Celebrity chef Diane Kochilas wears many hats. The Greek American is a cooking show host, award-winning author of numerous cookbooks, owns a cooking school in Ikaria – and that’s just touching the surface of her illustrious career.
Her path, while seemingly well curated, is one that found her she reveals, as opposed to the other way around.
“I grew up in a Greek home. You know what that means! Food is central to our existence, meals, cooking, family dinners. Every day was a ritual and a lesson in how to be human and it all centred around the table,” Diane told Neos Kosmos, for whom, you could say, food is in the blood.
Her father, who hailed from Ikaria, was a chef. Two years after his passing, at the tender age of 12, Diane visited her father’s village for the first time, which would plant the seed for her future travels to the island.She went on to pursue studies in journalism and French language and literature, with the ambition to write. From there, she puts it down in part to “a couple of lucky coincidences and professional friendships” that saw her come into contact with a book agent, and start writing The Food and Wine of Greece, teaching herself to cook along the way.
But her passion writing, and telling stories about the food evolved to include television, a medium that has become a favourite, her latest project My Greek Table currently airing on SBS.
The two season free to air cooking-travel show, takes viewers around the world on a culinary road trip through Greece and its vibrant and multi-layered cuisine.
For Diane the episodes that stand out are those where the historical and human elements are on a par with food, one stand out being Season 1’s Spirit of Lesvos episode.
“We went to the island, which had seen a 90 per cent drop in tourism because of the refugee crisis, and filmed the fishermen-cook whose name had been floated for a Nobel Peace Prize. I love how he used food as a way to unite and helped save people who were drowning a few steps from the kitchen he works,” Diane recalls. “That was the spirit of Lesvos – plus a little ouzo!”
But it hasn’t been an easy task for the host and co-producer, taking a lot of effort to raise the funding each year to produce the show.
“If I had a buck for every time someone said to me ‘Oh, that’s difficult,’ I’d be up there with Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. I am an innately positive person and a dreamer, but also a doer by nature!” she says.
Ironically, Diane has found more success with funds through foundations that promote Hellenism, as opposed to Greek food and wine companies, which the chef says is reflective of “a complete failure of vision when it comes to how we export our culture and cuisine”.
“So many Greek food products are promoted only when there is some EU funding program. Two years ago, table olives, Greece’s single most important agricultural export, had such a program. I am not griping because they didn’t come in as sponsors, but when the person administering the program has the audacity to say that she doesn’t care about results, only about fulfilling the basic demands of the program – restaurant events and press write-ups – and by so doing keeps activities within the Greek ‘ghetto’, so to speak, without any mainstream outreach, that’s a failure of vision,” she says.
“Everyone’s heard of the Kalamata olive, but you rarely see branded Greek Kalamatas on US supermarket shelves. Ditto on Greek wines. So much money spent on events that have little reach, and nothing envisioned for outreach to retail.”
This experience has only further fuelled Diane’s vision for the show, to share Greek cuisine and food-wine products with a broad mainstream audience and by doing so, raise the bar for exports and make products accessible.
“The show has played a role in disseminating all that’s good and Greek. I know people have planned vacations to Greece after seeing episodes. I know they look for products. Now, if only the powers that be would take a leap of faith and start to learn from the Italians and Spanish about how to market…hint, hint!” she says.
There’s no denying Diane’s passion. She has been at the forefront of efforts to spread the word about the Greek cuisine for years, and she keeps being drawn back. Aside from being both delicious and healthy, as the world turns its attention to climate change, she says eating Greek can also help save the planet.
“There are so many satisfying plant-based Greek dishes,” she says. “There are so many nuanced layers of history in regional Greek food; I love to trace my fingers over that. I love how we find food in prehistoric archaeological sites and trade records in Linear B and that much of what’s documented is still enjoyed today.”
Catch ‘My Greek Table’ with Diane Kochilas’ on SBS Food on Mondays at 7.30 pm.
A little Q & A with Diane Kochilas
Why did you decide to open a cooking school in Ikaria?
That was a practical decision at first. My husband and I had the brilliant idea of opening a restaurant off the beaten track, outside of an already remote village, in our HOME! We were the first place on Ikaria with stemware and real tablecloths. To attract business, I started offering day classes. It soon became apparent that restaurant work to me, at the time, at least, with two small kids in a place I always associated with vacation and spiritual freedom, was a self-imposed jail sentence! But teaching, I discovered, I love. I like people and like to share. So … the rest is history. We abandoned the restaurant the second summer and the day classes morphed into week long seminars. That was almost 20 years ago.
What has been a highlight of your career to date?
I’ve been fortunate and blessed with a great family and lifelong friends who have always supported me emotionally. There’ve been a few highlights! Receiving two prestigious IACP awards (Int; Assoc of Cooking Professionals) for scholarship (Glorious Foods of Greece) and for best cookbook (Ikaria); winning a Books for a Better Life Award (Ikaria); seeing the series come to life and the reactions of people who find it engaging and educational and who actually cook from it (and send me their photos!). Being honoured twice by the US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt, who opened his residence to celebrate the series. Hearing my daughter say that I’ve been a role model to her. And being in a discount shoe store at Union Square in Manhattan, asking another woman which shoes looked better on my Ikarian peasant feet, and having her reply “Aren’t you the Greek chef?”
What do you miss about Greece when you are in the US, and vice versa?
Ah, the pain of being bi-cultural! When in Greece, I miss the “just do it” attitude we New Yorkers and Americans in general have, the sense that anything is possible so long as you envision and work toward it, the sense of individual empowerment. I miss the energy of NY even now, after 26 years away.
When in NY/USA … I miss the weather and the human, ad hoc beauty of Greece, the way you can just start up a conversation with someone on the street and end up at a cafe together having coffee and not be afraid. Once, lost around the Acropolis, I asked for directions and the guy offered to give me a ride to where I was going … on the back of his motorbike. THAT would NEVER happen in the States. And if it did, unfortunately, nowadays, you’d be scared he was some gun-loving maniac.
Truth be told, those of us who have two countries are very blessed, even when we’re confused. We have twice the love of country and twice the patriotism, and, that said, twice the pain when things get heated and messed up and politicians fail us everywhere. We need to reinstate the lottery leadership system of Ancient Greece and really clean out the swamp!