Chef Maria Loi, Official Ambassador Of Greek Gastronomy
Often referred to as “The Martha Stewart of Greece,” Chef Maria Loi has positioned herself as a respected fixture in the culinary world. Not only is she a popular television chef in Greece, Loi is also the author of more than 36 cookbooks. If that’s not enough, earlier this year she launched her own product lines, Loi Pasta and Loi Greek Yogurt, available at Whole Foods.
In addition to her restaurant in Nafpaktos, Chef Loi opened Loi Estiatorio in midtown Manhattan almost two years ago and serves as the offcial Ambassador of Greek Gastronomy, elected by the Chef’s Club of Greece. The chef was able to find some time to check in with New York City Monthly about the joys and challenges of her new kitchen, NYC food trucks, and introducing diners to her homeland cuisine.
“New York is like the Ivy League of the restaurant world,”
At Loi Estiatorio you celebrate the flavors and hospitality of your homeland Greece. What are some components that make up that experience for your guests?
From the moment you walk in the door at Loi Estiatorio, we want to whisk you away to a Grecian oasis! I make sure to greet all of my customers, either upon entry or at their tables, and always offer suggestions of what is fresh and special that day. We also take great pride in sourcing authentic Greek ingredients so that the flavors of our food transport you, not only the feeling of the restaurant.
What has been the most fun and what has been the most challenging aspect of operating a kitchen in New York City?
I love the hustle and bustle of life in New York City. It’s very different from Greece in some ways, but similar in others. I’ve been here for almost five years now, and I think the most fun is how things change at a moment’s notice – in the New York restaurant game, you never know who will be walking in for dinner, or when you’ll need to create something special for a diner with dietary restrictions, or your long lost friend will show up!
I think one of the most challenging aspects of New York kitchens is the tight spaces, long hours, and delivery schedules. New York is like the Ivy League of the restaurant world – if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere! But making it here is not only contingent on your skill set and the skill set of your staff, but also depends on the city itself, and your purveyors. I make it a point to establish personal relationships with all of my purveyors, but not everyone does, and that distance can make a big difference in the outcome of your diner’s experience.
When preparing traditional dishes or selecting ingredients do you like to put your own unique touch on them or do you find they’re best served as they always have been?
I believe it is important to honor and respect ingredients and classic dishes native to the cuisine, but at the same time, it’s important to put your own unique stamp on them – it’s what makes my dish mine, and that person’s dish theirs. A traditional recipe is traditional for a reason, but how you interpret that reason will determine the outcome of the dish. Sometimes I focus on the traditional flavor profile, other times I focus on the traditional composition – like most epicurean adventures, you must respect the traditions, but innovate for the future.
Food carts peddling simple Greek staples like gyros and souvlaki skewers have long been a part of the cityscape in New York. If you were to pick up lunch from one, what would your order be?
I don’t often get to see them, but when I have the chance, I love Taïm Mobile – Chef Einat’s falafel is delicious and healthy, which is how I like to cook and eat. Something about her flavors reminds me of my grandmother – I love the culinary nostalgia it brings out!
Say we’re coming in without any previous knowledge of Greek cuisine. What is something we absolutely have to order as our first introduction?
I would say we are known for our seafood in Greece. Order my Htapodaki Stin Schara / Grilled Octopus, and the Lavraki / Branzino (European Seabass); – you can’t go wrong with these choices, and you’ll experience the flavors of Greece like never before. If someone is a little apprehensive about ordering octopus, you can enjoy my Spanakopita or Marouli salad – both verdant and refreshing, and both traditional in flavor, but not daunting!
If someone was looking for a restaurant to dine out at this month and you had one sentence to encourage them to come to Loi Estiatorio, what would you say?
In Greece, you trust the Chef to give you the best – that is what I do every day at Loi Estiatorio!
You’ve conquered the industry with your restaurants, cookbooks, line of dinnerware, and kitchen appliances and your most recent projects – a pasta line at Whole Foods and Loi Greek Yogurt. What do you plan to tackle next?
I want to change the world, one healthy Greek bite at a time!