a chat with athens’ top (vegan) chefs

‘Dirty’ Vegan chef Nikos Gaitanos

Nikos Gaitanos is a chef specializing in vegetarian/vegan cuisine. He has worked as a consultant at vegetarian/vegan restaurants in Greece as well as in the UK. Currently he is Head Chef  of “Healthy Bites” and “Vegan Nation” restaurants in Athens and “The Saints Stores” in Thessaloniki. He is the author of the cook book “Dirty Vegan”.

What is your food philosophy & practice?
Keep it simple; I love creating recipes with just a few but very high quality ingredients.

Were you ever a meat eater? How did your personal interest in vegan food begin? 
I was a meat eater long time ago – I actually haven’t eaten meat for 29 years! At first I was vegetarian, then a pescatarian and recently I started following a plant based diet. I first heard the word ‘vegan’ eight years ago. At first I couldn’t understand why they didn’t eat any animal products but gradually I began to make the connection, and after my sister became vegan somehow she manage to convince me to change my diet too.

How / when did you take vegan cuisine to a professional level?
I stopped cooking meat 13 years ago, because I started to feel it’s unethical to do so, especially when I wasn’t eating it myself. Since then I’ve worked only in vegetarian and vegan restaurants.

Can people easily get all their nutrients from a vegan diet?
The earth provides us with unlimited fruits and vegetables that have all the nutrients we need, so I believe we just have to eat a little bit of everything!

Is a vegan diet difficult to follow? What are its top advantages?
Initially it can be difficult because to say that you want to change your diet is just the first step. After that you have to deal with a society that is so widely based on the suffering of animals, and with the theories and comments of your family and friends. Last but not least you have to research and decide what you are going to eat from now on. Nowadays it’s much easier than it was a few years ago because the internet provides us with all the information, recipes and ideas you need to make the transition. More and more people are turning vegan every day and that makes it even easier. When you change your diet, you change your life, and you become a member of an ethical society; vegans are helping each other in every way.

What is your best advice for someone considering going vegan?
My advice to those who want to go vegan is to open your eyes to really see the injustice that’s being done to animals, and then block your ears to all those who try to tell you not to do it. What we learn from our fathers is not always right… We are the masters of our life and if we see and feel that something is wrong we must be the ones to change it, or at least we have to try to.

What is your goal as a vegan chef in Athens?
I want to provide excellent food choices for vegans so they will never feel that something is missing from their diet. At the same time I want to encourage the meat-eaters to discover that vegan food is packed with flavours, and that the choice is endless.

Athenians are showing increased interest in vegan food. Why do you think that is?
There are numerous reasons for this. Some are just curious about this relatively new (to Greece) trend, and some are simply fed up of meat and prefer to eat something healthy. Some are curious about making the transition, and want to find out what it would involve, try foods and learn more. The fact is that Greeks overall, not just Athenians are changing – actually people all around the world are changing in this sense as veganism is becoming a larger reality every day and nothing can stop it from happening!

Do you teach people how to cook vegan?
Over the last few years I have been teaching at cooking schools and running workshops on vegan cooking. So far I’ve taught at (Dipnosophistirion School of Gastronomy)in Athens, been a cooking workshop consultant in Thessaloniki, and worked at the Culinary Studies Centre in Herakleion, Crete.

What are your favourite vegan foods, what do they taste like and why do you love them?
My favourite foods haven’t change throughout the years – I love pizza, pasta, souvlaki and burgers! I’m a junk-food lover and the name of my first cookbook says it all: “Dirty Vegan”.

 

 

“What we learn from our fathers is not always right… We are the masters of our life and if we see and feel that something is wrong we must be the ones to change it, or at least we have to try to.”

 

Partners George Cassimatis & Esco Essence

Both Esco and George are yoga teachers and have been cooking and experimenting with plant-based food for more than 20 years. Esco is from Finland and has been working as a freelance chef at yoga retreats, private homes and corporate events. He teaches workshops and is a visionary raw food artist & vegan chef. George founded Triopetra Yoga Retreat in 2004 in the south of Crete and opened Soul Kitchen, Organic plant based restaurant in Rethymno, Crete in 2010. He gave up the city life for a good 12 years to study yoga and nutrition and now aims to share his passion for food and healthy living in Athens. Their vision is to create a working space where they can offer highly nutritious plant-based food and create awareness through workshops and education. With their business, The Plant Kingdom, they plan to deliver food to your homes and offices mainly by pre-order. They will create their own line of healthy food products which you can purchase at selected shops around Athens and of course serve our daily menu at our home base in Paleo Faliro.

 

Vegan chefs Esco Essence and George Cassimatis

What is your food philosophy?
Our food philosophy is based on the principles of healthy wholesome plant based foods. Foods that are nutritious and contain all the necessary elements that our body requires daily. Also the taste and appearance plays an important role on our plates. Our ethical choice is not to cause harm to other being and to work with local producers that share this vision in their work. Our everyday work is actually a creative process to find the balance and better ways to do things, to become inventive and curious and share our passion for a good life which starts with what we eat and goes on to what we think and what we do with our time on this planet.

Were you ever a meat eater? How did your personal interest in vegan food begin?
We both grew up eating traditional meat and fish dishes and slowly through questioning these cultural values and experiencing other ways of cooking from vegetarian to vegan to raw, juicing and fasting we found that our body and mind responds much better without the animal products and ethically this is a big disaster and problem we need to address and face in our time. We do not need to kill or exploit animals at the rate we are currently consuming. If you look into it, watch Eathlings for instance – you will probably agree that it is madness and definitely not a sign of an evolved civilisation, rather it is the opposite.

How / when did you take vegan cuisine to a professional level?
George: I started Triopetra Yoga Retreat in 2004 in the south of Crete and there had the time and great opportunity to experience the great food our chef Chris Clark was preparing daily for 6 years and since have enjoyed cooking with many vegan and raw food chefs from around the world when I started Soul Kitchen Organic Vegetarian Cafe in the old town of Rethymno in 2010. This has given me a good experience and now together with Esco we know what we are doing and doing it very well. Athens we feel is ready now for more and more vegan and healthy lifestyle.
Esco: With years of practice and with many & various experiences & travels. Practice is most important, and with much practice you become professional.

Can people easily get all their nutrients from a vegan diet?
Food is so important so yes when you pay attention and have time to prepare you can be super healthy on a vegan diet. For our climate here in Greece we recommend most of the time to eat 80% raw and 20% cooked food and you need to eat a lot, so much bigger quantities of salad and fruit everyday is perfect.

Is a vegan diet difficult to follow? What are its top advantages?
Nothing is difficult when you know what you are doing and know how to prepare. Advantages are good you get a good sense of well being, good health, vitality and longevity. We truly recommend for meat eaters to try and experience for themselves how they feel after 1-6 months cutting all animal products from their diet.

What is your best advice for someone considering going to a vegan diet?
Listen to your own body and everyday to taste and try something new, so you will find your own balance and taste and happiness. The transition period can last from 1 month to 3 years, to adjust to the plant based eating. We have already a solution as we offer daily meals 100% plant based and Plant Kingdom delivers Monday to Friday to peoples offices or homes so we do all the work for them to experience this food and in all cases our customers are very happy, energized and satisfied with our choices and food. Dinners with non vegans, well now there are plenty of vegan choices in most restaurants and more and more vegan cafes & restaurants popping up that are doing great work here in Athens & Thesaloniki.

What is your goal as a vegan chefs in Athens?
We want to spread the knowledge & experience we have through our food and also with hands on seminars and workshops we are planning to do this year. We plan to create a vegan/raw food cooking school here in Athens so that all this philosophy can become accessible to everyone interested to learn. Even teaching mothers how to cook healthier & tastier food for their young ones at home, switching away from dairy products & sugar to plant based creative, tasty and nutritious alternatives.

Athenians are showing increased interest in vegan food. Why do you think that is?
The younger generation seems more alert, sensitive & conscious of the ethical issues we are facing with our food. Many also understand and feel the health benefits of a plant based diet so it seems natural that even in Athens it is starting to grow and more people are asking for vegan food in their daily lives. So naturally again more and more businesses will transition to serve those customers.

Do you teach people how to cook vegan? If so, what kind of classes do you offer?
We are planning a series of workshops starting this February to teach people how to cook vegan and healthy meals and show them how easy it can be when you learn the basics so you can start very soon to try on your own and experiment with new ideas and ways to satisfy yourself and loved ones. We will teach one three hour classes once a week in a new workshop space in Dafni, Vouliagmenis Ave 223. This will be a series of three months training and then we will do the advanced workshop too and start a new series for beginners. More info on our website and Faceboook page coming up soon.

What are your favourite foods, what do they taste like and why do you love them?

George: I love eating big kale salads everyday with carrots and avocado, lemon, olive oil & black Himalayan salt. I love the textures, the freshness and taste of prana – life force the plants give us.

Esco: I like to eat everyday something different , so I combine whats in season with all the five sense of taste to create tasty flavors and to fully enjoy.

“We want to live with real peace inside and to actively participate in the necessary exciting changes our modern age is undertaking. We are experienced enough to give you good nourishment, good energy and inspiration for a good daily start.”

ancient to modern: greek plant medicine

“If only we continue to examine the practices, writings and teachings of ancient Greek physicians and pharmacists, our knowledge can leap ahead by at least 6000 years. But if we prove indifferent to the vast knowledge of the ancients, we will stay behind by 3,500 years,” says pharmacologist Dimitris Kallimanis, whose passionate life mission is to investigate, experiment with and teach about plants and the plethora of sophisticated and fascinating data related to their hundreds of species.

The expert, who sustains that what today is commonly described as “folk medicine, or natural remedies” based on plants is no less than a serious, noteworthy science, states that according to historical documents, the first person to analytically expound on the benefits and uses of herbs was the epic poet Homer (born circa 850BC, although his exact period of existence remains a mystery to scholars). Kallimanis reveals that his globally influential writings such as ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ are packed with recipes and practices based on herbs: “from Homer we learned, for example, that Achilles used Achillea millefollium – a hemostatic, wound-healing and powerfully antiseptic agent that is still used today – to treat those who fought by his side, or that the family of herbs most favored by the ancient Greeks was Liliaceae.”

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Homer’s The Odyssey

According to history, Theofrastus (372-287 BC), Aristotle’s successor at Athens’ Peripatetic School, was ancient Greece’s “father of botany.” Among a plethora of writings, he is the author of the major botanical treatises ‘Enquiry into Plants’ and ‘On the Causes of Plants’. Kallimanis and many other experts of his caliber sustain that the doctor and apothecary Dioscorides (40-90AD) was the real father of botany.

materiaHis five-volume work ‘De Materia Medica‘, was translated into Arabic and Latin in the 12th and 13th C and in German, Spanish, French, Italian and finally English after the 16th C), emerging as the basis of the world’s botanical knowledge. Indeed, the knowledge of Dioscorides, who followed a holistic and allopathic doctrine reminiscent to that practiced by Hippocrates, continues to startle academics to this day: it was he who first created the systematic categorization of some 500 plants and around 1000 of their medical uses, their varying dosages for treating ailments, and their side effects.

“However, there is a vast time gap between the botanical teachings of Homer and those of Dioscorides,” Kallimanis notes, “and the individual who played a great role in spreading knowledge on herbs within that time is somewhat unexpected; enter one of Greece’s most legendary figures in poetry, drama and creative thought – Aristophanes!” tragiccomicmaskshadriansvillamosaic
In an era when it was widely feared that Greece and its influence would be obliterated by the Peloponnesian War, the bard (444 – 385 BC) cunningly managed to share precious information with the masses. He subtly weaved substantial quarantines of knowledge through the words recited in his highly popular comedies, making one of the lines recited by the chorus in his play, ‘The Babylonians’, especially poignant, when they say that “the author-director of comedies has the hardest job of all.” Kallimanis explains that through both simple terms for the common-folk to coded, more refined information directed at educated viewers, all within the same text, Aristophanes managed to distribute ancient recipes based on herbal medicine to the greater public. Kallimanis says that doing so he “ignited and bolstered the knowledge of common people and all levels of medical practitioners, even some of the information remains challenging to decode to this day.”

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Monks weighing herbs

Throughout the ages, the information and understanding of botanical medicine and its usage garnered from the ancient world was made accessible to the literate via Greek and translated documents that could be found mainly in monasteries, especially those on the Holy Peninsula of Mount Athos. The uneducated, however, spread knowledge verbally, with villagers across Greece developing and transferring further learning and expertise to their communities by combining proven theories and techniques and hands-on experimentation. Making the best of nature’s bounty developed from the profoundly pragmatic need to survive, as throughout the centuries villagers were left to their own devices when it came to individual and community’s healthcare. The main priority in using herbs and plants throughout rural Greece was, and remains, the need to systematically and effectively treat physical and spiritual ailments, from the common headache, melancholy and respiratory disorders to broken bones, madness and heart disease. Meanwhile on the dark side, herbs have also played a significant role in magic and superstitious rituals for breaking spells, clearing the cloying effects of the evil eye and other psychic ‘disorders’.

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Magicians and faith healers carved out a niche for themselves among frightened, mainly uneducated individuals, often over-exceeding dosages and invoking divine powers or satanic entities to bring them into contact with other worlds, and to generate intensely hallucinogenic effects” Kallimanis says, adding that “their favorite plants were mainly those from the Solanacaeae (or nightshade) family, such as poisonous Belladonna and hallucinogenic Mandrake, some of which are highly toxic and can have serious or even deadly results. “Today, these magicians would be able to teach us about a whole host of other-worldly experiences, and we could call them magician-physicians – however, they didn’t have the ethics of a doctor or pharmacist, so I certainly wouldn’t call them that myself.”

* Many thanks to Dimitris Kallimanis, whose Greek-language book ‘Natural Cosmetics and Therapies from Ancient Greece and the Byzantium until the Present Day’ (Afoi Kyriakidi) on the bookstands as of November 2016.

                                                                As first published in Greece Is

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