'Bringing People Together' With Food

Chef Michael Psilakis prepares Greek "haute cuisine" at two top NYC restaurants.

May 27, 2008— -- Michael Psilakis says he "kind of fell into" the restaurant industry.

Now an executive chef, Psilakis was an accountant who wanted to be a lawyer, so he and took a job as a waiter at T.G.I. Friday's to pay for law school.

"It just kind of felt like home," said Psilakis, who now runs three top restaurants in New York City — Greek restaurants Anthos and Kefi and the Italian restaurant Mia Dona.

Cooking came naturally to Psilakis, who says his traditional Greek upbringing centered around "big parties at our house."

The 38-year-old was raised on Long Island, and remembers that growing up his family ate meals together every day.

"Using food to bring people together was just natural," he said. "The joy that [my mother] was getting was making this stuff and giving it to the people that she loved. It was that gift that made her excited on a daily basis. For me food is like that."

First-generation immigrants, Psilakis' family had high hopes for their son, and he says his mother was disappointed when he first pursued a culinary career.

"My mother cried when I went into the restaurant industry because for her, I had gone to college, I graduated college, I had these degrees, I did all this stuff that she was so proud of and that she really had hoped and dreamed for me," he said.

But Psilakis' father told him to "find that one thing that you really love to do and be great at it."

"You have to have the willingness to sacrifice, and the sacrifice is not as hard if you love it," he added. "So food is that one thing for me that I can be very good at. I'm trying to be great. It's not easy."

Once Psilakis decided to pursue a career in the restaurant industry, he says he "started working like a crazy person."

He opened his first restaurant Ecco when he was only 24, working in the front of the house. When his chef abruptly departed, Psilakis decided he didn't want to depend on someone else to do the cooking.

"I decided I would just go back there and at a minimum teach myself how to cook well enough to get through points like this," he said. "And that's when I really fell in love with the restaurant industry; it was just like automatic love to me."

Psilakis says he taught himself how to cook — "it's not as hard as everybody thinks" — and says being self-taught gives him more freedom to explore.

"The first dish that I ever made was a simple dish of figs stuffed with gorgonzola cheese and wrapped with prosciutto and grilled," he said. "And you know, it was the first dish that I had ever come up with that I can remember and I remember eating it and saying, 'Oh my God I can't believe that I made this thing. This tastes so unbelievable that I couldn't wait to give it to someone else to try.'"

Psilakis returned to his roots when he opened his first Greek restaurant, Onera, on New York City's Upper West Side.

He says he hopes to "push the boundaries beyond what most people have previously thought of Greek food," in part because of his strong sense of pride in his heritage.

"That's who I am and that's how I'll die. Everything else really revolves around that sort of identity of yes you're Greek, family comes first, you're a man and your definition as such is to provide and make sure that everybody in your family is going to be ok. That's what I do."

Psilakis wants Greek food to be seen at the same level as Italian or French cuisine, for Greek food to be "haute cuisine."

"Anthos restaurant was really the culmination of that for me. I started with this small restaurant on the West Side called Onera which is now Kefi, it was in the same location but Anthos really was the restaurant that I came into this city to build, I really wanted to show people that Greek food is where all the other foods of the world are and that it should be viewed on that level."

Psilakis says there's a "huge amount of sacrifice involved" in a culinary career.

"In order for you to sacrifice that much, you really have to love that thing that it is that you're going to do, because you have to have a willingness to say that I'm going to hurt people that I love because I need to focus on the thing that is going to allow me to be great."

Psilakis is quick to note that his wife and son have also sacrificed for his success.

"When I first opened up Onera here in New York City, my first restaurant, I was the bookkeeper and the hostess and the maitre d' and the reservationist and the pasta maker in the morning and the cook and the chef and everything else."

"I think for me food is really a function of an expression of emotion," he said. "I try and capture the soul of whatever it is that I'm trying to create for the individual and the idea behind it is that it's almost an artistic expression that allows me as the artist to use the guest as my canvas. And the thing about that that's very interesting, with food especially, is that it's a very sensual thing, you're using all of the senses."