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Food for Thought

Ilana Weitzman: Get them to the Greek

In her second blog entry, the editor of Air Canada's enRoute magazine savours her favourite food story in the magazine—and the matchmaking between an eccentric restaurateur and a notoriously prickly food writer that made it happen.
As an editor, I'm always looking for story ideas, and when I met Montreal restaurateur Costas Spiliadis, I knew I'd met my next big food story. Costas owns the Milos empire, with restaurants in Montreal, Athens, Las Vegas and South Beach but, more importantly, has a deeply held, almost chivalrous righteousness about Greek food. According to him, the reputation of his country's culinary heritage had been done terrible damage by the hordes of frat boys who went to Greece to drink ouzo and then eat crap food because they were too drunk to know any better. As he saw it, it was his personal mission to rectify the PR image of Greek food. Even if he had to do it single handedly.

Which is where GQ food writer Alan Richman, one of the funniest writers I know of, comes in. He has an equally chivalrous righteousness about every kind of food. Alan and Costas would criss-cross Greece searching for seven iconic Greek dishes and then write about the adventure for enRoute

We made the list before they left, pinpointing on a map where they might find the ultimate version of each dish: lamb near Mount Olympus, which they would climb for a blessing before consuming the meal, baklava made with honey from Crete. Pites (pies and turnovers) made by the mother of somebody's mother. They would travel by plane, car, luxury yacht and rowboat to get where they needed to go. Alan was dubious: As he writes in the piece, "moussaka is, in my opinion, the worst food ever brought to the New World from a foreign land." Costas himself admitted that any moussaka you could eat now was a sorry bastardization of the original, made by his mother, who quite inconveniently for our purposes, was already dead. We put mousaka on the list.

Yes, it could all go terribly, terribly wrong. It didn't. A year later, the feature in enRoute won one of the most prestigious culinary food prizes in the world, the Bert Greene award. (Saveur and The New York Times Magazine were runners-up in the same category.) 

It taught me that you could take any classic narrative paradigm—in this case the buddy story and the quest story—and filter it through food. As I suspected, my two characters threw down the gauntlet about two-thirds into the trip: Alan insisted they detour to any restaurant of his choosing, anywhere in the country, and in that meal the true mettle of the country's cuisine would be tested. It was like something out of Sophocles. 

Costas later recounted that he was so nervous he couldn't sleep the night before. Alan randomly stuck out his finger on a country road, insisting the driver take the next exit. They drove past a group of men in the town square, who unceremoniously pointed to a beach. Alan and Costas sat down at a table and had one of the best meals of their lives. Fish was hauled directly off a boat, right before their eyes. A cheese pie was brought still bubbling hot from the kitchen of a local nana. The truth, indeed, turned out gloriously stranger than fiction. And I got my story. 

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Ilana Weitzman is the editor-in-chief of enRoute, Air Canada's award-winning magazine. Many of the food pieces she has edited have been included in the Best Food Writing anthology alongside work from Gourmet and Bon Appetit, and several have been nominated for National Magazine Awards. She has won Gold and Silver National Magazine Awards for her reporting and editing, along with an award of merit from the North American Travel Journalists Association.  

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