Some cookbooks I find so irresistibly charming I have to buy them, although I know I probably wouldn't have the time to skim through their pages, let alone read or cook from them. Other books, although they may be very interesting and important, are overlooked because they come across as dull and unappealing, a grave problem during these very difficult times for food writers. With an abundance of free recipes only a few keystrokes away--good, bad, and plain silly--people need more than cooking instructions to make them spend money on a book.
Michael Psilakis's How to Roast a Lamb: New Greek Classic Cooking (Little, Brown and Company) is a particularly charming book. The cover, of course, contributes greatly to any book's instant appeal, and here the simple-looking picture of olive oil, lemon, garlic, oregano, and olives works perfectly to draw the reader or bookstore browser into a beguilingly nostalgic and homey Mediterranean mood. The rest of the equally beautiful food pictures by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton--seemingly straightforward but in fact very difficult to execute--work towards the same goal.
This is far from a down-to earth-homey recipe collection, though. It is the book of a very successful self-taught chef-owner of four Manhattan restaurants: the "Thomas Keller of Greek cuisine," Time Out New York called him; The New Yorker characterized him "the Greek-American Mario Batali." No wonder the author sounds so sure of himself when he decides to divide the recipes into chapters following his own memories rather than the usual order of a meal.
"I have created a book of soulfully integrated chapters," Psilakis writes. "This makes for a seemingly haphazard compilation with appetizers, entrées, fish, vegetables, and meat recipes within any given chapter."
"In following my muse," he writes, "I have created a book of soulfully integrated chapters...This makes for a seemingly haphazard compilation with appetizers, entrées, fish, vegetables, and meat recipes within any given chapter." He explains that in the introductions for the book's 11 chapters he narrates "memories, emotions, and insights that transpired throughout [his] childhood and into early adolescence ...and [are] vital to the path that led to my destiny in the kitchen." If you buy the book mainly to cook from, you may find that division confusing, though Psilakis' chapters make perfect sense if you want to read the book as a memoir with lots of recipes.
The general introduction recounts the fascinating story of the Greek immigrant boy laughed at on his first day at school because he wore black socks and his best clothes "as if he were going to church." Caught between his old-world, high-principled Greek family and the American way of life, Psilakis, like most young men and women, had his share of rebellious years. But he continued to live in his parents' house during and even after college, as is the custom in Greece. He wasn't sure what he really wanted to do with his life when he landed a job as a waiter in T.G.I. Friday's thinking he could earn enough money to go to law school in California. He quickly realized that he loved being in a restaurant, serving people, and being close to where food was prepared. From T.G.I. Friday's he moved to Café Angelica, a "creative" Italian restaurant in Garden City, Long Island owned by Greeks. He became manager and then majority owner of the restaurant, but still held his post at the front of the house. He had to occasionally give a hand in the kitchen, though, and then he was forced to become his restaurant's chef when the young man who cooked for him abandoned his job.
He found his true calling. The renamed Ecco featured "a blend of Greek-Italian-Mediterranean cuisine," and his dishes started to be talked about, and the very influential Gael Greene wrote about it in New York magazine. During this time he met Donatella Arpaia, a successful New York restaurateur, who invited him to work with her in Manhattan. He sold Ecco and decided to realize his dreams--"onera" in an imaginative Greek transliteration--creating his first restaurant, Onera, in Manhattan, a half-story below ground level on the Upper West Side.