Ohio during a time when chefs weren’t the celebrities they are now, I knew that I had to go to college. So I did, for journalism.
In a way, I’m really happy about that. It afforded me the opportunity to perfect my writing skills and that fits in perfectly with writing a cookbook. But the publishing industry has changed drastically from the time I graduated college in 2001. A few years ago, I realized that I had strayed from my original goals as a journalist, and I wanted to forge a new path. The New School of Cooking was a mile from my office and they offered professional level night classes for cooking and baking, so I took both series, and it really changed my life.
It’s pretty awesome when you realize that you’re doing something that you actually have talent in. I LOVED cooking school—100x more than I loved college. I learned so much and I excelled. I was finally genuinely interested in what I was doing. During that time, one of my classmates told me about EatWith and two years later, I finally got organized and started hosting small pop-up dinners in of my house through their platform. That experience proved to me that I really loved cooking and entertaining. This was the catalyst for me to launch my personal chef business and has lead to me working regularly with private clients, continuing pop-ups with EatWith, Feastly, and the cookbook that I co-wrote with my friend Theo Stephan who has a wonderful organic olive oil business in Los Olivos, California called Global Gardens.
It’s funny, most people think of Greek food as “meat and potatoes” but during a yoga training I once at an entire three-course Greek meal that was all vegetarian. What do you wish more people knew or understood about Greek cuisine?
That’s a really great point! I love doing pop-ups with Greek food because they are so easy to adapt to fit a vegetarian diet and there are so many people in Los Angeles who have adopted that diet. If you think about Greece and its history, you’ll discover that historically people didn’t really have access to meat as they do now. Greeks of our grandparents and great-grandparents generations had longevity (one of my yia-yia was in perfect health until she was 102 years old) because of their diet that was low in meats and processed food and high in vegetables, grains and legumes. Meat was only eaten on special occasions, feast days, holidays, etc. It was a big deal. I try to instill that patter in my menus for my clients, even if I’m not cooking them Greek food specifically. It freaks me out when people want to eat red meat multiple times a week. We have to realize that just because things are available, it doesn’t mean it’s ok to eat them all the time.
Favorite Greek dish – and why!
Too many!!! This summer we ate tarama everywhere and it was fun to notice all the variations on it. I love octopus, squid and cuttlefish. I also became obsessed with fava this summer and have a really nice fava and shrimp dish going onto one of my pop-up menus. I also love eggplant in all forms, particularly papoutsakia.
Most overrated Greek dish – go!
This was a really hard question. I love everything and have soft spots for the obviously overplayed dishes like horiatiki salata, souvlakia, moussaka and pastitso—especially if someone is making the latter two for me. However, people have a strange obsession with barbounia, but I don’t. Eating them is a lot of work with not much payoff. I’d rather eat a whole sea bass or red snapper and really enjoy the experience.
In NYC, it seems a nouveau Greek restaurant opens every week. Do you feel a similar increase in popularity of Greek cuisine in LA?
I guess this is one instance where New Yorkers are lucky. We’re not so blessed with Greek food in LA. I think it’s because all the Greeks came out here to be in the entertainment industry. The extreme lack of good Greek food in Los Angeles is one of the reasons I started throwing my pop-up dinners. We literally have 4 passable Greek restaurants, and only two of those are on par with the nice ones in New York. I did hear a rumor that Avra might open out here next year.
Let’s talk about your new cookbook, “OPA! The Healthy Greek Cookbook.” When did the idea for this come about? Tell me a bit about what makes the recipes “modern” and adaptable to life in the US in 2017?
I think people are naturally curious about Greek food, and despite the traditional recipes in the Greek canon, the cuisine has modernized. I was in Athens this summer and it was so inspiring to eat at restaurants that were doing innovative takes on Greek recipes and ingredients like Nolan, Cookoovaya and Kuzina. Don’t get me wrong, I still had my share of souvlaki and gemista, but I appreciate the creativity. I think our book is structured like that as well. You’ll find a few tried and true traditional recipes, but the other ones like my avocado skordalia that’s served with swordfish souvlaki, butternut squash and hazelnut pasta, Theo’s stuffed leg of lamb, crab cakes, and feta-stuffed burgers are all indicative that Greek food is evolving.
How can greek food help us return to ritual (You mention fasting, meals around that in your cookbook)? Or to feel more grounded in an increasingly fast-paced, digital age?
I think cooking, in general, is a beautiful way to calm your mind and refocus. Cooking is the way I meditate. I turn off my phone, close the email, put on some music and just focus on what’s in front of me. Going through the recipe is calming: chopping, then sautéing — listening and smelling the aromas along the way — and guiding the ingredients into one delicious outcome. The process of cooking makes me present and clears my mind — as long as I’m not hangry.
People often lump Greek food into a few food groups, namely “lamb, moussaka, and spanakopita.” But if you actually spend time in Greece, you see there are regional nuances to the cuisine (i.e. the presence of capers in a lot of island dishes, or major Turkish influences in “Asia minor.”)
In the US over the last few years, restaurants have been making a huge deal about their menus being “farm-to-table” ingredients being “local,” “fresh from the market” and so on. This has been a way of life in Greece forever. My cousins in Crete grow their own vegetables, harvest their own goats and rabbits and make their own wine and raki. It’s not a new thing or a trend there. They are not hipsters. It’s just their way of life. I think the Diaspora from Greece is why we think of Greek food with those few iconic dishes, and they exist in Greece in such abundance because that’s what the tourism industry demands. Regional variations on classic dishes and regional dishes exist because of what was available, and what wasn’t. I think in more recent times, with the availability of everything, that’s changing drastically as well.
What do you think of a major Greek food meal service? (Like Sakara Life – but Greek?) Possible?
As much as I like the idea of the convenience offered by such services, I’m not a big advocate of them. I think so many things are lost in mass production, and the end result rarely lives up to the expectation or photo on the website. Most Greek dishes are simple in nature, and many of the recipes in our book are simple because we made them that way. With a little organization, it’s easy to get dinner on the table with a nominal amount of time. I think it’s important to feel connected to your food. Making it and eating it fresh — shopping for and choosing your own produce — is a great way to do that.
Your book really breaks down not just recipes – but how to equip a Greek kitchen, eat seasonally, etc. I Love this! Are there any takeaways from Greek cooking that can make us better chefs in another, completely different type of cuisine?
Recipes across any type of cuisine are only as good as the ingredients you make them with. Buy fresh, buy local, at least take an interest in where your food comes from and how long it has been sitting around. Never buy supermarket tomatoes, and if you have to, try to buy organic or responsibly grown and in season. Otherwise, anything you cook with them will taste like cardboard, no matter who wrote the recipe.
And now a special gift from Christina for Delphi Reclaimed readers…. a peek into her new cookbook! Enjoy this Shrimp Santorini recipe. I’m feeling it as the perfect way to bring something healthy and NOT boring to holiday parties this year.
Enjoy this piece? Read our interview with Nounos Yogurt, the family who makes small batch, all organic Greek yogurt in New York.