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Chef Maria Loi discusses the art of Greek cuisine and more

Maria LoiNamed “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/.

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About Cynthia Parsons McDaniel

Cynthia Parsons McDaniel works as an artist in the mediums of video installation, collage and illustration and diorama. She recently attended the National Academy Museum School in New York City for Drawing and Visual Story Telling and Monotype Printmaking. She had her first collage piece in a group exhibition at the museum. She has written about design, film and theater for METROPOLIS, ELLE DECOR, IN STYLE, ELLE, DAILY NEWS, FASHION JOURNAL and NEWSWEEK. She has contributed to five books on design and film related subjects. She was nominated for an emmy while a producer at NBC. She was head of pr and marketing at Cannon Films, New Line Cinema and VP Grammercy Pictures, then special projects editor at IN STYLE and Features Editor New York Daily News. McDaniel then went back to working with actors on MAD MEN, WEEDS AND 30 ROCK and doing personal publicity and creating Tony, Emmy, Grammy and Academy Award Campaigns. She has produced events and handled press including European Film Awards in Berlin, Cannes Film Festival Party at Hotel Du Cap With WME, at Sundance Film Festival and Elton John's Oscar party, re-opening of the Hall of Mirrors and the Royal Opera House at Versailles and the Bob Hope Memorial Library Ellis Island. The short she co- produced was shown at both the Tribeca Film Festival and the London Film festival. She recently did props for Boardwalk Empire including window displays using antiques from Olde Good Things. She is a member of Pen + Brush and the Art Directors Club. She has most recently written a one act play about early broadway and created the props by hand using various antiques and paper techniques. She currently writes travel pieces and continues to profile actors and directors. She is currently working on her first solo exhibition.
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One Comment

  • 17 Aug 2013 | Permalink |

    One of the highlights of greek cuisine is their blend of yogurt with a variety of dishes. Great spotlight on the Loi restaurant and the background of their head chef. I’ve always loved gavros (had it at a seafood place on the Ionian coast), but I never thought of blending that into what you call “greek sushi.” Come to think of it, there’s alot of similarities between the two cuisines.

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