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Sotiris Kitrilakis: From nuclear to nurturer

| Sunday, July 10, 2005

Charisma describes attributes of personal magnetism, charm and leadership. It's a Greek word befitting a gorgeous Greek, Sotiris Kitrilakis, a man of warmth, sensibility and intelligence.

An internationally renowned Greek food expert, Kitrilakis will visit Pittsburgh this week to create an authentic Greek feast in celebration of Slow Food Pittsburgh.

His life reads like a textbook of super-achievement.

Born in Athens, Greece, the son of a Greek army general, he ventured to the United States at age 14 on an exchange student scholarship via the American Field Service. He attended high school in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., then went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned both a Bachelor's and a Master's degree in chemical engineering.

While at MIT, he worked on the NASA space program and, subsequently, for Thermo Electron Corporation, developing energy conversion systems for space applications. One of his research projects, a program of the National Institutes of Health, researched nuclear energy sources for an artificial heart.

Kitrilakis moved to Berkley, California, in the '70s and founded a company, Tecna, to develop medical devices. G.D. Searle purchased that company in 1975. With secure revenues and increased time spent in Greece, Kitrilakis started his dramatic transition from high technology to the world of quality food culture -- first, as an importer of authentic Greek foods; then, as educator on food history, sustainable agriculture and old ways preservation.

Along the way, his entrepreneurial talent produced two food-related companies: Peloponnese, importers of fine Greek products, acquired in 1995 by Hormel Foods; and Mt. Vikos, a producer of free-range, hand-crafted Greek cheese, with which he's still affiliated.

In 2002, Kitrilakis created an agro-tourism organization based on the Island of Zakynthos, Greece, where he lives. Called Zante Feast -- www.zante-feast.org -- the cultural immersion program, an educational holiday with cooking classes, hopes to bring the island's traditional life to the attention of interested visitors.

A dapper 70-year-old, with expressive eyes and a bushy white moustache, Kitrilakis is a respected presenter, food authority and award-winning chef. As the man who put Greek food products on the map worldwide, he's viewed as a modern-day Greek legend.

"Sotiris Kitrilakis understands Greek food products like Yo Yo Ma understands Brahms," says award-winning cookbook author Paula Wolfert. "And he has brought that same passion and knowledge to us with great Greek products for more than 25 years. I consider him 'the man' on Greek food products and I wouldn't dream of writing a Mediterranean cookbook without suggesting his products as best of breed."

Most of all, he is acknowledged as a visionary, one with a lucid grasp of what's truly important in life. We caught up with him via email:

Question: What drew you to food and cooking• How did you learn to cook?

Answer: I suppose cooking for myself as a student was the beginning of it. Experimenting with produce and cheap fish from the Haymarket in Boston was a necessity, because they were the only affordable sources of ingredients. The rest just evolved.

Q: Given your background in chemistry, are you interested in today's exploration of kitchen science and cooking technology -- e.g. molecular gastronomy?

A: Most of us who went to school temples of technology in the '50s were at the time convinced that science was omnipotent and that it had all the answers. Working in the space program in the early days tended to reinforce this outlook. It was only after becoming involved in the development of ambitious medical devices that I began to recognize the limitations of science and technology.

Science is a magnificent tool for understanding what goes on with taste and cooking and the interactions of our senses with the environment. Like all tools, it can be used in different ways, and like all tools, humanity has used it to do plenty of harm as well as good. Keeping the balance is the hardest of all tasks, one that we're clearly having trouble mastering.

Q: Describe Zakynthos today, 10 years ago, historically.

A: Zakynthos, like most notable places in the eastern Mediterranean, is first mentioned in Homer's Iliad. Apparently it was part of Odysseus' kingdom. In classical times, it was one of the players among the city States of Greece. During the Byzantine years, until the 1200s, it declined and was frequently invaded and raided by pirates. The Crusaders took over, and eventually it became part of the Venetian Republic. It was under Venetian rule from 1380 to 1800. At the time it became a refuge for Greeks and others fleeing the Ottoman Empire, which had little tolerance for free thinkers and rebels.

The combination of these emigrants and the political and cultural environment fostered by the Venetians made Zakynthos, as well as the other Ionian islands, a place where the arts flourished, especially music and poetry. Finally, it joined Greece in 1865, after 60 years of British rule.

Ten years ago, Zakynthos was still pretty relatively untouched by the development of mass tourism and retained most of its charm. Its agriculture was virtually unaffected by the technological developments and its food was delicious. In the last 10 years, there's been a disastrous effort to attract mass tourism, which has already created enclaves of ugly, shabby accommodations, and hamburger and fish and chip colonies.

Farming is threatened by the lure of waiters' jobs and bar tending that mean easy money to the young farmers. The traditional food products of the island -- olive oil, currants, cheeses -- are all in danger of becoming extinct or industrialized. There are sparks of hope in that some of the people of the island are beginning to realize that this trend is eventually going to destroy the island and chase away the tourists who came to it to begin with because of its traditional beauty and character.

Q: Explain the mission and experience of Zante Feast.

A: Zante Feast was conceived as our response to the trends described above. It is an effort to acquaint outsiders with the treasures that still exist and the pleasures they offer. In the spirit of Slow Food, we are attempting to create a demand for the traditional food products, sustainably produced, and the old style Zakynthian hospitality. We're hoping that those who come to Zante Feast and learn from the local cooks, farmers and craftsmen about island life will do their part in sustaining it. I would like to emphasize that the local people do the teaching, not outside food experts, and every penny paid by the visitors is channeled to the local participants in the program.

Q: Are you across-the-board for old ways preservation as opposed to development• How does one reconcile technology and economic development with the values of an agrarian Utopia?

A: As always, it is a matter of balancing a multitude of forces. Of course, science and technology can make very positive contributions to the lives of people in Zakynthos, as well as everywhere else, and, of course, progress is inevitable. The essence of everything that goes on on this planet is change. The challenge is making changes that are improvements, or, at least, as Hippocrates said about cures, that do no harm.

Utopias -- permit me to translate the original Greek term which means "no place" -- are only useful in the early stages of planning. Sooner or later, reality must be faced and the Utopian concept filed away. What's critical is to assess change in terms of its consequences, and this is where we have erred progressively more and more for the past 300 years, ever since the days of "enlightenment."

Q: I've read that hosting the Olympics changed the Greek culinary landscape. Is it true that cutting-edge, new wave experimentation is making inroads into traditional cuisine?

A: Greece is indeed developing a new way of cooking, where creative chefs have been elaborating on old traditional themes. Much of it is exciting and fun to try. As in every place on earth, some of it is new for the sake of being new, but that's OK. I don't think this movement is in any way threatening or damaging to traditional cuisine. Mediocrity and carelessness, which are all too prevalent in Greek restaurants, especially those catering to tourists, are the real danger.

Ann Haigh is co-host with husband Peter of "On the Menu," a weekly radio broadcast discussing food, wine and travel, from 9 to 10 a.m. Sundays on 1550 AM, The Edge. The program also streams on the Internet at www.edge1550.com .

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