Executive Chef/Owner, Loi Estiatorio, New York, NY
She’s a celebrity chef but what Maria Loi is most known for is her welcoming smile and warmth, whether it’s the front of the house or the back. Revered by staff and customers alike, her restaurants offer exquisite cuisine and a dining experience that causes all who eat there to return again and again.
Starting out as a young chef while her parents worked the fields of their farm, Loi learned to prepare “soul”food, food that is good for the soul. With her Greek heritage, Maria Loi offers Mediterranean-style meals that are as healthy as they are delicious. In the business for many years, she notes that she never married because she wanted to devote herself to her food, and it shows.
How did you get started?
I’m a farm girl. I grew up on a farm. That’s how I know how to make good yogurt and cheese and how to eat well! And then I had to cook for our family. We were very poor. The first meatballs I made for my father, I was seven years old. My mom didn’t have time because she had to work in the fields, tobacco, cotton, olive oil and everything else. First I opened a clothing store in Greece. It’s still in operation. My sister is running it. Then I joined with other companies and I started putting people together, connecting them. Then when I was in Turkey, I became a lobbyist, which was not easy for a woman.
Have you found it hard as a woman chef?
I don’t see any difference, except for the physical part. Sometimes the workers in the kitchen are funny. They say, you should not lift that. But even the men chefs should not lift something heavy. They might hurt their back. I am equal. I don’t see any difference.
How did you wind up in the U.S.?
I used to come because of my previous work but I would only stay for one or two days. I didn’t have anything to do with cooking except loading and going into the kitchens. I was actually always asking the chef, why are you doing this, why that? But let’s go back to the beginning. I came to New York four-and-a-half years ago as the ambassador for Greek cuisine. Then I opened a restaurant and Florence Fabricant from The New York Times wrote about me. That was it. Customers came and I loved them all.
Then what happened?
They wanted to increase my rent and I said, no, no, no! I left and moved to another space. And these people found me, they followed me. I found a space that was one-third of my previous expense, where I made three, four, times the money! This was all a year-and-a-half ago.
One of the things that makes you unique is that you’re out in front, talking to the customers. How do you run the back of the house and the front of the house at the same time?
First, I love what I do. I start early in the morning because Greek food must be prepared the right way. Fish, you have to grill it. It’s not science. You can teach someone. And thank God, I have the best people in my kitchen. So even if I had to make a plate at that very moment, and someone is telling me, Maria, table 15, they ask for you, I have my sous chef taking care of everything immediately and I can go out. I’m very lucky for that.
Would you say your strength is the team you have built?
We are family here. We’re together since day one. We know what we want from each other. Without the team, you can’t do anything in life.
Let’s talk about how Greek food has evolved.
It’s actually been in the States a long time. It went through a very fashionable trend with the Paleo and Mediterranean diets. Greek food has to do with well being. The meaning is, no suffering. The meaning is not losing weight. It’s being well and the way you should eat, the way you should take care of yourself. Greek food is the pillar of the Mediterranean way of eating.
Where can someone buy your food?
My pasta is at Whole Foods. And we’re preparing a new yogurt line, my honey line.
What made you want to bring your yogurt to the marketplace?
Whole Foods came to me! They came to my restaurant and loved the taste. The recipe came from my great-grandmother. I have the factory in Greece that produces it. And we went back and forth, back and forth, a lot of times. I love Whole Foods because I know how hard it was for me to get in there. It was easy to open the door but to be on the shelf that took a lot. And now my pasta is flying off the shelves!
You have a trip coming up to Australia. Tell me about that.
That’s because I’m the Ambassador for the Hellenic Chef’s Association. They voted for me. This is the second time in four years! There’s a big event in Melbourne, the Starlight Five Chefs Dinner and they have asked me to go there. Other chefs are there, including a very well known Greek chef, George Calombaris.
Are Greeks all so happy because of what they eat?
Food makes you happy, of course. The wine, the herbs and spices we use. You take an herb that comes from the mountain and it stimulates you and gives you the flavor. It makes you happy. Our coffee, our olive oil. Our olive oil is like medicine. I remember my grandfather giving us a teaspoon of olive oil every day. I don’t need medicine. And seafood, whole grains. The food makes a difference in your body and in your brain.
What about this idea of being a celebrity chef? Is it good? Do you like it?
I like it because I am giving to people. If you think you’re a rock star, that’s not good! You are not cooking, you are not giving. You are a rock star.
What about doing business in New York?
Like Frank Sinatra said, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” I believe that. America has the American Dream. But New York gives you the opportunity. And the diversity. It’s all here. People don’t just grab a burger and go anymore. They’re more sophisticated. They are more educated, in food, in living, in terms of being. Living well and eating well. Living healthy. That’s the Greek diet. It’s all about the freshest ingredients, the best produce and meats.
You’ve said you wanted a smaller restaurant so it could be like eating in your home. Is it possible to be successful in New York as a small establishment or does everything have to be big and bold?
They like your food. That’s what food is. It’s like a nest. It’s where everything starts. People respect you.
To learn more about Maria Loi’s Loi Estiatorio, visit their website.