Executive Chef/Owner, Loi Estiatorio, New York, NY
Midtown Manhattan chef Maria Loi’s warmth and smile have become a NYC landmark. She brings a unique background to the restaurant and foodservice industry. For anybody who’s life she has touched, there is an instant connection. Her success in multi-national business and previously in politics in her native Greece has evolved into a rich life in the U.S.
Maria Loi has become one of the nation’s leading chefs, philanthropists, brand creators and ambassadors. Before the Pandemic, Loi’s plate was full with her commitments to battling childhood cancer by co-founding the Elpida Foundation, raising scholarship funds, and working with the Loukoumi Make a Difference Foundation, amongst others. During the Pandemic, she turned Loi Estiatorio into a soup kitchen feeding the homeless. As life returns to the new normal, the indefatigable Loi has set a course that many restaurateurs share. She is welcoming back dining patrons and overseeing the expansion of her full line of Loi branded products from Greece and Europe for restaurants, retail, and foodservice. Total Food Service was thrilled to get Maria to share her vision with us.
For those who don’t know you, what/who got you interested in cooking?
I have always loved to cook. Ever since I was a little girl, when I was seven actually, I made my first meatballs and my father was so proud of me, and how good my meatballs were, so he made me the chef of the house. Feeling his pride, and seeing the joy on his face, it was exactly the inspiration that I needed to know this was my true calling. But whatever I’ve done, my father always thought that everything was amazing. I got my self-confidence from my supportive parents.
Where did you get your culinary education? Do you like the way we educate today’s next generation of culinary talent?
Culinary education? I went to the school of nature. I learned through experiences in life and through trial and error. My classes were cooking with my grandparents and my family. Working on our small farm in Thermo, I learned how important it is to learn about seasonal ingredients, where food comes from, and what you can do with it.
But I have to say, a lot of kids go to culinary school and they think now I’m a chef. That’s not the case. You have to work hard. You have to be dedicated to learn and gain experiences, not to be afraid to make mistakes. And most importantly, as my friend Loukoumi says, the most important ingredient is to never give up.
Walk us through your career track that has included a number of interesting ventures? Are you an entrepreneur or a chef?
I cannot call myself just a chef or just an entrepreneur. I don’t know if you know, I was one of the top lobbyists in Europe. Before, I worked with companies like Texaco, Nokia and large media firms. I also worked in politics, as a political lobbyist. I was very successful, but not satisfied with my life. One day after a long day of work, I was reading a poem by Constantine Cavafy, it’s called As Much As You Can in case you want to read it. It was trying to explain not to make your life miserable by dragging yourself along. That’s what I was doing actually. Then one day I made a decision to change my life. I took all my jewelry off, gave it to my friend and drove back to my village where I grew up. It was a big change. Arriving in the middle of the night, I woke up the next morning listening to the birds chirping, breathing new life into me, and I knew I made the right decision! So from there, I began again, gardening, reading, writing, and cooking. Those changes put me on the path for my new journey of making a difference in my life, and the lives of others by cooking for people. I opened my first restaurant in Greece and then I came to New York.
How has the business changed over the years?
I wrote my first cookbook, Ancient Dining, which was the official cookbook of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. Then I appeared on TV in Greece and when I reached the top, I decided that I wanted to move to New York, because to me, it is the center of the world. I wanted to share my passion for Greek and Mediterranean cuisine with America. New York was and is the perfect place for me. I’ve written 35 cookbooks and countless magazines. My most recent book is The Greek Diet, and it’s thriving.
What are your thoughts on the impact of the Pandemic on the industry over the past year? Did you venture into Takeout & Delivery?
Our business has always been about service and hospitality. But the way we conduct it has changed, especially in the last few years. We are more reliant now on technology and how it works. So I make it a point to connect with every guest who dines with us. I feel it is important to remember the human factor. And while it has been difficult for all of us, there has been some positive to come from it, like outdoor dining in New York City and more regulations on third-party delivery services, for example, the commission caps. This year has made almost everyone think about what is important to them. And in the service industry, being able to be of service, that’s what is important – for me at least. And businesses have to adapt and evolve. And this is always true. You always will have to do this. The pandemic showed us, and showed me and my team, our vulnerability. I have to say that actually, I’m very proud of my team because we have worked to turn that into our strength. It was like when New York City shut down in March, restaurants could only offer delivery, takeout, or close. Our business model was based on the idea of in-house hospitality. So, before the shutdown happened, we quickly adapted and created a special menu specifically for delivery and take out, engaging the 3rd party providers to expand our reach, and we did it. And it’s not only me, it’s my team. So now, we have more people that can access our nutritious food.
We got through the difficult time because we were giving back to the community. I think it’s our responsibility as members of the community to support each other, through good times and difficult ones.
During the pandemic, my team and I got together from eight o’clock in the morning to eight o’clock at night. We were able to provide so many nutritious meals to the front line healthcare heroes at the hospitals all around New York. And the most important for me, was taking care of the homeless. There were more than 150 homeless people per day that were coming to our door. We continue to provide meals to the homeless even now, and I know them by name. I know who wants the burger medium-rare, who likes chocolate cake, who likes yogurt. I now know everyone.
For a generation, we have heard about French and Italian products. What does Greece offer?
Greece has everything a foodservice operator could want, and more. There are amazing cheeses, incredible produce, fantastic herbs and spices, delicious honeys, wonderful grains and pastas, award winning wines, specialty items that are characteristically Greek, and of course, the Greek olive oil, which is among the best in the world. As I say to my chef friends, all you need is a kitchen full of Greek products to create the best food.
Is the goal to add Greek products by replacing imports from other countries? Or are there Greek products that can create new menu solutions that we haven’t seen yet?
No, the market is huge, we don’t have to cut the pie. We have to make it bigger, to share the space for products. I don’t believe that Greece wants to push out the other products from the marketplace. Because what it has to offer the market are amazing, organic, healthy products – Greece doesn’t have to compete. But Greece has to fix something in the market – there are products out there that are so-called Greek, when they are not. I will call on the Greeks now to educate the consumers.
For example, what is real feta? It’s not just white cheese. It’s time for the market to evolve. And now is the time for the authenticity of food and cuisine, and for this evolution, Greece should play a major role.
Can you share your goals for your partnership with the Culinary Institute of America and Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health?
My mission in life is to change the world, one healthy bite at a time. Through my work with Harvard and the CIA, I am able to gather knowledge from doctors, nutritionists, food historians, and other chefs, and share this information with my associates and colleagues in the food industry. I’m really glad that in working with these iconic institutions, one of the biggest takeaways is that the Greek-Mediterranean diet and lifestyle ranks as number one, like it does on the US News and World Report. And of course, it’s my lifestyle!
You were an early adapter of the Mediterranean diet. Is there a way to have its impact grow in the quick-serve Marketplace?
Well, you’re wrong. I was not always like this. I started as a kid with the Mediterranean diet in my village and then I changed when I was a lobbyist. I began to follow the Western diet, you know, like kind of your diet. And the end result? It was a disaster. Always going to the doctors, fueled my lobbying career, and it changed my life. I also changed my eating habits. So I went back to my roots and started eating the way I grew up. I quickly experienced a tasty, healthy and easy Mediterranean diet and lifestyle to adapt to everyday life.
From there, I realized that so many people could and would benefit from accessible Mediterranean food in a Quick-service environment because it’s easy to grab and go. So, yes, it can definitely grow its impact in a Quick-service marketplace.
How could it be adopted into K-12 and college and university dining?
I have to tell you those are two different things. The Mediterranean diet’s presence is growing at the universities and all over the country actually, which is a great thing. These students need real healthy food to help feed their minds and their bodies. They don’t need to be snacking on junk food while studying for exams or writing papers. Thankfully, many universities’ dining services have great programs – they have recognized this fact and are changing their ingredients.
In the K-12 sector the schools do have to make changes. There are a few programs out there that are fighting to show that a balanced Mediterranean diet is crucial for children’s development. The rates of childhood obesity and diabetes continues to increase. So now more than ever, it’s very important that we show how much better and more cost-effective a healthy, well balanced Mediterranean diet is for these children in the short and long term.
Can you add a Greek/Mediterranean feel to your menu without a complete makeover? What types of specials would you suggest adding?
Yes you can, it’s very easy. I would suggest simple items that are easy to integrate like a Village Salad (what’s known as a Greek salad), which is a full meal. All you need is fresh produce. You can get very good produce from one of the companies, all organic, beautiful and crisp. Source some Greek feta cheese, some Greek oregano, and high-quality extra Virgin olive oil. And even if it’s not Greek, you can at least have extra Virgin olive oil. Or a simple, great fish like branzino from Greece, which is amazing, and made super tasty with Olive oil and lemon. These dishes can fit on many menus, and do not require a significant investment or a complete makeover, and are well loved by customers!
What led to the creation of Loi Food Products? How has Loi Foods emerged as a leader in increasing interest in Mediterranean diets being implemented on restaurants menus and at home?
Actually, for me, it all started because I wanted to bring the amazing quality of Greek and Mediterranean ingredients and products to the U.S. market.
I began Loi Food Products with Loi Pasta, 4 different cuts, and then launched Loi Dips, our refrigerated line of yogurt and vegetable based dip. I quickly added our Loi Meli Organic Greek Honeys, because there is nothing like Greek honey…and especially our Black honey, which is rare and unique in flavor and health benefits. I actually learned how to handle and harvest the black honey from my grandfather, he would take me to the top of the mountains to show me.
And then I added our Loi Ladi Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Crete, which won the sofi™ Award from the Specialty Food Association for Best New Product in the Olive Oil Category out of over 2000 entries!
We made a name for ourselves in the market, people know the Loi Brand now and Loi Food Products, and they look for it on the shelves because people want to eat healthier food and live healthier lives…and they can, it’s so easy… They just have to buy Loi!
You’ve worked with a number of European food brands. What is the opportunity that they see from the U.S.? What advice do you have for them to build the foodservice market share here?
I have to say I work with some of the best European brands who have already landed in the U.S. market. My team and I are mentoring other companies so they won’t have to face any obstacles when they do come to the U.S., especially with the FDA. The products are very good and there is a need for them in the market, but they have to follow the rules and regulations and understand that the U.S. market is different from the European market.
We were just reading about the Greek wine industry. Can you walk us through what it offers?
I drink only Greek wine. The Greek wine industry is truly a hidden gem in the world which is coming up now very rapidly, and stepping into the spotlight. Greece has been producing wine since the ancient years. Some of the most unique wines I’m sure will come to the American market very soon. One of my favorite wines is Black Sheep from Nico Lazaridi Winery, and I’m so glad that they are here in the American market and I can drink it.
One of the concerns as indoor dining returns is going to be managing a P&L. How can adding Greek/Mediterranean bring sanity to that exercise?
Greek-Mediterranean food is all about a simple methods and honoring the ingredients. They don’t require a lot of labor, which means less overhead. If you combine the Greek products with quality in-season ingredients, you will have the best results, and that’s what I’m doing to lower costs. It’s very easy.
What’s the next step for a chef/restaurateur that would like more info on how to add Greek/Mediterranean fare to their menus? From a practical standpoint, would a restaurant be able to source these products through our local distribution community?
From a practical standpoint, we have access to almost everything we want to use in the kitchen. And there are many specialty Greek and Mediterranean distributors that carry wonderful products to emphasize and highlight the qualities that make the cuisine special.
And of course, if they want more information on how to source ingredients and products, they can even contact me through Total Food Service.
Crystal ball: what do you see in the future?
So life expectancy, right? I think there are many effects. Studies now have shown following a Mediterranean diet and lifestyle has a positive impact on life expectancy and longevity. One of the biggest factors measured in these studies was the use of extra virgin olive oil, which has been proven to lower the incidence of cardiac events, diabetes, and even cancer. And that’s why I always say olive oil makes life taste better and healthier.
To eliminate childhood obesity, we have to look not only at the schools but at the habits of the home as well.
There are families that feed their children real healthy food like yogurt, organic chicken and fish. They teach them how to enjoy fruits and vegetables. But actually, if the entire household follows what they’re doing, the children in the house will follow as well. It leads to the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle, which means those kids will be healthier and happier. And we need to be happy, not only healthy.
I’m working on a very exciting project, and though I cannot share the details yet, I promise I will share them with Total Food Service first! I will tell you it’s according to our standards, in line with the Greek Mediterranean diet and of course, it’s going to be amazing.
My new show with WGBH, PBS. in Boston will be coming out soon. And, I will tell you the name of the show, which I’ve not included before… It’s called The Life of Loi. It’s slated to be released late spring, or summer. Because of the Pandemic, we cannot rush the filming. We will be traveling to Greece for the first season, because we have other seasons to come as well. It’s focusing on health and wellness through food, history, culture, and travel, and creating an inspirational and educational healthy lifestyle movement – the Loi Movement.
To learn more about Maria Loi and Loi Estiatorio, visit the website.