“A recipe has no soul. You, as the cook must bring soul to the recipe.” The words of celebrated American chef Julia Child ring true for chef and food blogger Krystina Kalapothakos, for whom food has always been more than a mere form of sustenance.
Born and raised in a Greek-American family in Sacramento, California, the chef and food blogger grew up in a household where cooking was of paramount importance, and recalls her parents and beloved yiayia Stavroula cooking up a storm.
With his roots in the mountainous region of Mani, Greece, throughout the years Krystina’s father has continued to make a number of traditional dishes including strapatsada (eggs scrambled in tomato), bamies (okra), fakes (lentils), spanakopita (spinach pie) and kokkinisto (beef stew).
“My parents are lavender farmers, and they raised our family to appreciate fresh ingredients. A typical Greek meal for us is horta (wild greens), and grilled fish with vegetables – a very healthy dish that I appreciate to this day,” Kyrstina tells Neos Kosmos.
A diet rich in fresh ingredients has fostered a true appreciation of fresh spices and organic ingredients, which over the years has led the chef on a whirlwind journey to pursue her passion across the globe from Greece, Las Vegas, Canada, to southern California.
For the last three years she has been sharing her love of Greek food with thousands through her blog Kouzounas Kitchen, and has taken it one step further with the recent release of her first cookbook Back To My Roots, a compilation, which she says “takes us back to the days of robust village life as we explore traditional Greek recipes with my very own twists”.
Neos Kosmos reached out to the California-based chef to learn more about her love of food, and get some handy tips for all of us home cooks.
You talk with great passion about food and cooking; from where does your interest stem?
My love for food started at a very young age. Both my parents are wonderful cooks, and we have many cooks on my dad’s side of the family in Greece. So growing up in a crazy Greek family, who appreciates food was a good start towards my love for cooking. At the age of seven I was officially making my own Greek recipes including spanakopita, keftedes, phyllo dough, and many others.
In 2008 I acknowledged the passion I had for the culinary arts and enrolled into the pastry chef program at Le Cordon Bleu in Sacramento, California, and in 2009 graduated with my pastry degree.
Since completing your degree, where have you worked as a chef?
I’d like to count from the time I started at the age of five, but professionally I have been a chef for seven years. At 16, I worked at an Armenian bakery in Northern California. I was so appreciative; the knowledge that I gained from the art of baking and pastries, working side by side with the owner.
In 2009 I flew to Greece and did a small externship at my Father’s friend’s fourno in Athens; there I learned how to master the basics of Greek breads and cookies.
Months later I found a job online looking for a sous chef at a Spanish restaurant Don Quijote on the island of Skiathos. I met with the head chef and he was very interested in my culinary skills, so he hired me on the spot. This was the most challenging job I have ever had; not only did I live alone, I also didn’t know anyone. I had to speak Greek fluently and at the time my Greek was quite broken. So I would study the language when I had some down time, which wasn’t very often as I worked 16 hour days, every day. Among the wonderful people I cooked for, my favourites were Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.
Wow, they’re some A-list celebrities! What came next?
In 2011 I landed a job at the Luxor in Las Vegas. I was a sushi chef specialising in Japanese & Chinese cuisine. Then in 2012 I started my own catering business here in California, Kouzounas Kitchen which is still up and running. I wanted to provide the best organic Greek pastries and appetisers. I had a booth at four different farmers markets and sold my products within the Sacramento region, and we now provide organic spices and teas too.
So what is it that you enjoy most about working in a kitchen?
When I am in the kitchen I feel happy and content; I am in my own world, and most of the time I am listening to Greek music. Cooking brings me happiness, joy, and love, and also brings back many fond memories from Greece. I think cooking is a way to get the family together, and enjoy each other’s company as well.
Aside from your catering business, you have also gained a lot of popularity through your blog Kouzounas Kitchen through which you connect and co-produce content with a number of food bloggers. Why did you start the blog, and what has the response been from your followers thus far?
It was created three years ago when a few friends of mine asked me for Greek recipes. They suggested I start my own YouTube channel, but I didn’t have the time to make videos, so I thought it would be easier for me to start a blog.
The name Kouzounas originated from my sweet yiayia Stavroula Kouzouna Kalapothakou from Mani, Greece who was a fantastic home cook. I learned many of her traditional Greek recipes and now I share them through my blog.
I started to meet wonderful food bloggers from around the world and noticed that Kouzounas Kitchen slowly began to grow an audience. As a professional chef, it’s my passion to be in the kitchen. Food is my life, and making food for people makes me happy, so teaching people how to cook, and educating them on food is what truly keeps me going in life.
And it seems you’re keeping busy with the release of your début cookbook, Back To My Roots.
Yes, I fulfilled one long awaited dream in publishing this cookbook. Back To My Roots is not only packed full with mouth-watering recipes, but I also share my personal story, kitchen tips and tricks, bits and pieces of the history of olive oil and its benefits, and much, much more! It took roughly five months with the help of many wonderful friends and food bloggers. My editor, good friend and blogger from Greece Athina Pantazatou spent many long nights with me over Skype helping edit and I have to thank her for all the hard work and dedication. I included a few food blogger recipes, and I think that is what made the cookbook special, along with the family stories of course.
Your book is made up of traditional Greek recipes. What is it that you love about the Greek cuisine?
Firstly, I love everything about the Greek culture! I love the art, history, love, passion, and of course, our Greek cuisine. Greece is such a beautiful country, and I didn’t get to really appreciate it until I lived there, which dates back to 2009 when I was living in Athens.
When I arrived in Greece I was like a kid in a candy store; I wanted to see everything and anything. The beaches are beautiful, especially the sea. I felt like I was stuck in a painting when I was swimming in the sea; beautiful blue waters, and fish around your feet.
The Greek cuisine is very diverse, utilising many wonderful ingredients. I also love that Greek recipes can be tied into the country’s history. Many recipes that the ancient Greeks used, we still use today, which I think is very important for our diet. The Mediterranean diet has been really popular these days due to the health benefits it provides.
You also state that you put your own twist on some of the recipes. Do you have any handy tips for all the home cooks out there?
Yes, Back To My Roots is based on traditional Greek recipes, with some modern twists on a few recipes and I have a tips and tricks section that is important prior to cooking. But here are a few great tips that I learned from a few chefs that have inspired me:
– When using honey that has been crystallised, simply place honey jar in a bowl of hot water. Let it sit for about 5 minutes, until the honey has softened;
– My favourite tool in the kitchen is a micro plane for zesting oranges or lemons. It’s the easiest and fastest way to add some flavour to your food;
– Use a wooden spoon over your pot, to keep your water from boiling over;
– When dying your Easter eggs, use yellow onion peels instead of red dye packets. This is the all natural organic way;
– Add red wine to your pasta sauce, for an aromatic flavour.