The Greek Chef that conquered Paris!

Dina Nikolaou is a Greek celebrity Chef with years of experience in the restaurant business and in the TV industry. Warm hearted, classy, always with a huge smile on her face, she is surely one of the most loveable TV Chefs in the country. Dina welcomed us at “Yoleni’s”, in the center of Athens, where she gives the most interesting seminars on Greek cuisine, in order to tell us her own success story.

When was your first cooking experience?
“My first cooking attempt was when I was six years old. I remember my grandmother was making bread and I took bits of the dough - filled them with cheese and gave them different shapes. I was standing in front of the wood burning oven really impatiently to try my very own first creation. I will never forget how full and happy I felt. However, my first professional cooking experience was during my work placement in a two star restaurant in Paris when I finished my studies.”

When did your TV career started?
“It started 13 years ago totally out of the blue. It was the time that I had returned to Greece after many years of absence. I had then released a cooking book about recipes with fruits and was invited in a TV morning show for its promotion. The next day I received a phone call to go to an audition regarding the cooking section of a daily show. I was immediately chosen and everything else came naturally.”

How did Paris came to your life?
“When I finished primary school, my parents bought me a ticket to Paris as a present. My uncle and his family were living there permanently and I always wanted to visit them. This trip changed my life, I immediately felt in love with Paris. It was all strangely familiar, like I had been there for all of my life. Passionate as I was, I promised myself that one day I would conquer Paris somehow. I was a teenager thirsty for life & success that used to dream big.”

When did you start your own restaurant in Paris? Was it difficult?
“I owe my first restaurant to my sister Maria Nikolaou. It was a brave decision that we took. Maria was already in the industry and she was managing the Greek restaurant of her husband’s family, in Paris. We decided to take this restaurant a step further and make a statement in the Parisian food scene. “Evi evane” was something new, we needed to prove to the French audience that Greece has a strong gastronomical background and it has nothing to do with the touristic food of their holidays in our country. We brought Greek local dishes and products into light. We wanted to cook real Greek food with real Greek products. We refused to be just another commercial Greek restaurant. We wanted “Evi evane” to be a gate pass to Greece. We introduced Greek wines to the French. We wanted everything to be fresh and homemade and welcome everyone as if they were coming to our home. They appreciated our truth and kept coming back. Slowly the clients became friends and this has given us strength to carry on.”

I know that the family of “Evi evane” has expanded. Tell us a little bit about the new members of the ‘family’.
“In 2011, we opened a Greek deli in the heart of Paris called “Evi Evane Traiteur”. More than 180 traditional Greek products are available to customers; Products that we have carefully selected from local producers of the Greek land. Kalamata olives, olive oil from the Peloponnese & Crete, many kinds of Greek cheeses, honey & wine are only a few of the products that one can come across. You can also pick up your lunch and choose from Greek pies to mousaka and tarama.
We took another step in 2014 and opened the first Greek meze (tapas) restaurant in Paris. Mezes is a part of our culture and we wanted to honor our heritage and introduce mezes to the French. Seafood tapas, meatballs of all kinds, Greek cheeses, olives, ouzo & tsipouro are always on the front line. We have chosen every recipe and every product with love and care in order to offer a full Greek meze experience to our customers.”

Do French love the Greek cuisine and its products?
“For a long time the French were not aware of the authentic Greek cuisine and its long history. I dare to say that “Evi Evane” played a crucial role in promoting Greek cuisine and Greek products in France. However, I believe we still have a long way to go in terms of promoting Greek products in such a competitive market. “

Do you believe that you have contributed in promoting Greek gastronomy abroad?
“I want to believe that after years of endless efforts we managed to promote Greek gastronomy by taking part in numerous food festivals worldwide, by organizing cooking seminars regarding the Greek cuisine in many large cooking schools, by taking part in TV shows in order to promote Greece and by releasing Greek cooking books in order to educate the audience. More or less all these actions have made their contribution in the promotion of our gastronomy abroad.”

You are always between Athens & Paris. What do you love about those two cities?
“In Paris, I love walking around in the streets of my neighborhood, on the left side of the Seine River; it immediately makes me travel through time in different eras, places & time.
I also love French bistro’s, they are so nostalgic & romantic without being dated at all. This is the place where all I need to be happy is a glass of wine and a piece of cheese.
On the other hand, the street markets of Athens never stop to fascinate me; so many colours, so much variety and so much noise makes you really feel alive.
The Acropolis always casts a spell on me. I dream of having a place where I could cook to people overlooking the sacred rock of Athens.
The local taverns are another favorite thing that one can find in the city, with real honest Greek food that doesn’t need any shiny wrapping paper to stand out from the crowd.”

Do you have any particular habit when you cook?
“When I cook at home for friends or family, I always listen to music and enjoy a glass of good wine. This is not so easy when I cook professionally where the stress and the environment do not give you space and time to relax; however, I never go anywhere without my knives and my bamboo tongs, they are the “must have” in my kitchen.”

Dina you have been in the TV industry for quite long, do you have any new plans at the moment?
“I have been many years non- stop on TV programmes. This season I decided to keep my distance for a while in order to think clear and study well all ideas and proposals. I am preparing something new, something fresh that I am sure you are all going to love it; till then I ‘ll keep you posted through my website and my social media. Cooking shows play an important role in educating people nutrition wise. We carry a big responsibility and we need to be careful on every step of the way.”

We are at “Yoleni’s”, a great place of Greek gastronomy situated in Kolonaki. Here you have your very own cooking seminar space. Tell us a little bit about it?
“I like to call it “school”; it is my brand new baby and I love it so much. This is the place where I can communicate my love of cooking and I can share my knowledge and experience with people. In every lesson I invite a different producer or a wine maker – his product becomes the protagonist of my cooking lesson. People have loved the whole experience; we taste different recipes, we share thoughts, we communicate through food.”

What do you believe has made you so popular throughout the years?
“The TV has played an important role. People saw my truth through TV; they saw love and care though my TV travel & cooking experiences. I want to tell them all about real food and take them with me in this amazing journey. Viewers always understand and appreciate what is being given with love.”

Do you believe that love can be communicated through food?
“Of course it can! It also grows through food and takes different shapes. Food has our energy, the one we have given it when we were making it. People receive our energy through food. At the end of the day, it is all about love.”

Do you believe that Greek products are gaining more ground nowadays?
“We have made a small progress by exporting more Greek products abroad; this begun in the middle of the financial crisis and never before. However, I believe that this is only the beginning and we still have a long way to go. We need favorable legislation, education, strategic marketing and slow but solid steps each time in order to establish ourselves in the global market.”

Do you think that Greece is a gastronomical destination?
“It certainly deserves to be. The variety of local dishes is amazing. Fruits & vegetables are delicious. The natural beauty of Greece is breathtaking, the climate is simply fantastic and the hospitality is something that we are famous of. Greece is the place where you can really taste life.”

Finally, tell us what one should taste when coming to Greece?
“It really depends on the season. I strongly support seasonality in cooking. Our olive oil is our treasure, the fish of the Aegean Sea are superficially tasty, and our summer vegetables are a tasting experience. Do not miss the tomatoes that grow in August with a piece of real buttery feta, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and aromatic oregano coming from our mountains; a complete bite of Greece.”