One Greek word that has no literal translation in English is “philoxenia,” which loosely means to take care of a stranger, providing that person everything from food, to shelter, to love. Maria Loi, the International Ambassador of Greek Gastronomy as chosen by the Chef’s Club of Greece, embodies this philosophy: When we visited her new Greek restaurant, Loi, she welcomed us as if we were guests in her own home, and, like a good Greek mother, asked us on more than one occasion to take a break from our questions and try her food. It’s a request we were more than happy to oblige.
You’ve had so much success in Greece — you have a cooking show, a weekly magazine, cookbooks, the list goes on. Why did you want to open a restaurant in America?
I want to take Greek food, my great grandmother’s recipes, beyond Greece. I never met my great-grandmother, I had the [recipe] book that she had. I still have it — wherever I go I don’t leave it. If you cut my veins, it’s coming out Greek olive oil instead of blood. New Yorkers, they are foodies. New Yorkers are ready for this kind of Greek food.
How would you describe your food? Classic Greek? Modern Greek?
It’s not modern. [It’s] classic, but with a twist. I change what my great-grandmother didn’t make. For example, I add cheese in my béchamel. My grandmother, now we have the same things, she didn’t like to fry food, I don’t fry food. She liked to bake, actually. I think they’re very very authentic recipes, but it’s her recipes.
What was the biggest challenge in opening your restaurant?
I didn’t come over here to open a restaurant — I came for somebody else, to consult him. But when I came here, [to] this restaurant, when I walked by the door I said, “Uh-oh, what is this?” The handle by the door, it’s my initials in Greek: M.L. I got goosebumps. I said, “This is fate. This is my place. This is my restaurant.” The guys, they said, “We’ll buy this,” [and] I said, “No, I’m gonna get the restaurant.”
Were they mad?
No. And I said, “I will help you to get any other restaurant, but this is me,” and they saw that. It was fate.
What’s your favorite dish from the menu to cook?
I cook different things every day. For example, today we made loukoumades (Greek doughnuts), and I made them a different way. I found a way [to make them] crispy [but] also moist with the honey. I have Greek fries, but they’re not fried, they’re [made] in the oven. I like my pastitio.
Did you ever find it difficult being a woman in this industry?
Well, I have to tell you, I never felt that I was a second-class citizen. I think that there’s a difference, of course, with a woman chef and a man chef [in] that I cannot lift a heavy pan. I think this is the [only] difference.
Where do you hope to take this restaurant?
[To] every day make new things. Every day, this is what we’re doing, every day from 9 o’clock in the morning, seven days. Even when I sleep, I dream recipes.
Why do you think Americans are getting really into Greek food?
I think that they hear from all these researchers that Greek food is healthy, [saying] how the Greeks are doing, and they are healthy. They don’t die from heart attacks, so I think they do care about that.
What do you make when you want to impress someone?
I don’t like to impress people with my cooking. I like to please people with my cooking. And I cannot say that I would make for [one person] only — I am in love with my customers, I’m in love with people, that they love food. I am passionate about good food, about good Greek food.