Michael Psilakis thought food was art – until his father died.
“I had an epiphany when my dad passed away,” said Psilakis, the award-winning chef who this month opened MP Taverna in Irvington. “I was always a very cerebral chef. But then I started to see food as a vehicle to plant the seeds of memory and bring people together.”
That was in 2008. It was at that point that the 43-year-old Psilakis, a Long Island native, began writing short stories in honor of his father, stories that were gradually incorporated into a cookbook published in 2009, “How to Roast a Lamb.”
“Food is the simplest form of giving,” he said. “I moved away from the cerebral and artistic to the recognizable, the approachable – comfort food, simple in its origin, but cooked on a professional level, with the best ingredients.” For Psilakis, this represented a return to his roots. “If you’ve ever seen ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding.’ That’s my life,” he said. “My family never went anywhere, on vacations or anything, we just made food and had people over.”
Psilakis’ culinary training started young. He was 7 when his father, who came to the U.S. from Crete in the 1950s, taught him how to roast a whole lamb on a spit. That, of course, had to start with killing the lamb. “We had a goat and a lamb in the backyard,” he recalled. “ My father told me to chase the lamb and catch him, and then he slit his throat. That was painful for me, I was crying, the lamb was my friend. But when we ate, my dad reminded us that something had to die for us to eat this, not to forget that. I don’t know if I’ll teach my sons that.”
Fast forwarding to age 23, Psilakis was getting ready to go to law school, but thoughts of going into the restaurant business would not go away. At 23, as the manager at a restaurant called Ecco on Long Island, he stepped into the kitchen for the first time when the chef didn’t show up for work. Just a year later, with Psilakis cooking, that restaurant got two stars in The New York Times.
After that, he opened a couple of restaurants in Manhattan, one of which survives today as Kefi, on the Upper West Side, which serves traditional Greek fare, and FISHTAG, in the same area, which he describes as wine bar meets seafood restaurant. Then in May of last year, he opened MP Taverna in Roslyn, with another outlet of that restaurant under construction in Astoria, set to open in late summer.
Psilakis’ goal is to have people think of Greek food the same way they think of Chinese or Italian when they’re thinking of what to order in.
“I’m trying to demystify Greek food, bring it into the mainstream,” he said. “I want this restaurant not to be just for special occasions, but to replace the dinner table of yesteryear.”
Prices, he said, will be reasonable, perhaps $30 a person for dinner, with entrees in the teens, and non-Greek specialties like macaroni and cheese and chicken fingers for the kids. “I’d like it if when people get the check, they say, ‘Wow, we got all this … for that?”