Ouch. I lost the moussaka contest! I was thrown down on the “Throwdown!” And by what? Horror of horrors, a honky-tonk rendition of the Greek national dish! Sacrilege! I knew I should have made an offering to Saint Euphrosynos, patron saint of cooks, but jet lag prevented me from doing so. That, and the all-consuming undertaking of making six hotel pans of the stuff for a recent episode of “Throwdown! With Bobby Flay.” I’m sure every Greek in America will want to skewer me. Sorry guys!
I am still muttering, bewildered and dazed: My moussaka, made with a perfumed meat sauce of the primest beef, baked (not fried) eggplants, zucchini for lightness and a three-cheese Bechamel beat out by a moussaka with ginger, lemon, honey and chili peppers? What’s wrong with those judges? C’mon!!! (And, in case no one told the folks at the Food Network, two judges do not quite a contest make.) But still, Zorba is turning in his grave, I know it. How could this have happened? I, self-proclaimed guru of Greek cooking, proselytizer of the healthiest food on Earth, author of 18 books on the subject. How could I dis moussaka, and in the process unwittingly find myself the protagonist in a 21st century Greek tragedy or, more accurately, a comedy of errors. Or a bit of both. Here is how it happened.
A mysterious ‘Food Network’ contest
It all started last April with a Post-it half-forgotten on the back wall at Pylos, the New York City restaurant where I am consulting chef. I was at the restaurant, fresh from Greece, to work on the spring and summer menu. On the Post-it was a name, a phone number and two cryptic words: Food Network. That was enough to make me drop my knives and start to imagine myself gesticulating and imparting some memorable punch line, show after hoped-for show. Would it be something like “Zeus!”? Or, “Opa!”? Would I, could I, imagine myself dressed in a toga making avgolemono, or smashing the plates that I served my Greek creations on, all in the name of Food Network fame? Certainly those two words were enough for me to leave the stove and call the young woman, herein referred to as J.D., whose name was on the note.
OMG. They were interested in me! But first, to my surprise, they had to taste our moussaka. Moussaka? I winced. Why moussaka? I HATE MOUSSAKA!! But she was polite and even made an earnest effort to pronounce it correctly (moos-a-KA), which softened me. Despite all the great Greek dishes I’ve spent my professional life searching for, re-creating and writing about, all the amazingly healthy food that is Greek, the Food Network wanted moussaka. They wanted the poster boy of Greek food, the cliché, right up there with gyros, baklava and retsina. How narrow-minded! How typical! How boring! I tried to talk J.D. out of it. I tried to charm her into convincing the powers that be to at least go for our signature artichoke moussaka instead. It’s so much more original. It’s vegetarian!, I coaxed. Healthy!! But no, they were decided, and so, perhaps, was my fate. Visions of grandeur danced in my head. If it’s moussaka they want, it’s moussaka they will get.
Of course, I didn’t know quite who “they” were. I certainly didn’t know that the yellow Post-it would be the start of my odyssey in the cloak-and-dagger ways of “Throwdown!,” one of the most popular shows on the Food Network, with a viewing audience larger than the population of Greece. I wasn’t privy to the minor detail of Mr. Flay’s presence in my life until the moment he appeared in the flesh next to me, cameras rolling, on our second and last day of the shoot. In the seven months between Post-it and filming, I was fed such a meager diet of information scraps by people I only knew through e-mail, that at one point I started to get seriously paranoid. I mean, seriously. More on that in a minute.
My moussaka passed muster. Of course it would. It’s the best moussaka in New York City! Next, it was my turn to be tested, so to speak. J.D. and a colleague shot a quick casting tape at the restaurant and in my home kitchen. A buddy in the TV business gave me a crash course in media training: “Smile all the time. Be lively. Be yourself. Get a good hair and makeup job. Look at the camera and pretend you’re talking to a friend.” Then my Brooklyn-born, Greek mother’s voice, God bless her soul, entered my head. “Wear a girdle. You’re not a spring chicken anymore, kid.” I am blessedly thick-skinned, if a bit thicker in waist than I was once, and I let the thought go. (Actually, I just wanted to be comfortable. And I did think, hey, Nigella’s plump. I am a Greek mother. Who’d trust me if I were a waif?)
Then, J.D. disappeared from my life, as suddenly as she had appeared. In the short interim of our communication, she was like a spook, maintaining a code of secrecy that was so impenetrable it put my suspicious Greek mind on edge. Soon after her first e-mails, she announced that she was moving to another job and that I should not contact her again. There was something vaguely threatening in the tone. But she explained that “they” would contact me, in August.
Great. I’d be spending my Greek island vacation waiting for a phone call. I practiced Zen-like detachment, numbed my lips to silence with a little nightly ouzo and relaxed. If it is meant to happen, it will happen. Erase it from your mind. This was my mantra, as it always is.
The moussaka makes the cut
The e-mail came, around Aug. 20, and the news was good. “They” had chosen me. What exactly I had been chosen for eluded me no matter how hard I tried to find out. And try I did, with journalistic doggedness that bordered on harassment, as J.D. later told me when I e-mailed to thank her for her part in a truly memorable (and fun) experience. I also did what any sane author would do: I stuck my shamelessly aggressive agent on them, his prying became a glitch in their system they did not appreciate. J.D.’s replacement, R.S., was my new contact, the Great Wall between me and whatever awaited me. I had already signed various things, mainly release forms and permissions, without knowing what I was getting myself into. R.S., who used words like “peachy,” said I would be part of a peachy special called “It’s Greek to Me.” Lovely. Another original. No mention of Bobby Flay. No mention of “Throwdown!.” (I was informed after the show was filmed that had I surmised it then, had I asked, I would have been immediately banned.)
But the clandestine atmosphere that clouded our every e-mail was sending my mind into red alert. What set me off at first was the budget, or, rather, the decidedly penurious nature of it as it related to moi. They weren’t picking up my makeup ($500 a day in New York City for a makeup artist, BTW); nor my plane ticket (thank goodness for Sky Miles); nor very much of anything besides a minimum stipend for food. Gee, thanks. My agent got a wall of silence and some nervous equivocating when he called his contacts at the network. Other things raised the alarm bell, too. Peachy, for one. He used his personal e-mail account to communicate with me. If he worked for the Food Network, I thought, why isn’t he using his work email to contact me? The production company R.S. worked for was called Blue Plate, which did not exist in the New York State Better Business Bureau records. Another red flag. An Internet search turned up several things, one a California address and another an 800 phone number, which I duly called only to get a recorded message, something to the effect of “Hey big guy, wanna have fun tonight?” A porn line!!!
I went ballistic and R.S. became the butt of my vitriol. “All your questions and the calls to my superiors are not making me look good,” he said, poker-faced veneer ever-so-slightly perturbed. But he must be used to these things. He had a ready answer. “We’re all freelancers. That’s how it works in television. So you can’t find us on any official list anywhere.” For some reason I believed him, or chose to, anyway, those visions of “Opa!” were growing as the shoot days approached.
On the set. Still no Flay.
The shoot fell on the worst two days of the year: the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I arrived from Greece on Friday, spent the weekend making moussaka, lots of it, and all the parts, too, since they needed trays and components for beauty shots, swap outs and service. Monday was the set kitchen day and the venue was a loft near the Holland Tunnel. The director, a Greek-American like me, marched me through the process of making my least favorite, most time-consuming dish with gale force domination. My assistants were new to this and slow (but kind); one was not a cook; the other spoke no English. It’s hard to steal staff from the small kitchen at Pylos, so I had to make due. (Bobby I should add, has an army of pros at his side.) Then I was interviewed. Then we went to the Union Square Market. Then we headed to Pylos, home of that famous moussaka, where friends and fans and good customers had all been invited to participate in a testimonial to the ethereal nature of our rendition of the Greek national dish. We all drank a little wine, and had a good deal of fun. So far, no sign of Mr. Flay. So far, not an inkling of his imminent arrival in my life. Well, almost no inkling.
Peachy insisted I drag as many friends as possible away from their pre-Thanksgiving rush to be with me the following day. Several friends figured out that the show I was doing might just be “Throwdown!,” and that “Greek to Me” was a fictitious decoy. So, of course, I asked, which incited near hysterical denial and more than a crack of panic in R.S. “Whatever makes you think that?” he repeated about three times in as many seconds. Got it, I thought. Aha. I was VERY relaxed. And why wouldn’t I be? To me, this was all about having as much fun as possible and, of course, doing my best. I even got the director’s goat with that question. I almost believed her categorical “NO,” and almost cowered to her scowling orders. “I told you. It’s ‘Greek to Me.’ Can we now please get off Greek time and keep to the schedule?”
For the showdown they chose a venue with apparent Greek Revival motifs, Gotham Hall, a former bank at Herald Square in Manhattan. I had to be there at a specific time, not a minute earlier because they would not let me in. (Nice way to treat the next Food Network star!) When I arrived, the audience, comprised of a social group and dance troupe from a Greek church in New Jersey as well as an adoring fan club of my closest childhood friends, was already lining up outside the door. The place was buzzing. A camera followed me, like a shadow, everywhere. I had to announce the event to them all: “Welcome to the Food Network, Everybody. I’m Diane Kochilas and this is ‘It’s Greek to Me.’ ” Yeah, sure. I just concentrated on getting my mis en place set up, my hotel pans to the kitchen, and everything else I would need to “perform” moussaka in order. I had to answer random questions from the audience about everything from the history of Greek food to the nature of Greek barbecue.
Then, I started to cook. When I looked up, I saw the jaw of my oldest friend drop. The stir in the audience turned into a tsunami of applause. And there he was, Bobby Flay, in the flesh, smiling right at me. I hugged him, Greek-style, kissing both cheeks. This was “Throwdown!,” after all. And the contest began.
I was concentrating, smiling, entertaining the audience, and, really having fun, all the while inhaling the ether of a kind of hyper-reality. There was no way Bobby, with his boy-next-door charm and his firm abs (I squeezed them when I hugged him) was going to usurp the moussaka title.
But wait, what title were they talking about? This was not quite a contest between equals, not a showdown to see who makes the best true Greek moussaka. It was a competition between tradition (my version) and novelty (Bobby’s rendition). We both came to the set with our individual recipes tested.
The judges were an odd couple. One was an academic and author of a Greek cookbook; the other a restaurateur who looked like he had indulged in one too many rich meals. He liked the sweet moussaka. The academic, an anthropologist who knows Greece well, appeared to prefer the traditional version. They murmured it out between them.
Then, the moment of judgment arrived. Number one! Mr. Flay was obviously very surprised. Stunned, I’d say. And, so, of course was I. He tapped his hand to his heart and looked at me in wonder, slightly shaking his head in disbelief. An OMG moment for us both.
Is there a moral to this story? Not really. A second helping? Probably not, unless, of course, “they” would take up the challenge of another “Throwdown!”
Zester Daily contributor Diane Kochilas, the food columnist and restaurant critic for Greece’s largest newspaper, Ta Nea, is also a culinary teacher, restaurant consultant and award-winning cookbook author.
Photos from top:
Bobby Flay and Diane Kochilas
Diane Kochilas’ moussaka contender
Flay and Kochilas on the set of “Throwdown! With Bobby Flay.”