It’s been a while since I’ve shared a profile in our Global Greek Gastronomy series, but that’s certainly not been for lack of material. On the contrary, I continue to be thrilled by just how much Greek cuisine is evolving, yet in a way that stays true to its roots, grounded in the high-quality, fresh ingredients that are found throughout the country. With every trip back to Greece, I savor each new culinary discovery and want to share it with everyone here in the States. I really want to help my fellow Americans experience the authentic richness that is Greek cooking and get to know about the multi-faceted people behind more contemporary takes on traditional flavors.
Regular readers of this blog will remember that one family doing a lot to bring contemporary takes on traditional flavors is the Martavaltzoglou family, with their Agrozimi brand of pasta products. It was Kostas Martavaltzoglou who introduced me to one of the many chefs that use their pasta, suggesting I talk to him. Apostolos Altanis, Executive Chef at the Hyatt Regency Thessaloniki, replied almost immediately to my email…not a common thing in the hectic world of restaurants and chefs! Clearly, this was a man after my own heart, and after learning more about him, I wanted to share his story with our Zelos community. Read below for an excerpt from our interview…and stay tuned next week for one of his recipes!
MK: Can you tell us in a few words your own story and how you decided to become a Chef?
AA: I was born in Argithea, in the province of Karditsa, and spent most of my childhood summers there, although I grew up in Thessaloniki. After I finished my military service, I was looking for a career as much as I was looking for work. I hadn’t managed to land on something and I was looking for what could represent me and interest me. I happened to see by chance a Help Wanted sign in the window of an Italian restaurant, so I opened the door, went in, and asked for a job. I even told the manager that he could put me on a trial period and if he wasn’t happy, he could fire me without pay! That was the first step in my journey, one that still continues today.
MK: What made you become interested in food? What do you think you add to the food scene of your home town of Thessaloniki?
AA: I grew up in a family where food played a very important role. From a very young age, I remember big family meals during holidays, anniversaries, and the like, where my mother, grandmothers, aunts, and even my father, a formidable roaster of all meats, prepared different dishes, “pitas”, desserts and other sweets from the region. So my memories are full of the fragrances and images of myself helping out with all of this from a very young age, learning and tasting side-by-side with my family. That’s what I think I bring to cooking, my memories through traditional flavors that are given a different look. Plus, Thessaloniki’s diversity is just so great and evident in its cuisine that the opportunities for new creations are truly endless.
MK: How does Greek culture influence your culinary choices?
AA: My choices are based on Greek culture. It could not have been any different, living in Greece. After all, our culture is so strong, it’s present everywhere, let alone in cooking. Our roots run deep and always show up in all facets of our lives. Clearly, whatever I choose is inextricably bound up with our culture, whether it’s an ingredient, a dish, or an entire menu.
MK: Can you tell me about your creative process? How do you choose ingredients and create a recipe, and then a menu? What inspires you?
AA: I don’t know if I can really explain it. I don’t follow a specific approach or process. I might get an idea from an ingredient or I might think about the occasion for which I’m preparing and where my menu is directed. When I do have the trigger, I begin choosing my ingredients. What’s absolutely necessary is to have products of outstanding quality and that is my first request.
MK: What made you choose Agrozimi’s pasta and not some Italian brand?
AA: Besides the excellent quality, I always try to use Greek products that are made with taste, excellent raw materials and in traditional ways. I’ve participated in many presentations on the promotion of Greek products, I think they are great and that we should all help them emerge more. After all, as I mentioned before, my cooking is based on the Greek tradition that Agrozimi’s products represent with pride!
MK: In recent years we have seen an increased interest in creative Greek cuisine. How do you see the future of Greek cuisine shaped?
AA: Cooking is an art. As an art, therefore, it evolves and reshapes itself. In recent years we have seen an increasing tendency to return to more traditional flavors, but in different forms, and with a healthier approach based on the Mediterranean diet, which, let's not forget, it is based on Greek cuisine. So I believe that the future of cooking in general will evolve around creative cuisine. Home-style flavors are given a more contemporary look and bold combinations of ingredients.
MK: What is the future of food and creativity in a rapidly evolving and increasingly digital world?
AA: We are now living in a digital reality. Everything is evolving at a dizzying pace. So every day new ways and techniques are emerging that contribute to the evolution of cooking. I honestly think there are no limits to creativity. This applies to professional chefs as well as to a simple home cook who now has instant access to recipes, techniques and menu presentations that help them develop unbelievable cooking skills. It is no coincidence that cooking is now very popular on both television and social media.
MK: Here at Zelos, we believe in love through food - have you had an experience of love through food?
AA: In general my relationship with food is based on this feeling. I feel the same way about the work I have chosen to do. If you do not love what you do, you will not be able to pass on that love to the people who will taste your creations.
MK: Do you remember the first time you ate something that moved you or that surprised you?
AA: I'll tell you something that from the first time I ate it still to today has moved me. It’s a pie “pita” that we make in the region I come from and it’s called “plastos” (which means “fake” in Greek). It’s basically a very simple pie with wild greens with an outstanding flavor. I'm always looking forward to tasting it and every chance I have to go to my village, it’s the first food I ask for!
MK: What is your biggest, wildest gastronomic dream?
AA: I’ve been very lucky in my career so far and have achieved much of what I dreamt of when I embarked on my journey into the world of cooking. Always with hard work, dedication, and being part of great teams, we have been able to see the restaurants I work at, Alfredo’s and Ambrosia, be rewarded for many years, with the highest reward coming from our day-to-day customers. But without dreams, we do not move on, so of course I have my own, whether they are to continue strong and receive greater and greater distinctions in Greece and abroad, or to have the opportunity to continue cooking for important people in all areas.
Zelos is passionate about Greek food and 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!
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