Chef Maria Loi discusses the art of Greek cuisine and more
Named “the best Greek restaurant in New York City” by Good Morning America, Loi Restaurant has already earned accolades from foodies, tastemakers, and celebrities alike. Truly one of the most genuine and sincere people I have ever met not only in the food business but in life. Maria Loi is a true greek goddess!
Maria is a former Public Affairs Specialist and Lobbyist. She has successfully undertaken projects for multinational conglomerates such as the energy giant Texaco; the telecommunications pioneer Nokia; the Sheraton Hotel chain; and Net Hold International. As a result of her innovative spirit and strong desire to explore new frontiers, Maria moved on from her exemplary lobbying career to pursue her real passion of cooking with enormous new success.
Tell me how you decided to become a chef and open your own place in New York?
Well, these are two different things. I actually didn’t decide to become a chef, I always called myself a cook, but when I had my cooking show in Greece, the president of the Chef’s Club, Miltos Karoubas, took notice that I was trying to teach young people how to cook and eat healthy, and he told me “you’re not a cook, you’re a chef!” And the Chef’s Club of Greece honored me as the Ambassador of Greek Cuisine, and I became a chef in the eyes of the world.
A few years ago, I was in New York City to advise a friend on their restaurant and career, and happened to pass by the space that Loi Restaurant now occupies. I noticed that the handles of the door spelled my initials, ML, in Greek, and I knew that I had found my restaurant!
What is your favorite dish there and why?
Everyday they change, sometimes every hour! However, there are some dishes that I could eat forever, like the Roka salad and the Lavraki – I believe very strongly in using the best ingredients I can, both locally sourced and from Greece. This makes the food at Loi unlike any other Greek restaurant in New York.
I always say that to enjoy desserts is to enjoy life; of course, Greek desserts are my favorite, especially my Ekmek Kadaifi! My chef likes to call it “crackmek” because everyone is so addicted to it!
You make Greek sushi? What’s your spin on that?
Well, our sushi is not Japanese sushi—it’s a Greek Mezedakia inspired by the Japanese tradition of sushi. Both Greece and Japan are seafaring nations that use fish and produce as their most prized ingredients. One of my favorite Greek dishes is ‘gavros,’ a small fish in the sardine family we prepare by macerating it in vinegar – fantastic!
In my kitchen, I always experiment with new ingredients, recipes, and techniques – one day a chef friend offered to make me sushi for lunch, and I replied, “No, I’ll make you Greek sushi,” and that was it! We made fusions with everything that day, mixing rice and feta, adding ginger to the olive oil, and transforming the Horiatiki salad into a sushi roll!
Your presentations are incredible and elegant. How did you get inspired to make for example, the gyro and grapeleaves ?
My inspiration comes directly from the recipes of my grandmother and great-grandmother. But, I changed them to make them healthier and to show how amazing simple dishes can be if you treat your ingredients properly – some of them have half the calories as the original recipe!
The gyro that we make at the restaurant, I wanted to take it and change it so that it’s better than the greasy, fatty, oversalted gyro you think of when you think of gyro. At Loi we changed the way it’s made, the way it’s seasoned and the way we prepare it – the way we cook it allows us to eliminate almost all the fat, and that is a huge difference!
Your yogurt tastes like ice cream. Tell me about that recipe if it’s not a secret?
Our customers like to say that our yogurt is like ice cream at room temperature. Of course, the recipe is not a secret—I’ll give it to you because I want to the world to have it.
The secret is that there is no secret—the yogurt is fresh, real yogurt that we make in our own kitchen every day. We use it in both our savory and sweet dishes, for example, serving it with olive oil for the dolmadakia as the amuse bouche, and as a dessert, drizzled with the best honey from Crete.
You have cooked for presidents. What was that like?
Of course, it was very exciting. Not many people get to cook at the White House! Besides being a personal honor for me and for the restaurant, it is also an honor for my country’s cuisine to be represented with such distinction.
What inspires you to come up with new ideas for recipes?
I am so inspired by the whole world around me, not just food! We have so many pictures in front of our eyes nowadays; we are exposed to images from traveling, from the internet and everything, for me, this is what inspires.
Going to different places, seeing colors, talking to people and hearing about what they want. The world around me inspires me, then the wheels in my brain start turning. It’s the truth! I am going to make a chocolate today.
Your Greek heritage obviously plays a huge role. Tell me about your family?
I am so blessed to be Greek, blessed to have the best family in the world, and blessed to have grown up in Greece surrounded by the best ingredients to inspire my recipes. As a child, my parents, grandparents, siblings and I lived together, worked in our fields together, cooked, together, and even made olive oil together. I have three sisters and one brother, and we still speak everyday and care for each other today like we did in our childhood, even though we live all over the world.
What’s next for you? Are you planning to write a cookbook or open another restaurant?
Right now, I am writing a new cookbook based on Ancient Greek knowledge of Mediterranean foods. I want to educate my readers how to cook flavorful, healthy dishes that are easy to make and delicious to eat – It is powerful knowledge to have, and it must be shared.
And, at Loi, we have plans to open more restaurant locations because the demand is huge – the people love us and we want to give them what they want!
For more information on Chef Maria Loi and Loi Restaurant, please visit http://www.loirestaurant.com/.