Michael Psilakis is a fighter. Plenty of chefs have their ups and downs, but few bounce back as well as Psilakis has done over the years. Just look at his career: He elevated Greek to a haute plane with Anthos, earning a Michelin star in the process, and cooking at the White House. He parted ways with Anthos and Mia Dona and his partner Donatella Arpaia, and soon after both restaurants closed. Psilakis then opened a short-lived spot called Gus & Gabriel, which became Fishtag, and Kefi.
He’s having his moment in the spotlight once again. After opening MP Taverna, a Greek family-style restaurant in Roslyn, to rave reviews, he’s decided to open two more MP Taverna outposts this summer in Irvington and Astoria. Psilakis also has a newfound television career, competing on this season’s No Kitchen Required, a new BBC America show (think Survivor meets Top Chef). While he may not look like he’s scared of much, he confesses to us,” I absolutely hate bugs. I was handed a larvae beetle to try – and the thing was alive!”
What was it like growing up Greek in Long Island and what was a typical dinner in your home?
There were a lot of family gatherings, all of which centered around food. I was the oldest of my siblings and it was my job to make sure everyone had a drink, everyone had food on their plates. Entertaining is a really intimate thing and I think watching my parents cook, and helping them cook, has really helped me immensely in the kitchen. As for what we ate, my parents ran a traditional Greek home. All of the staples were always on our table including lamb of course.
After opening several Manhattan restaurants, like Kefi and Fishtag, what inspired you to open eateries outside of the city in places like Roslyn?
I want to change the way people look at Greek food. The concept here is to take Greek-American food and make it mainstream and to do that, you have to branch out away from cities. For me, MP Taverna is about bringing families together. Having grown up in the suburbs, I always associate the suburbs with a strong family connection.
You began your career opening high end restaurants, like Onera and Anthos? What was the impetus behind moving toward more casual, family-style eateries?
After my father passed away my whole mentality about cooking changed. I was no longer interested in fine dining. For me, cooking became about family. With Anthos, I wanted people to come in and eat the food and only talk about the food and now, I of course want people to enjoy my food, but the experience should be so much more than that. I have strong and happy memories of being with my family growing up and many of those memories were made over cooking and eating food that we had prepared. Now that I am older, these memories have become much dearer to me and resonate with me on a completely different level. I hope that my guests are creating their own memories while dining at my restaurants.
Congratulations by the way on the success of MP Taverna. When will the Irvington and Astoria locations open and how will the menus be different from each other?
Thank you. MP Taverna Irvington is opening very soon and Astoria will open this summer. The menus will change depending on what my guests are looking for in each location, but signatures, like octopus and the branzino will always remain.
How did you get involved in doing No Kitchen Required – a Survivor-esque cooking competition on BBC America.
I was approached by Chachi Senior the Executive Producer and creator of No Kitchen Required. I was initially turned off by the show, but as the show developed I saw it as less of a competition, and more as a catalyst for sharing other culture’s food and methods of cooking. After the third ask I was sold!
Can you share a few of your craziest experience on the show and weirdest things you cooked and ate?
I absolutely hate bugs. If you watch the show, you will see that I was handed a larvae beetle to try – and the thing was alive! The thing is, you can’t turn it down because then you would be offending the people who have welcomed you so graciously into their homes. Food is all mental, so I just told myself it was going to be good. It wasn’t the best experience but I was happy I did it and conquered a fear in some way.
Did you ever worry doing this show would jeopardize your credibility as a real deal chef?
I’m always conscious of how my media involvement will reflect on my restaurants and on me as a chef/personality, but I viewed No Kitchen Required as a vehicle for educating those who are interested in food, more than I saw it as a cooking competition. I never felt it would reflect poorly on my reputation.
Would you ever want to host your own cooking show?
I don’t think I would be a host or participant in the show, but I would love to someday help write and produce a cooking show.
Whom do you consider your culinary mentors?
My mother and father are my inspirations. I spent very little time in other chefs’ kitchens, so I often turn to the techniques, flavors and ingredients I grew up with and learned from my parents.
Why did you decide to part ways with your former business partner Donatella Arpaia, with whom you shared ownership of Anthos and Mia Dona? And how did you feel about walking away from two restaurants that you helped build?
It is really important to me to continue to grow as a person and it was time for me to move in another direction and be successful on my own.
You have run five restaurants in the former Gus & Gabriel space, which is now Fishtag. Seeing as we’re big fans of Fishtag, we’re not complaining at all, but why do you think there’s been so much turnover in that space?
I wouldn’t really call it a turnover as most of it has been by choice. At this point, I sort of consider it my launching pad because it has helped me shape and understand the direction I have wanted to take my restaurants in. For instance, Kefi started in the same space and over a short time period I just knew I needed to expand and so I decided to move it out of the space and into a larger area.
Were you as disappointed by your New York Times review of Fishtag as we were? How do you usually deal with criticism?
You never know what is going to happen with reviews. It is possible the restaurant is just having an off night at the same time that a reviewer walks through the door. At the end of the day what really matters to me are the way that my customers feel about the food they are eating and that they are enjoying the time they spend in my restaurants while breaking bread with their friends and family.
Describe your ideal meal at Fishtag.
Tell Chef Stan [Matusevich] to go ahead and play! He will do you right every time!
What’s the most difficult part about opening a restaurant?
The most difficult part of opening a restaurant is teaching your staff and everyone involved in the opening, your restaurant’s message. I think it’s incredibly important to let your employees know what’s most important to you as a chef so that this message is clearly portrayed to diners.
How do you balance your extremely busy career with having a personal life?
It’s tough! I have a really great family and two young boys and it is important to me to be for them as much as possible. The memories that my parents gave me and the experiences we share together have shaped the person that I am today and I want my children and my wife to have those some types of memories.
What neighborhood do you live in and where are your favorite places to dine there?
I live in Long Island. It is really great to have two successful restaurants in New York City, but I’m happy to come home to the suburbs after a long day at work in New York.
Other than your own, what are some of your favorite Greek spots in New York?
Kyclades in Astoria – they have incredible grilled fish that is fresh and simply prepared. In the city, I’m also a fan of Chef Jim Botsacos’s Molyvos, and Maria Loi’s Loi.
How often do you get to visit Greece? What islands do you spend time on?
I don’t get back to Greece as often as I would like to, but I do keep in touch with several of my friends there, and are constantly reading about what is happening in the Grecian food world.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Any new projects on the horizon?
There will always be new projects. Stay tuned.