INTERVIEWS
Vefa Alexiadou-The Grand Dame Of Greek Cuisine

Interview: Vassilios Nicolaos Vitsilogiannis
(IG: @vassiliosvitsilogiannis)

In the world of culinary delights, one name stands tall as the unrivaled authority on Greek cookery: Vefa Alexiadou. With her profound passion and unmatched expertise, she has enchanted countless palates and brought the vibrant flavors of Greece to every corner of the globe. Through her celebrated books, adorned with hundreds of simple yet tantalizing recipes, Vefa Alexiadou has become a beacon of gastronomic excellence, revolutionizing the way we perceive and experience Greek cuisine.

Within the pages of her magnum opus, not only will you discover an abundance of delectable dishes, but you will also embark on a captivating journey through the rich tapestry of Greek culinary traditions. Vefa’s culinary compendium goes beyond mere recipes, unveiling the secrets of regional specialties and showcasing the exquisite diversity of local ingredients that have long defined the Greek table. With every turn of the page, she seamlessly weaves in the religious and historical significance of these dishes, breathing life into the very essence of Greek culture.
Vefa Alexiadou’s remarkable contribution to the culinary world cannot be understated. Her tireless efforts have made Greece a culinary destination of unparalleled allure, captivating the hearts and taste buds of food enthusiasts worldwide. Through her meticulous research, unwavering commitment, and infectious enthusiasm, she has immortalized the flavors of Greece, ensuring they transcend borders and resonate with people from all walks of life.
Join us as we delve into the culinary legacy of Vefa Alexiadou, a true grand dame whose culinary prowess has forever elevated Greek cuisine to extraordinary heights. Let her books be your passport to a world where every bite is infused with the essence of Greece, a testament to the remarkable vision and indomitable spirit of a culinary luminary.

What do you remember from your childhood?

What should I remember first? My early youth was beautiful. Grandma used to send us clothes from Florina. My mother would dress my sister and me in matching outfits and go to church. The church was enormous. I recall the image of the Virgin Mary in the dome above, with her arms outstretched. I believed that her open arms embraced all of us in the church.

When I was seven years old, my father passed away. After that, World

War II and the German occupation followed, bringing four dark and difficult years. I remember the bombings vividly. We faced hunger and sadness, black despair. To block out any light, we covered the windows with black paper. To obtain some cheese and wheat for us to eat, my mother would travel to the villages and sell her bracelets and rings. Fortunately, the storm eventually passed, and better times were on the horizon. Our education during those years was very limited, so when the war ended, we eagerly immersed ourselves in learning. At that time, we had a magazine in circulation that serialized works by great authors such as Victor Hugo, Emily Brontë, Shakespeare, and more. I would eagerly await the release of each issue, eager to read the next installment. Through reading, I received a tremendous education. May that magazine continue to inspire others.

How did you decide to get into cooking?

It took me many years to make this decision. First and foremost, I studied chemistry. I went to America and pursued relevant studies, to become a dietician. During that time, my husband and I were living there temporarily, as he was on sabbatical leave from work. While he attended university, I would watch Julia Child on TV. Seeing Julia Child and having a natural inclination for cooking, thanks to my mother who introduced me to the wonderful recipes from Istanbul, I developed a passion for cooking. The idea came to me that I could also pursue this path. Throughout my journey, chemistry has always been my ally because cooking is essentially chemistry. Just like in a laboratory, if you don’t add the right ingredients to the reactor, you won’t achieve the desired result. The same applies to food; if we don’t use the right ingredients, our dishes won’t turn out perfectly. Upon returning to Greece, I wasted no time and completed my first three books titled “Invitation to Lunch” “Invitation to a Cocktail” and “Invitation to a Children’s Party” I then decided to apply for a cooking show at ERT (Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation). Unfortunately, I received no response for a year, so I submitted a second application. This time, the director of ERT replied stating that he had no interest in my proposal. However, when private channels emerged, I seized the opportunity and approached Antenna, which welcomed me with open arms. From that point on, my career as a cook took off, and as they say, the rest is history. Julia Child played a significant role in inspiring me to become a cook and embark on this incredible journey.

What is your favorite recipe or dish that you prepare?

My favorite dish is braised lamb with eggplants. I absolutely love eggplants; they are the best and most flavorful vegetable, in my opinion. Another surprising favorite of mine, despite being an oily food, is spinach. However, I prepare spinach differently from some housewives. Instead of mixing it with rice, I place small amounts of rice in strategic spots within the pot where the spinach is cooked. This creates a beautiful presentation, resembling embroidery. It’s a skill I take pride in. But my main talent, the one that has elevated my cooking skills, is knowing how to cook properly. As I mentioned earlier, I was raised by a mother who was a skilled chef, and I, too, have a background in chemistry, which helps me understand how to use ingredients in the best possible way. People who have followed my recipes exactly as written have always achieved the desired results, as confirmed by those who have encountered me on the street.

Of all the cookbooks you’ve written, which book is your favorite?

Of course, my favorite is the first one because it was a labor of love. I wrote it, did the photography, prepared the recipes, and went to different publishing houses to get it published. Unfortunately, no one wanted to take a chance on it. They thought it was someone else’s work, like Chryssa Paradisi or Nikos Tselementes. No one believed it was Vefa Alexiadou. It was a setback, but I persevered and put in a lot of effort to get my book published. When journalists ask me about the turning point in my career, I tell them it was thanks to fake eyelashes. They wonder
what fake eyelashes have to do with cooking, but let me tell you the story of how they helped me. I was in New York, meeting friends for coffee when I struck up a conversation with a lady at Macy’s. She asked me what I did, and I mentioned that I was a chemist and dietitian who had written a wonderful cookbook that I couldn’t find a publisher for due to financial constraints. To my surprise, she offered to help. I asked her what she did for a living, and she said she dealt with cosmetics, primarily fake eyelashes. It sounded incredible to me that Greek women were so interested in wearing false eyelashes. She explained that there were beauty salons in Greece where women went to enhance their eyes. She said, “I do prosperous business, Mrs. Alexiadou”. She had her brother there, and they traded in cosmetics and fake eyelashes. We stayed in touch, and about a year later, I received a call from a publisher named
Dimitris Tsirimokos, who ran the magazine “Medicine and Beauty”  in Greece. He introduced himself as a friend of the lady I had met in New York. He mentioned that I had told her about my background as a dietitian, my passion for healthy food recipes, and the book I had prepared but couldn’t find a publisher for. She had paved the way for me
with her connections. Dimitris offered to help me publish the book and said he would vouch for me if I contributed a small amount of money. Once the book was released, I would reimburse him gradually. It was clear that Dimitris saw the passion and determination in me, a fire that other publishers couldn’t recognize. He became the publisher of my first book because he knew it had the potential to be a success and make significant profits. I was incredibly fortunate, and after the book was published, I earned a substantial amount of money.

What’s the hardest challenge you’ve faced in your career?

It was disheartening when my book was rejected. However, I decided to change my path and became a publisher, eventually publishing thousands of other books. Through this journey, I managed to sell 3.5 million books worldwide and received the Best Publisher Award.

How does it feel to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award recently at an event in Sweden?

I am delighted to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award. When I see the younger generation receiving awards and expressing their admiration for me, it means more to me than the award itself. The younger generation shook my hand and said, “We love you, Vefa, you are an inspiration”. Their recognition is a testament to the impact I have made by spreading Greek cuisine worldwide. The book on Greek cuisine has been published in six languages.

How do you perceive the current state of gastronomy in Greece today?

Unfortunately, the current state of gastronomy in Greece is quite chaotic. It frustrates me when people claim to be creating “creative Greek cuisine” by modifying traditional Greek gastronomy. If we alter Greek cuisine, we lose the essence of the game. Why change the way we cook meat with vegetables? Why change the way we prepare braised lamb with eggplants? Or the pork with leek, or even the stews?

Which collaborations in Greece and abroad do you consider important?

In Greece, Dimitris Tsirimokos has been an important collaborator. Abroad, Pedro Cointreau has played a significant role in introducing me to the world. With the help of these individuals, my books have received awards, and I have been honored with 30 awards myself.

What advice would you give to young individuals interested in entering the field of cooking and pastry?

To the young aspiring chefs and pastry makers, I would say that the road may be challenging, and filled with obstacles. However, if they have a genuine love for what they do, these obstacles will seem insignificant. Love for their craft will help them overcome difficulties. I would also emphasize the importance of perseverance and not giving up.

You have faced some significant family problems. Did this hinder your professional career or change your perspective on life?

Unfortunately, towards the end of my professional career, I had to face the devastating loss of my daughter, Alexia, who was with me throughout my journey. It was an immensely painful experience. However, just as Christ taught us, we must be patient, overcome challenges, and continue without giving up or shedding tears. I followed this path. My faith in God sustains me. I believe in the existence of God and know that one day, I will be held accountable for my actions or inactions. Therefore, I strive to be at peace. Pain is inevitable, but I prefer to keep it private. I recall my mother’s wise words: when we leave our homes, we leave behind our worries and sorrows. We encounter people outside who have their own problems, and it is not fair to burden them with ours. My mother was an exceptional woman who instilled faith in God within me from a young age. Even as a child, she would take me to church. Faith keeps us steadfast in both good times and bad. That’s life.

You are still active, and I would like to know about your plans. I understand that you are initiating a collaboration with China. Could you share some details?

I am pleased to announce that my books have been translated into several languages and are currently being translated into Chinese to be digitally available in university libraries. During my meeting with the person responsible for this endeavor, I learned that children in China prefer reading books electronically, so the books will be released in this format. This is a new objective that I am determined to achieve.

 

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