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Star Chef Recalls the Humble Cretan Tastes of his Childhood

Dec. 22, 2010
By Elena Paravantes

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Twenty liters of olive oil a day may seem too much for the aver­age cook, but for Cretan-born Yiannis Tsivourakis it’s the usual quan­tity of oil he uses daily in his kitchen. You could say he has a spe­cial affin­ity for the ingre­di­ent.

The exec­u­tive chef at the five-star Minoa Hotel located in Chania on the island of Crete, Tsivourakis couldn’t do his culi­nary magic with­out the golden liquid. And it is thanks to his per­sis­tence, that Mediterranean-style menus fea­ture at all four of the hotel’s restau­rants, with spe­cial nights ded­i­cated to gen­uine Cretan cui­sine.

We (Greeks) tried to ‘Europeanize’ our- selves too quickly- Cretan chef Yiannis Tsivourakis

Born and raised in a moun­tain­ous vil­lage on Crete, Tsivourakis grew up on the local diet. As he became older, he became very involved in the process of pro­duc­ing and prepar­ing the food he ate. While most boys in rural Crete spent their days help­ing out with field­work, Yiannis spent his time in the kitchen, making cheese, fennel pies and olive oil cake. Encouraged by a teacher who saw his talent, Tsivourakis decided to study cook­ing and thus began his jour­ney as a pro­fes­sional chef.

Tsivourakis is one of the few chefs who uses olive oil almost exclu­sively as the main ingre­di­ent for all his culi­nary cre­ations. “Olive oil for me is pre­cious but also an easy ingre­di­ent in the kitchen,” he explains.

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Despite having worked with inter­na­tion­ally acclaimed chefs, his food still reflects the humble Cretan tastes of his child­hood. Not only because he was born there, but due to what he describes as an “inner oblig­a­tion” to pro­mote the prod­ucts ofhis home­land. “When I first inter­acted with chefs from other parts of the world, I felt infe­rior, espe­cially when I saw pro­fes­sion­als from other coun­tries using and pro­mot­ing their local prod­ucts,” Tsivourakis admits. “Not only are there very few Greek prod­ucts known inter­na­tion­ally, they are not known in Greece either,” says Tsivourakis, who believes that pro­mot­ing and adver­tis­ing these under­val­ued prod­ucts would ben­e­fit both Greek cui­sine and the local econ­omy.

For him these humble and under­es­ti­mated ingre­di­ents are what he loves most about Cretan cui­sine. Second on his list of favorite ingre­di­ents, after olive oil, are horta, wild greens avail­able freely through­out the Greek coun­try­side. “One can find a wide vari­ety of wild greens here in Crete, each having their own dis­tinc­tive aroma and taste,” he says. “We use them in a vari­ety of dishes such as pies, with seafood, accom­pa­ny­ing meat or we eat them with olive oil, fresh tomato and cheese.”

As for the olive oil, it is the basis for almost every single dish he pre­pares, and luck­ily there is no short­age of it on Crete, or in Greece over­all. “Everyone on Crete has their own olive trees, and the olive oil we use at the hotel is pro­vided by the owner from his own olive orchards,” he explains.

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But don’t expect any eccen­tric dishes coated in olive oil. “I don’t use olive oil just for the sake of using it,” he is quick to point out. The extra virgin olive oil is used in gen­er­ous amounts but only in dishes that call for it. Vinaigrettes, sauces and even frying is done with olive oil. Tsivourakis con­sid­ers olive oil to be a light ingre­di­ent and this is expressed in the nuances of his cook­ing. “Customers always tell me they’ve enjoyed a truly light meal, and that they don’t leave the table feel­ing stuffed. This I attribute to the olive oil,” he says.

Insisting on local Cretan cui­sine is not nec­es­sar­ily an easy task, and Tsivourakis has had his share of obsta­cles along the way, iron­i­cally not from tourists but from locals. “When I pre­pare dishes that are based on veg­eta­bles such as wild greens and legumes, many of the locals may be offended by the simple and humble ingre­di­ents that I use,” Tsivourakis says, express­ing his dismay. His “mis­sion” has not only been to intro­duce Cretan cui­sine to for­eign­ers who visit Greece, but to also re-intro­duce the culi­nary delights of Crete to the locals.

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Most Cretans, he reveals, are not aware of the value of their local diet, and do not follow it. “We have aban­doned our diet for many rea­sons: less time, less inter­est in family life, more money. We tried to ‘Europeanize’ our­selves too quickly, and as a result we adopted new nutri­tional habits with­out know­ing the value of the nutri­tional habits handed down to us,” he says.

Tsivourakis believes that chang­ing this men­tal­ity can only start at home. “Parents need to cook at home and start using the ingre­di­ents that make up the Cretan diet for it to become a way of life once again,” he says.

Although he is sad­dened by the over­abun­dance and acces­si­bil­ity of fast and easy food, Tsivourakis does a see a re-emer­gence of the tra­di­tional Greek diet. The recent eco­nomic tur­moil has driven the Greeks back to their humble, afford­able and healthy cui­sine… or per­haps it is due to enlight­ened chefs like Tsivourakis, who are show­ing them what they’ve been miss­ing.

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