From her grandmother's Greek cuisine to personal chef services in Los Angeles, U.S.A, the second generation Greek-American chef, culinary and travel writer, Christina Xenos, gave an interview to New Greek TV's journalist, Despina Afentouli, about her new cook book, her professional achievements, and how she managed to keep it Greek in the U.S.A.
Christina Xenos, a Greek-American living in Los Angeles with family roots "from all over Greece, but mainly from Crete and Milos, recently co-wrote "Opa! The Healthy Greek Cookbook", with the chef, Theo Stephan.
As she said, the message Christina was trying to relay through her book was that, "Greek cooking is healthy and approachable."
As she explained, she designed her recipes to be easily attainable and accessible to people who may have never experienced Greek cuisine before: "We give substitutions for ingredients in case people aren't able to find specific Greek ingredients, like cheeses and spices. I also tried to simplify some of my methods without compromising on how the final dish tastes."
As the owner of the "Sweet Greek Personal Chef Services" company, Christina pointed out that there was a problem in the United States with many of everyday ingredients being mass-produced, she mentioned "This can degrade their quality."
Because of that reason she stressed, she assessed the quality of the ingredients she used when cooking in a certain way: "When I cook, I try to get my ingredients by visiting farmers' markets and using products that are produced at a local level."
According to the latest American National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, there was a rise in America's obesity rate, since last decade. However, Christina said that was not just a case occurring in the United States: "[...] It's all over the world, and I think much of that is attributed to eating processed and fast foods."
Therefore, "What makes a meal healthy is being the person in control of what you're putting into it", Christina said, underlining that "When you're making a meal in your home, you control the amount of salt, oil, butter etc., not to mention that you're using fresher ingredients, and those that have not been overly processed".
Apart from co-writing a book, Christina said that she supported her writing partner, Theo Stephan, during a food and wine weekend that she organized in Crete, Greece in the mid of June 2018, which included visits to two wineries, a craft brewery, and an outdoor feast that included dishes with recipes from their cookbook.
Learning about Christina's diverse professional career, one would wonder whether she defined herself more as a "personal chef" or as a "culinary and travel writer". "I like variety", she said, explaining that she liked to switch things up and that she continued a great deal of freelance writing in the food and travel space..."
Besides, she said that "in our current culture, people are not just one thing": "I went to Ohio University's Scripps School of Journalism, where I graduated with a degree in magazine journalism. That was right when the Internet was taking hold. A few years the entire magazine industry changed. I managed to hang on, working first as a book editor and as an online editor and freelance writer for over 15 years, towards the end of that time I knew I needed a change..."
She further added that when she went to culinary school, she was "just adding" to her "toolbox": "After I graduated, I started throwing pop-up dinners through "EatWith" and "Feastly", and when those became successful, I launched my personal chef business and picked up a few private clients who I cook for on a weekly basis, and more who I work with on one-off events, like intimate dinner parties and private cooking classes."
Christina emphasized that her previous experience as a journalist in the media industry, the travel and hospitality sector contributed significantly to her culinary career: "Working as a journalist in Los Angeles, was incredibly important in opening my eyes to food, chefs, and restaurants. I covered the Los Angeles restaurant scene extensively, met many of our best chefs and had the opportunity to discuss their menus, inspirations, and cooking techniques with them. That taught me so much, and still continues to add to my culinary inspiration presently."
She stressed that Greek cooking is "definitely" her specialty and that her culinary career began, since her early years: "I trailed my yia-yias [grandmother] around the kitchen when I was growing up, watching everything move they made."
Christina said that she also learned how to cook Greek food from many other people's yia-yias, as she helped prepare all the food with them for their local church in Dayton, Ohio, for their annual Greek festival: "The women of the [Greek] community taught me all the techniques for spanakopita, tiropita, baklava, tsoureki, dolmathes, and so on."
As she added, the rest came from filling in the blanks from eating her way around Greece and Greek food around the world: "I've been lucky enough to visit so many different parts of Greece. I always keep track of everything I eat, and try to order things that aren't completely familiar and ask a lot of questions about how they're all made."
While teaching cooking classes for private clients, Christina said that most of her clients want to learn the "spanakopita" [spinach pie] recipe: "Spanakopita is always a popular one, and I think it's because there is so much mystery around handling phyllo."
Christina referred to Los Angeles, as one of the best food cities in the world: "We have so many dynamic chefs from a variety of different cultures and backgrounds who aren't afraid to push boundaries. Michelin stopped coming years ago, so chefs don't feel the pressure to fit into their stiff criteria, and that might just be one of the reasons that LA has the creative, and at sometimes experimental, concepts we do right now."
She emphasized that she stayed on top of new trends by being out eating in her city and in any city she travels to: "It's amazing what you learn and what inspires you when you take the time to talk to people and ask them questions."
But how can a second generation Greek living in the U.S. keep it "Greek" in a homogenized American culture? "[...] Our city [Los Angeles] is such a melting pot of different cultures. I think people here especially are open to learning about new cultures and experiencing new cuisines."
After all, as Christina concluded, that was how Greek food evolved over the centuries as well: "Greek food didn't end with the Diaspora to America for me — even though those are the traditional dishes I grew up cooking — it's dynamic and continues to evolve in Greece and outside of it."
Photos of interview courtesy: Ch. Xenos' personal archive.
Pic. 1: Book cover of "Opa! The Healthy Greek Cookbook", written by Theo Stephan and Christina Xenos.
Pic. 2 - source: Amanda-Meyer. Christina cooking.
Pic. 3 - source: Helene Dujardin. Christina's spinachpie.