Outside the Kitchen: MP Taverna’s Michael Psilakis

It’s a long journey from a T.G.I. Fridays to a Michelin Star, but Michael Psilakis’ life has always been one of journeys. Geographically, yes, through boyhood travels from Long Island to Crete with his immigrant parents, but, philosophically, even more so, through the simple family meals that impelled a Proustian drive to prod his diners’ senses into memory.

“That’s how I started creating food,” Psilakis says. “It was a vehicle to create a story.” And what stories he has. The diving for sea urchins in Crete, cracking them on rocks, and slurping them down. The annual backyard roasting of a lamb, the weekends spent on the family fishing boat. And, most of all, the hordes of family and friends crowding his childhood East Northport, New York home. “Our life was about family and food and entertaining,” he says. “As the oldest son, a lot of the responsibility for making people feel welcome fell on my shoulders. When I started working in the restaurant business, I was immediately drawn to my childhood memories of being that facilitator, of making people happy.” No matter that his first restaurant experience was as a waiter at T.G.I. Fridays. “It felt like home in a restaurant,” he says. “It told me that this is what I wanted to do with my life.”

And so he got busy. Ecco, on Long Island, came first, working front-of-the-house until the chef didn’t show up one day and he stepped in. (“It was an Italian restaurant, but I’d put cinnamon in the meat sauce because that’s what my mother did.”) Manhattan beckoned and Onera followed, morphing into the Upper West Side favorite (and newly renovated) taverna, Kefi. But Psilakis aspired to more than cinnamon in the sauce, and that aspiration materialized in the elegant guise of restaurateur Donatella Arpaia. They opened the upscale Dona in 2006, then the very haute Anthos, and the crowds, and the media, came calling: Michelin, Food & Wine (Best New Chef), Bon Appétit (Chef of the Year), Esquire (Chef of the Year), the New York Times (Best New Restaurants list). There was a cookbook, How to Roast a Lamb, an expansion into Miami, more openings in Manhattan, the first MP Taverna on Long Island in 2011, and, in 2012, the BBC’s travelogue of culinary exotica, No Kitchen Required

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A crazy ride, but his wheels stayed moored in heritage and home. “That’s where the inspiration comes from,” he says. “From your soul, from your heart.” He learned to cook haute by reading and studying, but for Psilakis, it’s about the why, not the how. His chef-philosopher explanation: “I try to cook a memory. Haute cuisine allows you to do that because it embraces the idea of going beyond your physical senses and allowing your mind to explore the essence of the food; it embodies the articulation of an idea on an intellectual level.” Whew. Kindly, he offers an example: Greek sushi, a trilogy of tuna, watermelon, and feta—the latter two a common pairing of his immigrant-home youth. “I took three ways of representing watermelon: pickling the rind, dehydrating the melon, and grilling the melon; prepared feta three ways; put them on top of raw tuna with a little extra-virgin olive oil, and asked you to eat one bite. That bite brought you right back to my mother’s house—there’s the memory. That’s the beauty of food, it’s a catalyst of blooming a memory. That’s the journey you’re looking for as a chef, I think.”   

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