The Tselementes Effect on Greek Cooking

A French Influence

Woman chopping food

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According to modern-day Greek chefs and cooks, the best Greek food is based on centuries-old practices of combining naturally grown and seasonal foods with the best herbs and spices to create simple, fabulous dishes. Home sun-dried tomatoes, beans, legumes and fresh vegetables served with olive oil are among the best Greece has to offer.

Fish and meat are eaten less frequently, and in smaller portions, but are cooked with the same attention to herbs, oil and simple cooking techniques. Olives, wines, spirits and cheeses need no cooking at all.

The foods that so closely identify Greece to non-Greeks are quite different, however. In Some Thoughts on the Past, Present, and Future of Greek Food, Greek food expert and cookbook author Aglaia Kremezi writes, "Mousaka, pastichio, creamy avgolemono (thickened egg-and-lemon sauce) and Greek salad are the dishes that most non-Greeks consider to be the epitome of traditional Greek cooking. Yet, most of these dishes have very little to do with traditional foods. They were developed, or drastically revised, by professional cooks and restaurateurs."

The most influential of those professional cooks was Nicholas Tselementes, a Greek chef from the island of Sifnos who trained in Europe and worked in some of the world's finest hotel kitchens.

It's not clear whether Tselementes believed that French cooking originated in Greece (which it did not), or that French food was somehow "better" than the simple Greek fare of the day. The result, though, was that he developed recipes and cooking styles based on sauces and French methods of preparation to "cleanse" Greek food of Turkish, Roman and other influences that had been incorporated over centuries -- influences Tselementes saw as barbaric. He preferred butter to olive oil and elaborate sauces to bare dishes. French was in, Greek was out.

It was most probably Tselementes who created the moussaka and pastitsio we know today -- with an inch of cream sauce, cheeses and 700 calories per serving -- from the original dishes which were simple combinations of ground meat and vegetables or pasta.

His theories and first cookbook, written in 1910, became the darlings of early-20th-century "upwardly mobile" Greeks who saw a new sophistication in his recipes. Greek chefs and restaurateurs sought to imitate his techniques and style, hoping to attract an international and worldly clientèle with mild tastes and elaborate presentations.

Ultimately, Tselementes was the catalyst of the creation of a class system based on food. Wealth, sophistication and status were associated with his French-based creations; the experience of poverty and food insecurity were associated with the simpler, traditional Greek dishes, something Kremezi says continues even today. She writes, "...Greeks are still led to believe that the delicious foods their grandmothers cooked – often the same dishes Italians have triumphantly publicized all over the world – are not good enough for modern, affluent Greek society."

But a change is on the way. Although there are many who consider Tselementes the ultimate authority on Greek food (the word "tselementes" is still used today to mean "cookbook"), voices in support of traditional Greek cooking are rising.

Kremezi is one of a growing group of Greek food experts, chefs, cooks and authors building on the wonderful tastes and well-known values of the traditional Greek diet. Diane Kochilas, an authority on Greek food, is another. In her cookbook, "The Food and Wine of Greece," she writes, "Greek cuisine is country cookery at its best, home-based, dependent on the seasons..."

In another venue, famed Greek chef and cookbook author Ilias Mamalakis takes his weekly television show around Greece to present the best of traditional regional Greek cooking. And several restaurateurs outside Greece are bringing authentic and glorious dishes to the international scene.

The rich, high-calorie dishes loaded with cream, cheeses and butter (known in Greek as Au Gratin dishes) will probably never go out of style, since Greeks have incorporated them into their cooking, but as the more authentic and traditional foods of Greece gain the recognition and appreciation they deserve for their simplicity of ingredients and art of taste combinations, we are well on our way to moving past the Tselementes Effect.