An intimate conversation with Chef Marilena Leavitt

Marilena Leavitt blog conversation with Zelos Greek Artisan

Today’s blog post is another installment in our ongoing series on Global Greek Gastronomy, that fusion of traditional and contemporary Greek cuisine that has spread across the world. In this special section of our blog, we want to promote the people and places that we believe are pioneering this trend. Full disclosure: we DO NOT gain anything from these posts, we are not paid to advertise them!

I came across Marilena Leavitt’s Instagram page and blog, Marilena’s Kitchen, when I first started my Zelos journey. I was on the lookout for like-minded souls who believed in the richness of Greek cuisine and also felt a passion to make it known to more people in the US and Marilena definitely fit that bill, teaching cooking and creating new recipes from her home in Vienna, in Northern Virginia, outside of Washington, DC.  Below is an excerpt from her chat with my friend & collaborator, Pauline - stay tuned next week for a new recipe from Marilena, showcasing some of the products from our Ultimate Greek Artisan Starter Kit Gift Box!

Pauline: I was so excited when I saw that you, too, had lived in Rome for many years and that we even overlapped at some point! Experiencing food in Italy while raising very young kids was such a formative experience for me - how did it affect you?

Marilena: I came to Italy with my newborn daughter because of my husband’s job; a situation similar to your own.  When our daughter was five months old, I decided to take a class on Italian regional cooking for a couple of weeks and brought her along with me because I really had no choice. I loved the class and, after the two weeks were over, I decided I wanted to enroll in the full, year-long course…baby and all! Everyone at the school loved her and the cooks would pass her around, even when she was older and more active. Italy is a wonderful place to be with young children. They’re always welcome in restaurants, which was something I missed when we then later moved to London.

P: Yes, I can totally relate! After we left Rome for Brussels, we only went to Greek or Italian restaurants with my young sons…it was the only place I could enjoy my meal without feeling nervous that people would look disapprovingly at my kids, no matter how well-behaved they were!

M: Yes, I felt at home and at ease with Italian cuisine and with life in Rome, as it was so close to life in Greece. There are many similarities between Greek and Italian food as well--especially southern Italian cuisine--although I I found the regional differences between northern and southern Italian cuisine quite striking. In that first cooking course, we would cover a different region each month and I just loved the program. I soon became convinced that I did not want to go back to my old life (I’d studied economics and worked in the US Embassy in Athens) and I knew that I wanted to pursue a culinary career. Now, I offer cooking classes primarily on Greek and Italian cuisines at the Culinaria Cooking School in Vienna, VA. Teaching opened up so many other doors;  I also work as a private chef and cater events, I started my food blog, and, I continue creating recipes in collaboration with food brands.

P: I saw you also went through a classic French cooking school - what was that like after having been immersed in Italian cooking?

M: Yes, I attended now (sadly) closed L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland once we came back to the United States. L’Academie indeed provided a classic French approach to cooking and one which focused more on techniques rather than regions and ingredients, as had my Italian school. I received a very good education there and the school introduced me to a completely different area of gastronomy…yet it also made me even more aware of just how much I loved Greek and Italian cuisine.

P: You share with Maria an interest in photography - how did you develop that interest and how does it inform your career?

M: Photography has always been in my life, just as much as cooking! My father was a very gifted amateur landscape and nature photographer in Greece and I shared his interest, becoming my high school’s class photographer. My children are also interested photography, so it’s always been a part of the whole family. When I began to teach cooking, I saw how important it was for students to have the image of the final dish they were making, so I began photographing my dishes. I love this part of my job, as it allows me to continue my creativity in another medium.

P: Speaking of creativity, can you tell us a bit about your creative process? How do you build a recipe, what inspires you?

M: I focus on a single, good ingredient, and one which is always seasonal. I try never to cook with ingredients that are out of season. I have a little vegetable garden in my backyard and when the tomatoes die out in October, that’s it, I don’t cook with fresh tomatoes again. They’re just not going to taste good in the winter, no matter where they come from. I can wait and appreciate the tomatoes even more when they start to grow again! Making conscious decisions about sustainability and food waste is very important to me. So, I really choose a single ingredient based on what’s available in the markets, I like the challenge of cooking with just what I can find and crafting a meal around that.

P: In the last years we see an increased interest in creative Greek cuisine. How do you see the future of Greek cuisine being shaped, especially in an increasingly digital worlds?

M: It’s natural to experiment and be creative in the kitchen and especially today the visual aspect is so important. One thing that my school in Rome taught me was that we taste with our eyes first, so the visual aspect remains something critical in preparing and presenting food.  People are most interested in seeing the real thing.  They’re also inspired by the true spirit and simplicity of Greek cuisine. I don’t think most people really want to go home and try the fancy stuff; they don’t want to deconstruct a tomato salad or learn to make Feta foam. They want to learn about the tomatoes and Feta in their dish and they have so much information with everything online. People are very educated and familiar with different ingredients and are willing to experiment. I find, however, that even if people ask me often for a lighter version of a traditional dish, or perhaps a vegan version, they still want me to teach authentic Greek or Italian food.

P: Our motto at Zelos is “love through food” - have you had an experience of love through food?

M: Of course, Greeks show their love through food! We are a generous people and we love feeding others, we cook to nurture and to show our love to others - cooking and hospitality go hand in hand! I think the food from my childhood is always the best ever - nobody’s pites will ever be as good as my mother’s (Pauline can imagine, since Marilena grew up in Ioannina, where there are the most amazing pites in all of Greece!!). Yet we take our childhood foods for granted, and I certainly took my mother’s cooking for granted when I went off to college. That’s when I realized I needed to learn to cook and to learn her recipes, too (especially when my husband asked me to make my mother’s imam bayildi and I realized I didn’t know how!).

It seems that food isn’t as important here in the States - in Greece we finish a meal and already talk of the next one! Here it’s almost an afterthought - “it’s five o’clock, what will we have for dinner?!” So I’m really happy all my children cook, too. My daughter makes fresh pasta every Sunday, my middle son taught me all about reverse searing, a new technique that I’d never learned, and even my youngest stays away from his college cafeteria and cooks all his own meals.

P: What is your biggest/craziest culinary dream? What’s next for you?

M: I really believe that the future of Greek cuisine hasn’t happened yet, most people outside Greece just know a few stereotypical dishes, like moussaka. With all the focus on the Mediterranean Diet, I know Greece will become a true culinary destination, for we’re right at the center of that Diet. I would love to learn more about regional Greek cuisine, but from local home cooks, not really from visiting fancy restaurants. I’d love to be able to spend more than my usual single summer month, when it’s always a rush to visit all the family, and instead stay for three or four months, meeting the really good cooks in Greek villages and cities. I am inspired by those naturally gifted cooks that create masterpieces in their kitchens, working with very few ingredients. I admire their passion, their frugality and ingenuity, and I want to learn more from them!



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