Vefa Alexiadou is a very popular and respected food writer and celebrity chef here in Greece. She is also well-known around the world for her TV appearances and selection of colorful, illustrated cookbooks. In this interview, she shares a few of her secret ingredients for culinary success and turns her thoughts to the future of food and cooking.
You are a well-known, immensely popular, leading culinary authority in Greece. You were born in Volos, a coastal port city in Thessaly, and it is obvious that you have an intense passion for cooking. Where do you think this enthusiasm came from? Did you learn how to cook at a young age?
My passion for cooking began in childhood because of my mother, who was born in Constantinople. She conveyed the beauty of her own homeland in the unforgettable tastes and aromas of food that tantalized everyone’s tastebuds. She had an inexhaustible source of recipes, which she taught me to cook in her own inimitable way, and emphasized the need for each dish to look as attractive as it tasted. I believe she succeeded in passing on her love and flair for cooking to me.
At that time, it was impossible to think how much cooking would influence me in later life. That it would be my main occupation, which even today, after so many years, fills me with joy and satisfaction.
You must have tested thousands of varying recipes over the years. How do you manage to keep coming up with new ideas?
Well, there’s such a variety of products produced by the earth and the ocean, that there are many ways in which we can process and combine them in order to create new recipes. I have already stored about 100,000 selected recipes in my computer. What do I mean by “selected?” Well, dishes which I have thoroughly tested with proven ingredients and in balanced proportions, that have had an accurate result.
There are so many major cultural differences in the approach people around the world take to cooking and eating food. What can you tell me about Greek cuisine in general and how healthy it is?
The Greek culinary tradition, inextricably tied to Greek civilization, is ancient, with roots going back many centuries.
The unique geographical position of Greece, the mild climate, the diversity of its soil, with large mountainous areas, plains and surrounding ocean, created ideal conditions for producing outstanding products from the land and sea. Thus, Greece is well-known for its highly refined and healthy cuisine.
The colonial expansion of the Greek element in the rest of the Mediterranean, as well as contact with other cultures of the East, were equally important factors for the development of Greek cuisine. The final configuration in classical times influenced the cuisines of the cultures that followed, such as the Greco-Roman and later, through the long path of the Byzantine, the cuisines of the middle Ages and modern Europe.
Vefa, you became an even bigger household name when you started appearing on TV, passing on cooking tips and bringing mouth-watering recipes into the homes of thousands. What was that like, cooking on air in front of the bright lights and cameras?
In a few words, it was a wonderful adventure. I remember my first years on television. The main difficulty I encountered at first, was how to get used to looking into the lens. However, there were numerous other difficulties. For starters, there was no kitchen. I presented dishes on a table and had to show them being prepared in all their stages. This was hard because the food was pre-cooked, ready for final presentation, while I prepared all the ingredients before the TV audience. This meant double trouble and double costs. I had to bring the tools and utensils I needed from home and return with them every day. However, I enjoyed my cooking, and drew strength and courage to overcome those first difficulties. I loved my public appearances and the admiration of my fans.
From cooking delicious Greek dishes, writing innovative cookery books, producing culinary videos, opening the increasingly popular “Vefa House” stores and appearing on TV and in countless magazines: which one of these were the most challenging and the most enjoyable?
In 1980, at a time when, in Greece, there were no serious attempts at writing a cookbook, I decided that having the know-how and the real taste of cooking, I would create my own first cookbook. Its enormous success inspired me to write another three cookbooks, completing a series of books which were titled “Invitations to Dinner, to Cocktails, to Tea and to a Children’s Party”. These books immediately became popular with the Greek public. My career as a writer/ publisher continued with the book “Greek Cuisine” followed by “Greek Pastries and Desserts”. The success of these two books was and remains constant in Greece and abroad. They were translated into English and are especially popular in the US, Australia and Canada. “Greek Cuisine” was also translated into German and is still selling well in German-speaking countries. My next book was “Festive Cuisine”, which has also been translated into English and after that, along with my daughter Alexia, we published the first volume of vegetarian and seafood books, which received an award as the Best Mediterranean Cookbook in Greek from the Salon International Livre Gourmand of Perigueux, France. Since then, we have completed a second volume.
What do you think about food television today and competition shows like Master & Top Chef?
Well, lately, it seems that the channels are oriented in other directions, with programs of lesser quality. If you are willing to appear on screen and know about cooking, it seems that it doesn’t matter what format you use or what you actually say. So, channels are filled with different shows, not exactly what I would call cooking programs. It’s because of this bombardment by recipe channels, magazines and newspapers, that people often become misinformed and find it difficult to understand and distinguish which recipes are the best or most suitable.
Do you think that family traditions and old Greek recipes are still being passed down in families, despite the trend for younger generations to eat fast-food?
The love for cooking is timeless in every Greek household. Most Greek people don’t eat out of necessity, but out of enjoyment, as cooking can be creative and great fun, especially during festivities. Throughout the centuries, traditional recipes have passed down from grandmothers to daughters and then to granddaughters and even shared among friends and neighbors. Young people and new housewives have loved to experiment trying out new flavors and creating new dishes.
Finally Vefa, tell me what you are working on next, in terms of a book or maybe even a memoir?
At the moment, I am working on three more cookbooks; one for children, another for a single person cooking and one for light cooking.
Author: Lorraine Eyre