Michael Psilakis on Cooking for Family, Serving Greek in Astoria
"Greeks are very proud, and it's very hard for us to let people in and to change. And I think that's what continues to hold us back. We, as a group, have to band together. And if it's going to start, it has to start in a place like this."
Chef Michael Psilakis was born into a family that bred hospitality in the home, but it wasn't until his own chef left him with an empty kitchen right before service that he took up a knife and started turning out dishes of his own. Without any formal training but with the moxy that comes with a first-generation American-Greek guy from New York, he's since opened several restaurants—some to financial downfall and some which garnered much praise from many of the big guns in a rather short while.
But only recently has he taken a turn in our own little Greek haven, opening MP Taverna on Ditmars in Astoria. He opened across from beloved local institution Taverna Kyclades in part from his inherent love of controversy, but also to continue developing our perception of what Greek food can be. We chatted about his own evolution and where he hopes to remain in the conversation.
You've had a long journey to opening up a Greek restaurant in Astoria. Is there any realization of a goal here, with this restaurant? I've always interpreted food as an expression of what I was experiencing. I guess if you wanted to call it an art form you could, but for me it was just always a vehicle to express feelings. When I started it was more cerebral—I wanted you to take a journey that started with the food, so I didn't even really want to you talk with the person you were with, I just wanted you to eat. When my father died I used food in an extremely different fashion—as a means to get a family to sit down together.
So that's been the goal with the MP Tavernas? I use the restaurant as a vehicle to create memories now for people, and as a reflection of who I am. When I first started cooking I was evolving food so that you had to have both a good understanding of Greek food and a very open mind to get the evolution of it. I wasn't really concerned about what anybody was thinking about the food outside of myself, I was just really cooking and it was raw...
Did you feel disconnected from your diners at the time? No, because I was winning all these awards and achieving a lot of stuff.
How did the realization hit you? The year my dad died I was celebrating Easter at my dad's house, the same place I'd celebrated every Easter. And my brother and I finished putting the lamb on the spit, and it was odd that my dad wasn't there; forty years of him being there, helping, me seeing him put his hands on the animal, and now he wasn't there doing it. We just wet the lamb with our hands, with water. I called my son over and it was exactly like my dad had done; he's standing in front of me, I pour water in his hands, it's hitting him, it's hitting me, and it's splashing all over the place and he's giggling.
And I was thinking to myself, "I should be happy, and I'm really sad." It was an awkward moment, because I didn't know how to feel. And I was looking at the water in his hands I had this fucking moment of clarity because I really saw my hands thirty years earlier. I remembered that moment, standing in front of my father, him towering over me and pouring water into my hands. And I knew in that moment that that was food, right there. It wasn't about the lamb, or about how to cook it. It was just the water and being together.
How did you implement that into your profession? I removed myself from my restaurants and realized that in the vacuum of what my life was, the importance of food growing was not what I was cooking. And I realized the food that I was cooking was so cerebral it made you think about what you were eating and not enjoy the company you were with, and I thought that was wrong.
Do you enjoy one form of cooking over the other?
It has nothing to do with better or worse, it was just very different. If I want to cook something that's going to make you think in a very artistic way, that's fun. And it allows you to create food that's so creatively yours, and that's exciting as a young cook. This food now has nothing to do with intimacy on that level. It's intimate in a raw way—by touching it, not thinking about it.
You jumped right into cooking, without any formal training whatsoever. Do you feel that gave you an advantage in being true to your own preferences and goals? I think that there are three types of chefs; artisans, artists, and a special few. The artisan takes time to perfect things—not looking to create something new, looking to create it better. There's a beauty in spending a lifetime learning how to make the best apple pie. Then there's the artist that says, "Fuck the apple pie, I want to make something that takes you on a journey." The special few that have the technical foundation to be artisans and that are just inherently artists—those people change our perceptions of making food. There are very few of those people who live in a time, period. I'm definitely not one of them. But that doesn't mean that one is better than the other.
So you're saying you fit on that spectrum...? I don't know, and I don't care. They've put me in a place my whole life and I don't give a shit. People say, "Why did he do this?" It's just people wanting to write a story.
Out of all the neighborhoods you could have chosen from within New York City proper, why Astoria? Why open where most of the best Greek food is? I knew that writers were going to compare us, and that it was going to be controversial, and that there would be Greeks judging it...
Has there been? I'm sure there has, and I just like that too, it's just who I am. No matter what there's still a little wise-ass in me. I wanted to come back to a place where I can say, "This is the mecca of Greek food."
You've got a reputation and a history now. Does that put a particular pressure on now? I don't necessarily sense pressure like that. I guess so, yeah. I think that sometimes people like controversy—I am controversial by nature, it's just who I am—it probably would have been easier or safer or more practical to open in Manhattan I guess. But I had to open in Astoria. I just had to.
What are your hopes for this location? This restaurant is a reflection of being proud of being Greek. I pay more honor to my mother and my father by taking what I learned from them and doing what I'm doing now than just doing what they were doing. Greeks are very proud, and it's very hard for us to let people in and to change. And I think that's what continues to hold us back. We, as a group, have to band together. And if it's going to start, it has to start in a place like this.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about people who make food and cooks things now and then for her bread and butter. She wishes there was an MP Taverna in Washington Heights so she could eat MP's dried fruit salad, grilled lamb and smashed fries at her whim. Read more at www.WordsFoodArt.com or tweet excessively with her at @WordsFoodArt.