Michelin star winner. James Beard Award nominee. Manhattan celebrity chef. Cooking competition series producer and co-star.
All of these daunting and impressive labels describe Michael Psilakis. But here’s another that the rest of us can actually share: Long Islander.
Although he still owns the popular MP Taverna in Roslyn (among his many other venues), this year, the Northport native gets even closer to his roots with his newly launched second cookbook. An ode to the flavors, nuances and techniques with which he grew up as he watched his Greek mother cook on Long Island’s North Shore, Live to Eat: Cooking the Mediterranean Way is as much an insight into his history as his home.
Seven classic Mediterranean base ingredients form the core of the cookbook’s nearly 200 pages of beautifully illustrated, easy recipes—many of which introduce seasonal variations and simple swaps that keep repeat components exciting, or appearing in new and unexpected ways.
For the press dinner Psilakis hosted recently in New York City, the Iron Chef-like ingredient he chose to highlight was something most of us already have in our kitchens and eat the same way day in and day out: Greek yogurt. We sprinkle fruit on it, maybe some granola; mix in some honey or even just flip over a little plastic compartment in a split cup. The more daring of us may even use it as a sour cream substitute in savory applications. But in this demonstration in the basement dining room of his restaurant Kefi, he opened up a whole new world of possibilities.
Psilakis served citrus salad dressed with Greek yogurt as a sample breakfast, made tart with grapefruit segments and balanced with wild thyme honey from Crete. He showed us how garlic and white wine vinegar can transform it into a rich accent sauce for pickled beets, sliced fennel, shocked green beans, and crushed almonds. Classic tzatziki brought in comfort; raw local fluke with orange and mint and sushi-grade salmon with warm roasted tomatoes and basil hit fresh and lush notes in turn.
From there, the tasting became more robust. Tuna melts, a cold-weather standby, got an upgrade with tzatziki sauce subbing in for mayonnaise, Gruyere cheese and avocado for richness, and fresh-cut red onions, yellow tomatoes, and romaine to cut through it. A red-rubbed, juicy wild salmon fillet got an un-Mediterranean makeover with chipotle yogurt sauce. And for dessert, we went full circle with a mixed berries, pepitas and flax and sesame seed parfait that could have been just as comfortable at the breakfast table.
It was with genuine excitement that he shared with us the shortcuts he uses at home and with joy that he reminisced about growing up here on Long Island, where going to the supermarket can be a soothing exercise in color, texture, scent and space—something I realized as the only Long Islander in a room of city-dwelling writers weren’t fortunate enough to understand.
As I went home that night, star-struck, smiling and clutching my signed copy of the book, I thought about the poetic parallel of tonight’s ingredient against Psilakis himself. Just how far something as close to home can go, whether it’s the yogurt you’ll find in your fridge or a global talent that grew up just half an hour from your own stomping grounds. It all just goes to show that you never know how Long Island might surprise you next.