FOOD CULTURE – What’s A Greek Urn?

21 Nov 2001

‘Give the people what they want’ is the motto of the hospitality industry – and if you can predict it before they ask – you may maintain a successful restaurant business. Very few restaurateurs have successfully imposed their personal tastes onto customers – unless they were in the right place at the right time (a reckless visionary-turned renowned trendsetter). Even so, the acceptance of change may have been easy, due to the fact that the customer wanted something different – so they’ve still supplied demand – but at a very high financial risk. Either that or they’ve formed a joint venture with fellow movie stars so the investment is a fun little hobby. What happens to the sole proprietors out there, trying to serve decent food and make a decent living? Exhale.
Hence, the paradox here in Greece. The traditional cuisine of Crete is famous for its nutritional, heart-healthy properties. The scientific community has presented stacks of proven evidence on the benefits of this wonder-diet. Hundreds of periodicals are dedicated to subject, and the general public can’t buy enough guides to eating well. Chefs in other nations are carefully studying the cuisine of Greece – to be prepared to supply demand – and offering Greek-inspired specials on their menu to test the level of customer interest. Not surprisingly, it’s been tremendous. In the United States alone, just within the last decade, many restaurateurs have shifted from the typical taverna-style restaurant to upscale, fine dining establishments offering far more than the familiar salad, gyro and moussaka fare. This new ‘trend’ justly raises the status of Greek cuisine to new heights – and the visionary restaurateurs have taken a great a risk in ‘creating’ demand.
Why should white tablecloths be reserved for French restaurants? After all, most restaurants in Europe are taverna-style as well. And the reasons for the difference in representation abroad? Much has to do with availability of indigenous items – how can one create an authentic dish without authentic ingredients? Ask any French chef who came to the U.S. in the 50s or 60s to open a restaurant; they had to kick and scream for imported ingredients – all at a great expense. That’s why French restaurants were (and still are) expensive – labor costs and overhead are also contributing factors. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

Greeks have a great respect for fine food – yet fancy presentations are not a priority.
Many restaurateurs in popular tourist areas of Greece are struggling to maintain the quality of traditional Greek cuisine. There’s little demand. Most tourists come here for sun, fun, beer and familiar food. Consequently, you won’t encounter much of the finest food Greece has to offer because, alas, your predecessors have requested breaded veal more often than the lovely catch of the day. No restaurateur in their right mind would stock their kitchen with very expensive and perishable fresh fish and vegetables unless there was a demand. The average tourist doesn’t want that stuff. Occasionally, diners will order a tomato-cucumber salad to start – but that’s usually the extent of their dietary requirements.
Most menus are standardized and there seems to be one big-city photographer (not to be confused with a good food stylist) who pumps out pictures for the tourist menus – and all cooks try to replicate the ghastly photos. So, while the rest of the world is reaping the benefits of the diet of Crete, the restaurateurs here are stuck with supplying demand. This is also a nation which relies heavily on the tourist trade, so unless you’re a movie star who can afford to take the chance at something new, you continue to give the people what they want or change careers. What is also ironic and troubling is that the young Greeks have caught the fast food bug and are creating their own burgers & fries culture right here in the heart of Med Diet land, and fast food joints have become trendy meeting places. How have McDonald’s-type establishments, whiskey and Marlboros here become popular symbols of the good life, while the rest of the world is racing to report the opposite? Check the financial reports of local fast food chains for proof.
The good news. Of course, if you are a savvy visitor and ask a chef a few days in advance for anything truly Greek, you’d be amazed at the response you’ll receive.

Nikki Rose is a pro chef and food writer living in Crete. The focus of her work is the preservation of traditional food ways.

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