HPW’s Inspiring Women series profiles remarkable Greek-American professional women whose stories of success inspire and encourage us to achieve our own career goals and aspirations.
Greek food ambassador, author, healthy lifestyle expert
Maria Loi is the Global Ambassador of Greek Gastronomy, elected by the Chef’s Club of Greece and the Executive Chef of Loi Estiatorio. Her culinary prowess has made her a food superstar. She is the author of 36 cookbooks, including Ancient Dining, the official cookbook of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, and her most recent, The Greek Diet. Her lines of products, Loi Pasta and Loi Dips are available at Whole Foods Markets. Chef Loi’s mission in life is to change the world, one healthy Greek bite at a time, through thoughtful and nutritious eating, and by educating people on how tasty, healthy, and easy Greek cuisine can be.
What inspired you to become a chef?
I always loved to cook. When I was 7, I made my first meatball dish, and my father was so proud of me, he made me the chef of the house! Feeling his pride, and seeing the joy on his face was exactly the inspiration I needed to know this was my true calling! Before I was a chef, I was a lobbyist and spent many years consuming a Western-style diet and was unhappy and unhealthy. One day, I read a poem titled “As Much As You Can” by Constantine Cavafy. The poem resonated so deeply with me, and I decided in that moment to change my life – and I did.
What is your management style in the restaurant?
I believe in teamwork, and building a quality team that has the same vision of what you want your restaurant to represent to the world. Each of us has the same value, from dishwasher to executive chef – no one is more important than another, we are all important and add value to the team. Coming to Loi Estiatorio is about the entire dining experience! We want people to feel like they are transported to a Grecian oasis.
When are you happiest at work?
From the moment I walk in the door and especially when I’m creating in the kitchen! I love working side by side with my team on new recipes, changing up old ones, and teaching my team various techniques I learned from my grandmother, and other chefs I’ve worked alongside over the years.
Who is your role model?
My father was an incredible role model, parent and person. I was very lucky to have had him in my life and I miss him every day. Also, Melina Mercouri, the Greek actress, singer, politician, Greek advocate, and all-around firecracker. She was strong and passionate in whatever she did. She helped my country, and by helping my country, she helped the world. She believed in Greece as a world concept, not as a nation with borders, and that is the legacy I strive to honor and carry on.
What inspired you to start your eponymous companies, Loi Pasta and Loi Dips?
My mission in life is to change the world, one healthy, Greek bite at a time – the most efficient way to effect this change in the world is to create and promote healthy Greek food products!
How were you able to successfully start a collaboration with Whole Foods?
Whole Foods Market and I are involved in a symbiotic relationship. Whole Foods believes in clean, healthy food – in actual ‘whole foods’, from ‘stem to leaf’ so to speak – it’s something I subscribe to and believe in as well, so it was a natural choice for me to make.
How simple or difficult was it starting your own company in the United States, and what do you think the differences would have been if you were to start the same company in Greece?
You need to be honest with yourself and consistent with your quality, whether you’re making street food or gourmet meals! You need to know what is possible and impossible, and how you can achieve the improbable. And, of course, a great team (even if it’s only the two of you) makes all the difference in the world.
Your latest book, The Greek Diet, was co-written with health journalist Sarah Toland and emphasizes the Mediterranean lifestyle. What inspired you to write this book?
I want people to understand the Mediterranean lifestyle and the way of eating is really the Greek way – that Greek food is so much more than gyro and souvlaki, and much healthier than that as well! I want to teach people to enjoy life through healthy foods, with a balanced diet full of all the vitamins, minerals and nutrients they need, all while feeling genuinely satisfied after eating. A good meal should make you feel full and happy, not bloated and guilty – this book teaches you not only the ‘what’ and the ‘why’, but the ‘how’ as well!
You are an expert in Greek cooking. What is your favorite city or island in Greece to dine in?
I cannot choose only one – as the Global Ambassador of Greek Gastronomy, there are so many places and islands with special regional delicacies, incredible seafood, wonderful pies, etc! If I HAD to choose my top 3, it would be the village of Thermo (my birthplace), Chania (city in Crete), and Hydra Island (near Athens).
What impact has your Greek heritage had on your career and personal life?
Firstly, my career and personal life are one and the same – I love what I do, so there are no boundaries in that respect. However, as a general statement, I am beyond proud to be Greek, to share my love of all things Greek with the world, both ancient and modern. Greece is the birthplace of mostly everything valued in this day and age, from language, to theatre, to democracy. I am proud to be GREEK!
Are you involved in the Greek community in New York? If so, how?
I’m involved with the Greek community in New York as much as I can be, considering my work schedule! However, I always make it a point to support Greek organizations, the Greek church, and any philanthropic efforts – I’m proud of my Greek heritage, and do whatever I can do to support my fellow Hellenes!
What is your favorite non-Greek restaurant in New York City?
I love The Loeb Boathouse in Central Park – I feel very at home in Central Park, and enjoy having a glass of wine while looking out at the lake. The food and ambiance are very relaxing, and I feel at peace there. I also love Mozzarella & Vino, for great atmosphere and small plates – they use fantastic ingredients, and I enjoy their service style.
What is the best meal you have had?
My Loi Couscoussaki pasta with fresh vegetables and a freshly grilled piece of fish on top – I made it just the other day at Loi Estiatorio, and I cannot stop thinking about it! So tasty!
Who has inspired you in your career? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org