Every New Yorker knows that if you want really good Greek food, you go to Queens. So on a recent Sunday, I headed to a two-bedroom apartment in the Elmhurst neighborhood to learn the secrets of authentic Greek cooking.
Despina Economou was my instructor for the day. She's a member of the League of Kitchens — a new cooking school where the teachers are immigrants with serious cooking chops, and the classrooms are their own kitchens. There were four other woman gathered inside Economou's tiny kitchen that morning — and we're talking New York City here, so think small, and then think even smaller.
On the menu that day: tourlou (baked vegetables), faki (lentil soup), gigantes beans, Greek halva (semonlina cake) and my favorite, tiropita (cheese pie in phyllo dough crust).
“I love to cook. I cook every day,” said Economou.
Economou came to the US in 1972 as a nurse. She only planned to stay here for two years, but she met her husband, another Greek immigrant, and two years turned into 42. And although Economou said she feels very American, her cooking is very Greek.
The idea for the League of Kitchens was thought up by Lisa Gross — a native New Yorker and the daughter of a Korean immigrant.
“My Korean grandmother lived with my family growing up and cooked us amazing Korean food. And whenever I would try to help her, she would say, 'Don't worry about helping, you should go study,'” said Gross.
Lisa never learned to cook any of those Korean dishes she loved so much. And after her grandmother passed away, no matter how closely she followed a recipe from the internet or a Korean cookbook, she could never reproduce her grandmother’s recipes.
“It always felt like there was something subtle, but important missing,” said Gross. “And then I sort of had this fantasy, wouldn't it be amazing to have grandmothers from all over the world who you could learn from, and learn their family recipes and cook with them in their own home kitchens.”
Thus, the League of Kitchens was born.
Lisa spent two years searching for home cooks — interviewing them, tasting their recipes — until she found six cooks to launch the school. As of now, instructors are from Greece, Afghanistan, South Korea, India, Bangladesh and Lebanon. But Gross is still recruiting more home cooks and more cuisines in the New York area.
“When you think about how many incredible home cooks are out there who are only sharing their knowledge and experience with their own family, it seems like such a ripe opportunity to create greater access to this knowledge,” said Gross.
The access Gross talks about is crucial: being inside Despina’s kitchen, it’s almost like you become instant family, doing the dishes, picking up the telephone and, of course, the kitchen gossip about lazy husbands.
“Oh my God, he doesn't even warm up his food,” said Economou about her husband, whom she called a “typical Greek man” who stays clear of the kitchen.
Of course, the highlight of the afternoon was the food itself. The tiropita came out of the oven golden brown and in perfect little triangles. The cheese was not too salty; the phyllo dough was flaky. And the secret to perfectly cheesy tiropita, we learned from Economou, is that you have to cut it into triangles before putting it in the oven, so it will be easy to cut after it’s baked.
The cooking course culminates in a sit-down dinner. And as we all sat down to the food we just made together, Despina — in typical fashion — stood over us like a proud grandmother.