Diane Kochilas on Food, Life, Her New Book, and the Island of Ikaria.
Interview by Michael Nevradakis, originally for Dialogos Radio.
Greek-American chef, writer, and entrepreneur Diane Kochilas has become one of the most visible figures in the world of Greek cuisine. From her appearances on television to the cooking classes and demonstrations she regularly offers in Greece and abroad, Kochilas has helped promote the diversity and the nutritional attributes of the Greek diet to a global audience. Recently, she sat down with Michael Nevradakis of Dialogos Radio to talk about her new book, her beloved island of Ikaria, and her numerous other ventures.
Q. Nevradakis: To get us started, share with us a few words about some of the current projects that you are working on.
A. Kochilas: I’ve just published another book, one that’s really close to my heart, about the island of Ikaria, where my family is from. Ikaria has been catapulted in fame in the last few years, basically because it’s one of the “blue zones,” one of the five or six places on earth where people seem to live a very long time. The book was released on October 14th, it’s called “Ikaria: Food, Life, and Longevity from the Greek Island Where People Forget to Die.” That’s kind of top of the charts for me right now. I’m also, of course, working with Molyvos [Restaurant] as a collaborating chef, always working on new dishes. I’m working on a couple of different TV projects but I can’t talk about them just yet, and ongoing things, of course, that I continue to do.
Q. Over the past few years, you have been hosting a cooking show on television in Greece and Cyprus titled “Ti Tha Fame Simera Mama?” Tell us a few words about it and what it was like to take your expertise to the small screen.
A. The show was an astonishing success, I’m very happy to say. We’ve gone two seasons, 98 episodes a season, so a kind of baptism by fire, it was incredibly intense. The English title is, if you want to translate it, is “What Are We Going to Eat Today, Mom?” and I was the mom. The show really stood apart from anything else in the cooking genre, especially in Greece, but I think it stands up internationally for the high quality of the production and just the general setup and layout of the show. There was something very immediate about it, and I think that’s the one thing that won people over. I just actually got stopped outside my front door, someone was asking for directions, I turned around, and they said “Oh, is that you, Mrs. Kochilas, and when are you going to be on again?” People just really embraced it, they loved the immediacy of it, they loved the simplicity of the food, and the fact that all the dishes were accessible, no matter what your skill level is in the kitchen. And a good part of them were very healthy, that was something that I really tried to stress, a lot of vegetable and meat dishes, a lot of plant-based food, not such a heavy reliance on meat, which in Greece in this day and age is somewhat revolutionary, because people are quite the meat eaters here. We’re not slated for a third season as far as I know, that has less to do with us and more to do with having lost our sponsor, because the supermarket chain had various internal changes, and a new guy came on board who is running all the Balkans out of Romania, and they haven’t signed on to do any TV this season at all.
Q. In the United States and in other countries, we often see cooking programs on television which are dedicated to other cuisines, such as Italian or French or Asian cooking, but it’s rare to catch anything pertaining to Greek cuisine. Do you think a program such as yours would have the potential to make it in the United States or elsewhere?
A. I totally believe that. I think that if you deliver a good product, and the food is good, and the show is fun and entertaining and informative and offers real solutions to some of the food issues that people face in their daily lives, I totally believe that.
Q. Let’s talk a little bit about Greek cuisine and Greek food products abroad, in markets such as that of the United States. Is there any news that you can share with us on this front, about Greek products that are becoming popular overseas? We keep hearing, for instance, about the success of Greek yogurt in the international marketplace…
A. Greek yogurt certainly opened the floodgates, and now there are a lot of Greek companies that are creating new products, some of them relying on the things that we already know, like olive oil and olives and maybe some sauces, but for the most part, there are a lot of young companies doing some pretty interesting food development and product development. I do think that some of them will fall by the wayside because it’s very difficult to penetrate the U.S. market, it’s extremely expensive to do that, costly, time-consuming, complicated, but I think that there are a number of companies out there really intent on doing it, and I think that they’ll succeed.
Q. Do you believe that Greece is maximizing its potential as far as the exports of its culinary products are concerned, and which Greek products do you believe have the potential to become the next big thing overseas?
“I do not believe Greece is maximizing its potential. I think that’s a perennial problem in Greece, unfortunately, one that most of us who have a foothold or even a toehold in another country recognize.”
A. I do not believe Greece is maximizing its potential. I think that’s a perennial problem in Greece, unfortunately, one that most of us who have a foothold or even a toehold in another country recognize. That’s a complicated issue, but I think that there’s room for a lot of the healthier foods that are part of the Greek diet, and I think we’ll be seeing those more and more. Certainly the yogurt market is probably saturated by now or close to it, I mean it seems like everyone and his brother is making “Greek yogurt,” but I think there’s a lot of room for other Greek products, for some of the non-cow’s milk cheeses, for some of the healthier confections. There’s one company that, it is and it isn’t a Greek company, and it’s a company that I’m actually working with, and they’re producing nutrition bars, and it’s a brilliant idea. It’s the Mediterranean diet for people on the go. So I think that there is innovation, but I do wonder if a lot of the smaller companies are sufficiently capitalized. That’s always a huge issue.
Q. Let’s return now to the topic of the island of Ikaria, which you mentioned at the start of the interview. One of your annual ventures are the cooking classes which you offer each summer on the island of Ikaria in Greece. Tell us about these classes.
A. We run several sessions over the summer, usually in the beginning of the summer. In 2015, we’re doing three sessions, starting in June and going through the middle of July, and possibly two more sessions at the end of the summer that are more wellness-based. We’ll be doing some other things besides cooking, and there will be a definite healthier spin on the food that we are cooking, and also things like yoga and meditation and other wellness-oriented activities. What we do in Ikaria is, we really try to give people an experience in a small place, in a Greek village, we spend time with local families, we cook together of course, much of what we cook is plant-based, it’s a lot of vegetarian food. It’s not exclusively vegetarian, but it’s very healthy food. We do various activities in nature, we go for a foraging walk, we go to beekeepers and watch the whole process of honey and how it’s made, we taste honey, we make cheese together, we go to a couple of wineries. It’s really a pretty full week and people love it. I’ve had repeat guests, next summer I have a family that’s coming back actually. It’s a really unique travel experience. People really have a great time.
Q. What is so special about the island of Ikaria and why has it achieved global prominence in recent years?
A. I think a lot of it just has to do with slow and deliberate life, living in the moment, not having stress, taking every day as it comes. I think people really live that way on Ikaria, it’s in our DNA. In my research for the book, speaking to people who are above the age of 85, and talking to them about their diets, especially when they were younger, a lot of what they told me had to do with the fact that they had very little to eat, so it was a diet that was, by default, plant-based, meat was very rare, basically on holidays or if you had a couple of chickens, maybe a little bit more frequently than that. A lot of natural exercise, basically walking. Very close-knit communities, and Ikarians still have a very close sense of community, even in the United States. We almost have a tribal mentality, we have a whole network of other people from Ikaria all over the world that we know and that we manage to see at various points throughout the year.
“There’s a lack of inhibition, people know how to enjoy the moment, and I think that, coupled with food that’s unprocessed and seasonal and almost all plant-based, I think that’s the secret.”
So I think all of those things, just a sense of belonging, there’s no sense of alienation in communities like that, and that’s a great source of stress in more urban societies. The food, of course, has a lot to do with it: healthy, natural, seasonal food, unprocessed food. The ability to let loose, whether it’s at local feasts or just at a friend’s home…I mean, I can’t tell you the number of times, wherever we are with other Ikarians, the event, even if it’s just dinner, inevitably turns into something where somebody pulls out a guitar or a bouzouki and we end up dancing. There’s a lack of inhibition, people know how to enjoy the moment, and I think that, coupled with food that’s unprocessed and seasonal and almost all plant-based, I think that’s the secret.
Q. What can readers expect to see in your new book?
A. The book, I’ll tell you what it isn’t: it’s not a diet book. It’s not a “here are 10 steps to living to 100″ book. I don’t think those books mean anything, I think most of that work is gimmicky. This is a deeper look at a place that I know very well. I’ve been going to Ikaria since I was a child, I have very deep-rooted connections there. It’s really a look at that culture and it’s a look at the culture from the perspective of food and day-to-day living on the island, what people do, how they live, what they grow, what their gardens are like, what foods were they eating up until, say, the 1970s, when it was still a very remote place. All of those recipes are in the book: a lot of savory pies, a lot of dishes based on greens, wild mushrooms…a huge part of the local diet…goat’s milk and goat’s milk cheeses. That’s really what the book is about. It’s about the place, it’s about the culture of Ikaria and what it means to live in a place like this, what life is like. I tried to draw some conclusions and offer up some lessons, but I think that, in reading the book, people will hopefully draw their own lessons from it, because it’s a very, very different place from anything that we know, certainly in the developed West.
Q. Share with us some of your favorite Greek dishes for this time of the year.
A. DK: Some of my favorite dishes from this time of the year are definitely dishes that are actually in the “Ikaria” book. I have a wonderful giant bean dish with petimezi, with grape molasses, that’s perfect for the fall and for any type of cold weather. Some of my favorite dishes, of course, are the little pies with greens from Ikaria, and as greens are coming into season, those are wonderful to prepare. I just made a great dish that’s not from Ikaria, that instead just came out of my own head, a few days ago: beetroot keftedes. I posted it on Facebook and got a lot of quite positive comments. I can go on and on with the recipes!
Q. In closing, where can our listeners find out more about you, your recipes, your new book, your classes in Ikaria, and all of your other ventures?
A. The best place is my website, www.dianekochilas.com, and that will also direct them to my Facebook page and Twitter and Instagram.
Michael Nevradakis is a Ph.D. student in Media Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, and was a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Greece for the 2012-13 academic year. He is the producer/host of Dialogos Radio, a weekly radio program featuring interviews with notable Greek and international personalities which airs worldwide on 18 radio stations, and is also a contributor to Truthout, the Huffington Post, the Daily Kos, and Hot Doc.