After years of hearing about the the “force” of life known as Maria Loi— I finally had a chance meeting with her a few months ago at her restaurant called simply… Loi, on Manhattan’s swanky Upper West Side— moments away from Central Park and steps away from the famed Lincoln Center.
My mother was a fan of Maria Loi, a Greek-born chef who rose the ranks of television stardom as a “celebrity chef” but also paid her dues in the kitchen, most notably at her globally famous “Kouzina Maria Loi” in her native Nafpaktos, in Greece.
She also wrote books— many, many books in Greece that taught thousands of Greek women how to cook traditional Greek recipes, but to also explore new tastes. Maria Loi was the quintessential Greek celebrity chef, proudly promoting all things edible, good, healthy and Greek at every opportunity. Being the visionary that she is, her sights were set much higher and beyond the borders of her native Greece.
Maria set her goal to the culinary capital of the world and perhaps the world’s toughest restaurant market— New York City. In a town where restaurants have been known to close within weeks of their grand opening; and, a simple bad review can shutter a well-established restaurant, Maria Loi not only opened in the tough Upper West Side market— but two years later, she’s alive and kicking stronger than ever.
And she even cooked inside the White House for President Obama and Vice President Biden— a distinction that no other Greek-born chef can claim.
When I met Maria, it was the kind of “explosion” that anyone who knows me, and knows Maria, would expect. Hands waving in the air, we immediately started talking loudly at the same time trying to figure out if we have common friends— anyone in the room would have thought we were about to get into a fight.
On the contrary, our first meeting was one of typically loud talking that we Greeks are known for, a passion for Greece, Greek cuisine and all things that are “good and Greek.” Maria and I shared the same vision for elevating Greek cuisine. She even told me one of her trade secrets— she never cooks with butter. Even in baklava and other dishes that butter is considered mandatory— she used Greek extra virgin olive oil.
Fast forward a few months. Maria has repeatedly sent me emails and text messages, enamored with the work of the Greek America Foundation, which I founded a decade ago and continue to run as a volunteer tray. It’s my “passion project” and she was attracted to the attention the organization gives to helping young people.
Maria then said “Let me know how I can help.” The classic line that I hear a dozen times on a daily basis. Most people that say that don’t actually mean it… because when you do let them know what you need, they don’t return your call, your email, or just don’t do anything.
When Maria said “let me know what you can do to help,” she meant it.
Last night, Maria Loi took it upon herself to organize a fundraising event at her restaurant for one of the Greek America Foundation’s latest projects— a short film and historical project called “No Man is an Island” about a heroic event that took place on the island of Zakynthos during World War II.
The project hit home for Maria, for very personal reasons, and instead of asking “what can I do to help,” she just did it. She brought together an eclectic gathering of Christians and Jews, Greeks and Russians, Upper West Siders and Downtowners— all of whom donated to the short film project.
Maria cooked all of the food and desserts and of course, plenty of Greek wine was pouring all night long. In the end, we raised more than $10,000 for the project. And I was inducted into the Chef’s Club as an honorary member by Maria– something I’m proud of. I do make a mean stifado, after all.
Maria is a special person to me not only because she supports Greece, promotes Greek products and feeds hundreds of New Yorkers weekly, representing us well in the Big Apple and beyond. Maria is a special person because she’s got the balls to face her critics with a “bring them on” kind of approach and she puts her money where her mouth is for causes she believes in.
And here’s an offer to all of my blog readers (Maria, I hope you don’t mind!)… Go to Loi Restaurant for dinner… tell Maria you know me and expect a piece of her butter-less baklava for dessert— on her! Opa!