You may know award-winning Greek-American chef Michael Psilakis from his co-hosting gig on BBC AMERICA’s adventure cooking competition series, No Kitchen Required. As a boy, Psilakis learned how to roast whole lambs on the spit from his father. Specializing in the Greek food he grew up with, Psilakis is now chef/owner of three New York restaurants: Kefi, FISHTAG and MP Taverna, as well as the author of How To Roast a Lamb. We asked him about the show, tailgating and what he wishes we all knew about Greek eats.
I guarantee you that if you roast an animal at a tailgate, people will ask you when you’re going to do it again. To me, there is nothing better at a big gathering than a whole animal roast.
Have you ever roasted a lamb while tailgating?
My family was known for throwing big parties, and game day was no exception. As we prepped for the game we would pick at the lamb, still on the spit, with a fork. Plates were definitely not required. There’s no better way to enjoy a game. I guarantee you that if you roast an animal at a tailgate, at the end of the night people will ask you when you’re going to do it again. To me, there is nothing better at a big gathering than a whole animal roast.
What else do you cook while tailgating?
Definitely just meat, I don’t think of bringing seafood. Sausages, charcuterie, meatballs and lamb for a make-your-own-souvlaki bar. These are always the best bets.
What is your favorite fall drink?
For tailgating, beer is best, especially really bitter IPAs. I also like to drink whiskey straight. Lately I’ve been drinking a lot of bourbon. We have a Four Roses Small Batch at MP Taverna Astoria that I really like.
What’s your favorite comfort food?
When I first started my career, I focused on breaking the culinary boundaries, constantly pushing to come up with the newest development in the kitchen. However, when my father passed, I realized that food serves as the ultimate catalyst to bring loved ones together, teach lessons and share memories that would shape our lives and our destinies. This is when I began offering more comfort and traditional food at my restaurants. Comfort food evokes memories of the past. The first Easter without my father marked the first time we had to spit a baby lamb without him, a tradition that lasted my whole life. As I prepped the lamb, my then two-year-old son, Gabriel, stood next to me, grabbing my leg as young boys do, eagerly awaiting his turn to help daddy. When it was tied and ready, I turned to Gabriel and asked him to cup his hands and as I poured the water I instructed him, as my father had years before, to rub the animal with his little wet hands so we could properly season the animal. In that moment, I saw myself as my father and Gabriel as me, 40 years earlier. I remembered with exactness the feeling of the tepid water splashing of my hands before I rubbed the much cooler, very dry beast. Life had come full circle; this lesson was passed from my grandfather, to my father, to me and then to my son. This changed my life and my perception about food forever.
Slogan: the burger so good, you might even forget it’s lamb!
When people think Greek, they think of dolmas and gyros and deep-fried veggies. What do you wish more people knew about Greek food?
Really that’s just a tiny fraction of what Greek food is. To me, it’s a reflection of time, history and geography. Greece is Mediterranean country that puts us in the realm of Mediterranean products and is influenced by history, in particular the Turkish occupation for six centuries that fused Middle Eastern and Moroccan, Italian. This background makes for a unique flavor profile in the cuisine, which changes regionally, kind of like Italian food.
If someone’s eating Greek food for the first time, what would you recommend?
I’d have to say Tsoutsoukakia (meatballs). I combine ground pork, ground lamb and ground beef with onion, garlic, dill, and parsley and cook them in a garlic tomato sauce. Simple to make and full of flavor.
Talk about traveling to other countries and cooking without a kitchen for No Kitchen Required.
It was truly an unbelievable experience. I was so out of my element cooking in jungles, on beaches and on mountaintops, but I was blown away by the rich history and food culture we were exposed to. The only thing that was really tough was being away from my wife and kids for such a long time, but all the native people were so welcoming and loved sharing their traditions with us. No doubt I’m more at home in the kitchen than I am in a tribal village, but my experience with the show made me realize how similar we all are. We all value the power of food and how it brings people together and is a vehicle to pass on tradition. Besides, I grew up cooking over an open flame, so I was used to it, in a way.
What’s the most basic food you ended up cooking?
I think the most basic was just rice. In some of the countries I visited, the people had access to only seven ingredients, maybe. These are people who face hardships that are much different than our own, but we are all connected by the joy of gathering around a table and enjoying a meal with family and friends.