Nikki Rose is a Greek American editor, culinary writer and professional chef. She is also the founder of Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries which works to protect Crete’s cultural and culinary heritage, the root of the Mediterranean diet. She has received numerous awards for her innovative projects that bring attention to cultural arts plus agricultural and environmental issues.
In fact, Rose makes no secret of her passion for the concepts of Cretan cuisine and her belief that it is a way of life and not just a Mediterranean diet. She is the current director of the World Culinary Arts organization which sponsors seminars to preserve the culinary arts with renowned chefs and she strives for the preservation of traditional cooking to protect food sources all over the world.
Here, Rose talks about her own life and her new cookbook, ‘Crete: The Roots of the Mediterranean Diet.’
1. Nikki, tell me a little about yourself and where you grew up.
Well, my mother is Greek – 1st generation Diaspora. My Greek grandparents migrated to Chicago at the turn of the 19th century. My grandfather is from the Peloponnese and my grandmother is from Crete.
2. How did you feel about moving to Greece?
Excited and apprehensive. It has always been a challenge to live in Greece as an American businesswoman. It’s been a lot of hard work. Collaboration in business is comparatively astoundingly minimal.
3. Did you cook growing up?
Ever since I could reach the stove. I always loved to cook and experiment. I have always been fascinated with Greek cuisine because it was real food — our traditional Greek breads, phyllo dough based dishes, avgolemeno soup. All of them are enticing, challenging and delicious, especially compared to the All-American hot dog (which I discovered I’m allergic to — the sodium nitrate in processed meats).
4. What made you decide to become a professional chef?
It’s in my blood. I wanted to do something more creative with my life after working in the corporate world for 20 years. My family thought I was crazy. They didn’t want me to live the lives they had led — the long working hours, holidays and the fact that there is little time to spend with the family when you work in the restaurant business. They were right. Professional cooking is a different way of living — you either love the chaos and stress or burn out fast. It’s not a very “creative” career unless you own your establishment. It’s grueling work for very little pay unless you make it to the 1% of “renowned chefs.”
5. What is your best cooking tip for a novice?
Cooking should be fun. Once you know the basics of techniques, it will be fun. Don’t rely on fancy magazine recipes. Get a basic cookbook, cook with friends that already love to cook, then add your imagination.
6. What is your favorite food to cook with?
I don’t have a single favorite. I love flavor combinations. It depends on where I am and what is growing. But I love wild greens (horta). I love to collect them with my friends here on Crete. I love the fresh smell of the countryside during our foraging expeditions. I love the results on my plate.
7. What do you like to eat at home?
Whatever my friends are growing or collecting! I usually cook at home. I’m very particular and like simple, flavorful food. After working in restaurants for so many years, I’m less impressed by haute cuisine with many chefs’ hands on my food. While I appreciate masterpieces produced in restaurants, I also appreciate a roasted organic chicken with roasted vegetables from my own oven.
8. Are you a self-taught cook?
No. My mother, uncles, brothers, sister and friends have all shared their own cooking style with me since I was old enough to reach the stove. I don’t believe that anyone is a self-taught cook. There is always someone or many people that show us how to cook and how to love cooking. I also had the great privilege to work with some of the world’s finest chefs at Fauchon and Moulin de la Vierge in Paris, Acquerello and Cypress Club in San Francisco, to name a few.
9. Do you read a lot of cookbooks written by other authors?
Absolutely. I also read a lot of books about food science, food safety, global food industry practices, agriculture and agricultural history. It’s my interest and what makes my job exciting. Discovering where our food sources originated and where they migrated and were integrated into everyday cuisine is very fascinating to me.
10. There are many culinary schools in the United States. Would you like to see more in Greece?
I don’t have an opinion on that because it depends on whether Greeks would like to enter the profession. But I would like to see more professional cooking, hospitality and sanitation standards implemented in Greece. The world is easier to explore now and Greece is just one of many places people dream of visiting. The more professionally-trained residents Greece has, the better off those residents will be in terms of opportunities for them for a solid career in the hospitality and tourism industry. That’s also crucial for my job — to find ways to support the next generation of Greece’s cultural and culinary heritage advocates.
11. Could you share some of your cooking philosophy with our readers?
We need to protect and respect the sources of our food. Unfortunately, we are not doing that as much as we could or should. In order to celebrate our cultural-culinary heritage, we need to support the people actually making time to supply us with our precious delicacies-ingredients. We need to make time to protect the environment from which our food comes from. Very few people are focusing on that. But they should do it now before it’s too late. Think of our ancestor’s respect for Gaia (the goddess Earth). They had the right idea. Once we destroy our food sources (unsustainable industrial agriculture using chemicals and over-fishing our seas), what will we have left? Where will we go if our food sources are gone?
12. Let’s talk about your new cookbook, ‘The Roots of the Mediterranean Diet.’ What was the inspiration behind it?
Over 14 years of work in Crete — to introduce people to our wonderful world of cuisine that really has much more to do with life than what is just dissected on our plates. This book is just the beginning. In my next book, I’d like to profile the great sustainable organic farmers, chefs and fishermen I have worked with and tried my best to support over the years. Their stories need to be told. If we do not support the next generation of sustainable organic farmers, we are losing our great culinary heritage.
13. Do you see Greek people still handing down traditional recipes to the younger generations?
A few. In rural Crete, yes, to an extent. But the modern world beckons and fast/processed food marketing has hypnotized many Greeks. It’s extremely unfortunate. While the rest of the world is studying the traditional diet of Crete (pre 1960) so many Greeks have adopted the worst diet in the world — what is referred to as “the Western diet” of industrialized food. It’s very tragic. And home-gardening knowledge that is so crucial around the world is now being lost with every generation that embraces the modern, convenience food marketing madness.
14. Are males interested in cooking?
I suppose. Most men I know (family, friends and colleagues) are interested in cooking for fun or as a profession. What has always baffled me is that some men consider themselves to be better cooks than women when it comes to cooking as a career.
15. What are some of the differences between Greek and Western cuisine?
Boxes or no boxes. Factory farming. Factory food. It should not be confused with real food.
16. What made you decide to start writing about cuisine?
Necessity. After seeing so many surface-style articles about Cretan cuisine, there were so many things I wanted to share with people interested in the real food life in our region of the world. I was also assistant to the cookbook editor when I was a student at the Culinary Institute of America. We worked on dozens of publications and I also wrote for our school newspaper before I became a freelance writer.
17. How do you come up with ideas for your culinary projects?
A tremendous amount of research and meetings to determine who has the passion to teach. It’s not enough to just produce good food for the type of seminars I organize. CCS network teachers have to be dedicated to their work and great teachers. It’s a lot of hard work but fun when it all comes together.
18. Any opinions on vertical farming? Could it help solve the world’s hunger problems?
I think it’s very interesting. I saw some great projects in California. But I’m not sure any thing or any one should claim to solve world hunger. That perpetuates the myth created by Big Agriculture.
19. Your culinary sanctuaries are not just about healthy cuisine, are they?
No.They tell the story of cuisine from the ground up — via visits to archaeological sites, sustainable organic farms, and presentations by many other residents of Crete working to celebrate and protect their cultural and natural heritage.
20. What are your plans for the future?
I’m spending the next year presenting seminars about Cretan culture and cuisine in conjunction with my new book. I’m also launching projects in Northern California related to sustainable organic farming and wine making.
21. How do you motivate others in this period of economic crisis?
I’m hoping they will motivate me!
Among Nikki Rose’s publications are contributions to 30 Secrets of the World’s Healthiest Cuisines (John Wiley & Sons), Sustainable Tourism in Crete, Organic Farming in Greece, and coverage of Greece’s Evros Delta, Dadia National Forest, and alternative tourism.
To learn more about this dedicated woman and her new book: ‘Crete: The Roots of the Mediterranean Diet’, click on www.cookingincrete.com