How Nicholas Tselementes Shook Up Ancient Greek Cuisine And Beyond

How old does a dish have to be for it to be considered "traditional"? A hundred years? A thousand? And if something is traditional, does that automatically mean that it is authentic?

These are questions that modern Greek cooks have been asking for quite some time. Greece's location at a nexus of cultures means that for thousands of years, the food eaten in Greece was influenced by Turkish, Italian, Slavic, Balkan, and Arabic cuisines, as well as by the local farming traditions that prioritized simple foods from the region (per The Spruce Eats). Olives, fish, yogurt, phyllo dough, fresh herbs, and feta cheese are all foundational elements of the food made in this island Mediterranean nation, and you probably know famous Greek dishes like tzatziki, gyros, and baklava (via MasterClass).

But Greek food as it is recognized globally today was disproportionately impacted, not by centuries of gradual cultural exchange, but by the whims of one man: Nicholas Tselementes. Born in 1878 on the island of Sifnos, this country boy grew up to write the first significant cookbook on Greek cuisine and has since become so synonymous with Greek food that a contemporary Greek would refer to a cookbook as a "tselemente" after his name (per Greek Reporter). Not everyone is such a huge fan of this famous Greek chef, however.

Tselementes forced an evolution of Greek cooking

Tselementes studied cooking in Vienna before leaving Europe to work in the United States and returned years later with a lot of ideas about how Greek cooking needed to shake things up (per Saveur). He returned home and began putting a decidedly French-influenced spin on Greek food, preferring butter to Greek's famous olive oil and ramping up simple dishes with elaborate sauces thick with cream and cheese (per The Spruce Eats). According to Culture Trip, he's credited for the modern-day version of moussaka, which despite being one of the most recognizable "Greek" dishes, is covered in a decidedly un-Greek layer of béchamel sauce.

Saveur notes that Tselementes's 1932 cookbook, "Odigos Mageirikis," was so popular that its versions of Greek recipes over time replaced the oral traditions that had kept culinary history alive in Greece, making old-school Greek cooking harder and harder to document as time wore on. The "elevated" style the foreign-educated chef promoted was taken up by chefs and restaurants throughout Greece, eventually spreading beyond the country's borders to become representative of Greek cuisine abroad, explains Greek food expert Aglaia Kremezi, "...Greeks are still led to believe that the delicious foods their grandmothers cooked — often the same dishes Italians have triumphantly publicized all over the world — are not good enough for modern, affluent Greek society," (via The Spruce Eats).