As New York City chef Michael Psilakis modernizes the ancient flavors of the Peloponnese, he talks (and talks) to writer Oliver Strand about the legacy of his mother's kitchen and the perseverance of the Greeks.

Michael Psilakis in Greece

Although the Peloponnese is just a half-day's drive west of Athens, it can be a hard region to pry open. Tourists rarely venture here, even if the wide expanse of craggy mountains has more than its share of that distinctly Greek take on coastlines, where the hills seemingly disappear into the sea. But I have as my guide Michael Psilakis, the chef at the taverna Kefi and the gastropub Gus and Gabriel in Manhattan (and an F&W Best New Chef 2008), who has come to explore some of the ingredients and traditions that inspire his food.

Michael Psilakis

© Martin Morrell

We're standing by the side of the road in Pylos, on the western coast of the Peloponnese, not far from the village where Psilakis's mother was born. The glassy Ionian Sea is reflecting the morning light with such intensity that there seem to be two suns, one in the sky and one in the water.

Looking out at the horizon, Psilakis poses a philosophical question. "Is gift-giving a selfish act?" he asks in his gravelly voice. "Dude, I've been thinking about this for 40 years. André Soltner [the legendary French chef] wrote that all chefs are gift-givers by nature. But if it brings you so much pleasure, are you doing it for others or for yourself?

"That makes me think of my mother's food," he continues. "It was a representation of love, and it made her happy. Was it for her or for us? I've spent a lot of time and whiskey over this." Psilakis is a talker. When he holds forth he's funny and intense, especially when it comes to subjects like food, or Greece, or his family—which are really all the same thing. And even though he has the build of a rugby player, his fingers are as nimble as those of a pianist when he cooks. When he's in the kitchen, he's calm and focused.

Michael Psilakis

© Martin Morrell

After bouncing around one morning in an old Toyota 4Runner with iffy seat belts, we end up at the village of Kinigos, high above Pylos, where Psilakis kneads dough alongside Maria Kourebana as she makes bread for the week at the communal oven. She shows him how she leaves the dough to proof in a wooden trough, then lays blankets on top to keep it warm. When he was growing up on New York's Long Island, Psilakis says, his mother made bread the same way: "She put the dough on the dining-room table and covered it with sleeping bags."

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As we wait for the bread to rise, Kourebana offers us platters of diples, fried dough with honey and toasted walnuts. Psilakis speaks to her in Greek, which rumbles along at a rapid pace that has less to do with the musty classical language still taught at boarding schools than the fast-moving dialects of southern Italy. Charmed, she can't help but laugh and pat his cheek.

When the dough is ready, Kourebana shapes some loaves for the wood-burning oven and pan-fries the rest in rough squares. Psilakis loves the fried bread and decides to use it for a Greek-salad sandwich, spread with a red-pepper tzatziki (cucumber-yogurt spread) and topped with tomatoes, olives and feta.

In a nearby garden, Psilakis spots a basil plant with leaves far more tender and perfumed than I've seen elsewhere in the Mediterranean. He plucks off a sprig and tucks it behind his ear. "My grandfather used to do this," he says. "He said it calms you down."

His grandfather would return to this region every year with empty trunks, which he'd fill with so much olive oil, preserves, wine and cheese that the whole family had to help lug them to the airport. Even though Psilakis was born in New York City, he's tasted the Peloponnese his whole life.

It doesn't seem like such a bountiful place in person. The land is harsh, the mountains dry and covered with hardy, heat-loving wild sage and rosemary. It's beautiful to look at, but it's so untamed that even after 10,000 years of civilization, most of the region feels empty. The ruins of the palace of Nestor, a hero of Homer's Odyssey, are a short drive from Pylos. The cities he built are just villages today.

Michael Psilakis

"The Captain." Photo © Martin Morrell.

The area is sleepy, even in the height of summer. That might change with the opening of Costa Navarino, a nearly 2,500-acre complex consisting of five seaside resorts, with villas and golf courses landscaped with thousands of centuries-old olive trees. Developed by Vassilis C. Constantakopoulos, a shipping magnate known simply as "the Captain," Costa Navarino will also hopefully be a monument to Greek culture, a place to celebrate and protect life in the villages nearby. Psilakis will participate in a cooking school on-site that will also serve as a research lab for Greek culinaria—that's another reason he is spending time in the Peloponnese. The recent economic turmoil in Greece doesn't seem to faze him: "In 1986, there was a huge earthquake in Kalamata, and the town newspaper had a photo on the front page of my grandfather walking down the street, on a hot summer day, in a suit jacket with a feather in his hat, the rubble in the background," he says. "Perseverance is innate in the Greek."

Psilakis became a chef by accident. An accountant by training, he took over the stove of a restaurant he and his wife owned when the chef abruptly quit. So what if he had no professional experience? He had books.

"Michel Bras cooks what my head says to cook," Psilakis says about the visionary French chef. He read Bras and other French masters, and he was inspired by their disciplined and creative approach to food, how they took an already highly developed cuisine and rethought it entirely. "These legendary chefs have a deep understanding of every element on the plate, and they let their expressive sides work with their artisanal sides."

Now Psilakis approaches cooking as a philosophical discourse: How can a chef transform Greek food without losing its identity? Greek cuisine has always brought together big flavors, though usually to a fairly rustic effect. That's especially true here in the Peloponnese, which Psilakis says has the "simple, clean flavors of the earth and sea." He lets the ingredients keep their brawny characters, but then he layers in contrasting flavors. Sometimes the resulting dish is simple, sometimes it's surprisingly complex. But it's always balanced.

The following day, I watch as Psilakis makes yogurt with a local family. It reminds him of growing up. "When I came home from school, my mother would have homemade yogurt waiting for us in plastic cups on the kitchen counter," he says. In Greece, yogurt is usually made with sheep's and goat's milk—there are almost no cows there.

The sour creaminess of the yogurt inspires Psilakis to create an elegant appetizer based on the traditional Greek combination of watermelon and feta. First he grills the watermelon to give the juicy fruit a touch of smoky char. Then he tops the slices with yogurt mixed with lemon juice and vinegar, and cracks some fresh black pepper on top. When Psilakis cooks, he makes bold flavors seem delicate.

Spoon fruit

  • This specialty of the Peloponnese is an intensely sweet preserve often eaten straight off a spoon with a chaser of ice water. Psilakis makes a classic orange version of spoon fruit but uses it in an untraditional way, spreading it on grilled bread with almonds and feta.

The sweets in this region are also bold. There's a local tradition of serving spoon fruit—candied fruit in a thick syrup—as a single-bite snack. "The fridge in the basement of my mother's house had jars and jars of spoon fruit," Psilakis says. "Cherries, oranges. After a meal, you'd get a spoonful and a glass of cold ice water—you take one and down the other. Then you have your coffee."

Psilakis, though, serves spoon fruit in a more sophisticated form. First he grills a slice of buttery brioche, then he tops it with orange spoon fruit, crumbled feta and almonds. "The bread is like the rice in a piece of sushi," Psilakis says. "In one bite, you get sweetness from the fruit, tartness from the feta and crunch from the nuts."

Michael Psilakis

Spoon fruit. Photo © Martin Morrell.

Psilakis's spoon fruit isn't supersweet; it's an update on a classic, exactly like the food at his restaurants. At Kefi, Psilakis makes liberal use of Ladolemono, a lemony vinaigrette he calls his secret ingredient and spoons onto countless dishes, like grilled lamb chops served with lamb-and-rice-stuffed tomatoes. "Acid is an important part of the equation," he says. "It's a seasoning, like salt and pepper, only it refreshes a rich dish. What do you do with fish in Greece? Lemon. What do you do with meat? Lemon. A drop of lemon keeps your palate excited."

The Ladolemono also transforms a whole roasted sea bass. It's bright and vibrant, a nod to the countless whole fish that have been served at thousands of plastic tables set up on the hundreds of Greek harbors every summer, but it's so much more refined. Maybe it's the touch of yogurt in the sauce. Maybe it's the way the zucchini and onion have been thinly sliced, so you get a bit of each in every mouthful.

Or maybe my happiness over this fish (and this afternoon breeze, and this translucent water) is just feeding Psilakis's self-serving need to make people happy. Maybe he's not doing it for me, he's doing it for himself. If so, it's a good thing he's so selfish.

Oliver Strand writes about food for the New York Times and GQ.