Vefa Alexiadou is a very popular and respected food writer and celebrity chef in her native Greece. She is also well-known around the world for her TV appearances and selection of colorful, illustrated cookbooks. In this interview, she shares a few of her secret ingredients for culinary success and turns her thoughts to the future of food and cooking.
You are a well-known, immensely popular, leading culinary authority in Greece. You were born in Volos, a coastal port city in Thessaly, and it is obvious that you have an intense passion for cooking. Where do you think this enthusiasm came from? Did you learn how to cook at a young age?
My passion for cooking began in childhood because of my mother, who was born in Constantinople. She conveyed the beauty of her own homeland in the unforgettable tastes and aromas of food that tantalized evryone’s tastebuds. She had an inexhaustible source of recipes, which she taught me to cook in her own inimitable way, and emphasized the need for each dish to look as attractive as it tasted. I believe she succeeded in passing on her love and flair for cooking to me.
At that time, it was impossible to think how much cooking would influence me in later life. That it would be my main occupation, which even today, after so many years, fills me with joy and satisfaction.
I believe that I am in love with cooking. In other words, cooking is my “lover”. Writing, presenting, cooking, tasting and creating recipes fills me with such happiness and fullness that only a lover can provide. My cookbooks are the fruits of this passion which I cherish and care for like they were my children. I have dedicated my life to cooking and I am glad that through my cookbooks and television programs, I have had the chance to pass on to millions of men and women my passion for cooking.
You must have tested thousands of varying recipes over the years. How do you manage to keep coming up with new ideas?
Well, there’s such a variety of products produced by the earth and the ocean, that there are many ways in which we can process and combine them in order to create new recipes. I have already stored about 100,000 selected recipes in my computer. What do I mean by “selected?” Well, dishes which I have thoroughly tested with proven ingredients and in balanced proportions, that have had an accurate result.
The combination of various ingredients combined with imagination is not enough to create a recipe as many claim. Imagination is the natural starting point, but from there on, one needs knowledge and hard work to achieve a favorable result. So, I edit and improve all the recipes collected from several visits I made to the Greek regions or from my travels abroad, and then save or publish them.
A quick tip for your readers; the quantities of ingredients in a recipe should always comply with international measures; after weighing the ingredients, it is then time for preparation, the actual cooking, and to determine the number of servings. A cook should also know what cooking vessels they will be using and the exact dimensions of the pan in which the food is to be cooked. These steps all help in preparing a recipe that can be repeated time after time, resulting in a perfect dish.
There are so many major cultural differences in the approach people around the world take to cooking and eating food. What can you tell me about Greek cuisine in general and how healthy it is?
The Greek culinary tradition, inextricably tied to Greek civilization, is ancient, with roots going back many centuries.
The unique geographical position of Greece, the mild climate, the diversity of its soil, with large mountainous areas, plains and surrounding ocean, created ideal conditions for producing outstanding products from the land and sea. Thus, Greece is well-known for its highly refined and healthy cuisine.
The colonial expansion of the Greek element in the rest of the Mediterranean, as well as contact with other cultures of the East, were equally important factors for the development of Greek cuisine. The final configuration in classical times influenced the cuisines of the cultures that followed, such as the Greco-Roman and later, through the long path of the Byzantine, the cuisines of the middle Ages and modern Europe.
The fundamental basics of the Mediterranean cuisine consists of: olive oil, (the healthiest oil which has been introduced to the world by the Greeks, and is the basis of any Greek dish). Fresh products: vegetables, legumes, cereals, fish and shellfish, which are the main ingredients of many traditional dishes. Poultry and meat: in smaller quantities. The variety of fresh herbs grown on earth: parsley, dill, mint, fennel, oregano, thyme, rosemary, which are used to flavor Greek dishes instead of the dried spices used in other countries’ cuisines and the simplicity of combinations: the ingredients are simple and balanced, chosen to complement each other and used depending on the seasons. According to Hippocrates, “All fresh foods provide more strength than the alternatives”, and he believed the traditional Greek diet to be one of the healthiest.
Simple, healthy and tasty Greek Cuisine is the principle and basis of the Mediterranean diet. It is simplicity at its best.
Vefa, you became an even bigger household name when you started appearing on TV, passing on cooking tips and bringing mouth-watering recipes into the homes of thousands. What was that like, cooking on air in front of the bright lights and cameras?
In a few words, it was a wonderful adventure. I remember my first years on television. The main difficulty I encountered at first, was how to get used to looking into the lens. However, there were numerous other difficulties. For starters, there was no kitchen. I presented dishes on a table and had to show them being prepared in all their stages. This was hard because the food was pre-cooked, ready for final presentation, while I prepared all the ingredients before the TV audience. This meant double trouble and double costs. I had to bring the tools and utensils I needed from home and return with them every day.
However, I enjoyed my cooking, and drew strength and courage to overcome those first difficulties. I loved my public appearances and the admiration of my fans. Later, when the studio was set up with all kitchen tools and utensils, things were much easier. Today, television chefs find them ready, thanks to me being a pioneer who paved the way for future cooking shows on television.
My contact with the world through the lens and away from it was sheer joy and pleasure. Especially when I started broadcasting satellite broadcasts outside of Greece, I was often pleasantly surprised when people recognized me in America, Australia and England, and I was very pleased to hear people tell me how much they liked my recipes and how successful they were. The seventeen years I was on TV gave me huge personal satisfaction. Also, of course, that made Greek cuisine famous around the world and I am proud of that.
From cooking delicious Greek dishes, writing innovative cookery books, producing culinary videos, opening the increasingly popular “Vefa House” stores and appearing on TV and in countless magazines: which one of these were the most challenging and the most enjoyable?
In 1980, at a time when, in Greece, there were no serious attempts at writing a cookbook, I decided that having the know-how and the real taste of cooking, I would create my own first cookbook. Its enormous success inspired me to write another three cookbooks, completing a series of books which were titled “Invitations to Dinner, to Cocktails, to Tea and to a Children’s Party”. These books immediately became popular with the Greek public. My career as a writer/ publisher continued with the book “Greek Cuisine” followed by “Greek Pastries and Desserts”. The success of these two books was and remains constant in Greece and abroad. They were translated into English and are especially popular in the US, Australia and Canada. “Greek Cuisine” was also translated into German and is still selling well in German-speaking countries. My next book was “Festive Cuisine”, which has also been translated into English and after that, along with my daughter Alexia, we published the first volume of vegetarian and seafood books, which received an award as the Best Mediterranean Cookbook in Greek from the Salon International Livre Gourmand of Perigueux, France. Since then, we have completed a second volume.
As a result of the Olympics, I had the idea to publish a small cookbook containing the most popular Greek dishes and desserts that were affordable and could even be squeezed into a traveler’s packed suitcase. The book was translated into seven languages, and its phenomenal success during the Olympics has continued up until today, particularly during the tourist season. Also, collaborating with a Greek TV magazine, I published about a hundred small booklets with tremendous success. However, I still had a much bigger dream. I wanted Greek Cuisine to go beyond the Greek Communities to foreigners around the world. So, I searched for a large foreign publisher to publish a cookbook which depicted within its pages the wonderful flavors, colors and aromas of my homeland. It was a dream which became true through the English publisher Phaidon Press, transferring the enduring culinary traditions and the favorite flavors of Greece to all parts of the world. It has been the greatest project of my life and I consider it the culmination of my career. The book “Vefa’s Kitchen” was published in 2009, republished in 2010 and 2011, and recently has been translated into Spanish, Italian, and French. I can say this project, from everything that I have done, was the most challenging but most enjoyable. I’m proud to say that my books have been awarded with “Gourmand World Cookbook awards” and have made me famous all over the world.
What do you think about food television today and competition shows like Master & Top Chef?
Well, lately, it seems that the channels are oriented in other directions, with programs of lesser quality. If you are willing to appear on screen and know about cooking, it seems that it doesn’t matter what format you use or what you actually say. So, channels are filled with different shows, not exactly what I would call cooking programs. It’s because of this bombardment by recipe channels, magazines and newspapers, that people often become misinformed and find it difficult to understand and distinguish which recipes are the best or most suitable.
As for the cooking game shows, I have considerable concerns over whether children of the age of ten or twelve who have no knowledge of basic cooking, should grapple with advanced gourmet dishes. For example, a talented painter must have previously studied art to improve his skills, just as a chef must first learn to cook the basics before attempting something more elaborate. Also, you may call me old-fashioned, but I also believe that a ten or twelve year old child should not be left to work with knives, electric mixers, hot stoves or various sharp tools which can put their lives in danger.
Do you think that family traditions and old Greek recipes are still being passed down in families, despite the trend for younger generations to eat fast-food? The love for cooking is timeless in every Greek household. Most Greek people don’t eat out of necessity, but out of enjoyment, as cooking can be creative and great fun, especially during festivities. Throughout the centuries, traditional recipes have passed down from grandmothers to daughters and then to granddaughters and even shared among friends and neighbors. Young people and new housewives have loved to experiment trying out new flavors and creating new dishes.
Of course things have changed considerably in recent years. Due to working mothers and busy schedules, families do not get the opportunity to sit around a table for family meals. A result of this is that teenagers have become addicted to junk food prepared in fast food restaurants. Yet, by continuing to have contact with women of every age and social class, I have found that they all show a true interest in searching for easy recipes so that they can prepare a tasty, nutritious and healthy meal for themselves and their families. They know that proper nutrition is tied to good health, thus they try very hard to keep to many of the traditional foods that are customary. A large number of families still manage to have a family meal around the table, at least on Sunday. I firmly believe that Greek women are among the few women in the world to cook and succeed in keeping the family tied to the institutions of the Greek tradition. I am also confident that the economic crisis will bring us all closer to home and our culture.
Finally Vefa, tell me what you are working on next, in terms of a book or maybe even a memoir?
At the moment, I am working on three more cookbooks; one for children, another for a single person cooking and one for light cooking.