Looking at Alexandra Mitsotakis, you might mistake her for a high-fashion model. Instead, the daughter of former Greek Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis heads Action Aid, a charitable organization that she founded to provide food and water for children in third-world countries.
Fluent in four languages, she also directs the Greek Cultural Institute in Paris, where she lives. As the mother of four grown children ranging from 19 to 32, she takes family seriously. She grew up in one that is both brilliant and accomplished, as well as being close-knit.
Her sister, Dora Bakoyannis, was Athens’ first woman Mayor, and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Her brother Kyriakos, an economist and former MP, is a politician in the New Democracy Party.
But it is her late mother, Marika, who took center stage in an exclusive interview Alexandra gave to The National Herald on a recent trip to New York. A culinary legend, supposedly Marika could sway a politico’s votes with, for in
The book, Recipes of Love, just published in the United States was “authored” by her mother in the sense that Marika originated all the recipes, and the initial half of the book tells the story of her life and ongoing love affair with husband Constantine.
She never started a day without having coffee with her husband, and sent him off on every trip – large or small – with a sandwich from home. Said Alexandra: “My mother was first of all in love with my father. He came first.”
We met in the lobby of the Park Lane Hotel, where Alexandra was staying. The Sophia-Loren lookalike oozed down-to-earth charm as she uncapped a Coke Zero and admitted: “I’m not a cook. What I really enjoy cooking is pasta and salads. Those are the things I do very easily. Somehow I was destroyed. I just had to go home and there was all this wonderful Greek cooking on the table.”
She recalled the genesis of the book: “It was my mother’s birthday. She turned 80 that day, and we had planned a party, but she went into the hospital. It was very sad. I thought: what gift can I make for her? She’s in the hospital. She’s 80. What can I really do? And suddenly I had this idea for the book. We always thought she should write a book of her recipes, but clearly for her generation cooking is not something you make a book of. Cooking – you do it, you live it, and you eat it!
“I called my sister Katerina, a very good cook. In our family, in every generation, you have an exceptional cook. My grandmother was a great cook. My mother was a great cook. Katerina is the cook of our generation. I said look, I’m going to take care of doing the book. I’ll find the editor, the publisher. But I cannot do the cooking. You will have to help me. There was a practical problem. Nobody cooked in our house with recipes. They were cooking – a little of this, a little of that. So, Katerina was obliged to do the very hard work, to count every gram.
“When the book was ready, it was one year to the day from when we started, which in Greece is not easy. It was my mother’s 81st birthday. She was so moved and happy. It was the best thing we could have done. Because telling the story of her life was a positive experience for her. The woman who did the interviews helped her not only to keep busy, but just to feel good, because she talked about her life. She was reminded of everything.” Marika died four months after book was published.
Recipes of Love takes us inside a world of love, family, food, and politics. And there are those mouth-watering recipes. Says Alexandra, “My favorite is pastitsio with phyllo. This is an old Athenian recipe that nobody does anymore. It’s delicious, and it looks so impressive on a buffet. The stuffed tomatoes with béchamel are special. And there are the parmesan cookies that George Bush liked. The keftedes are divine! Try those. They are fluffy. You know, they are not hard. We had to do them three times to get them right.”
Food and family meals were the glue and the sustenance that held them together through the tempestuous career of Mitsotakis. Alexandra recalled the time of the Colonels, when her father was arrested, then escaped into exile in Paris.
“I was very frightened during the [time of the] Colonels. It was terrible. But my mother still served dinner. It was a kind of security. It was a reference. For me, the dictatorship was the end of my childhood. I was eleven. It was not an easy decade.”
To prepare the recipes for the book, Alexandra and Katerina worked in the family home in Crete. Her mother was there to enjoy the production “It was a fabulous experience,” Alexandra says.
“The photographer came to our house. We had to make all the photographs in one week. So we had to cook all the food that week, several things per day. The funny thing was that this photographer was used to making cook books with food stylists. We said, we will just present it as it is, and then we’ll eat the food. He said, ‘Are you serious? You’ll eat the food? This is the first time I’ve worked on a book where everything is cooked and eaten.’
“Because we had so much food, we were inviting people all the time. We found ourselves on the 15th of August with a turkey and kourambiedes, so we invited all of our cousins to come and we had Christmas in the middle of summer. My mom enjoyed that very much. The house was full of laughter. “
According to Alexandra, creating the book proved an occasion of discovery. “I realized that cooking and the ritual of family meals is something that should not be taken for granted. Even today, my father continues to have his lunch at home every day, and we know that if we want to have lunch with him, there will always be food on the table. It has been a tremendous force in keeping the family together.
“Because of my activities, I’m constantly traveling between Greece and France, and my father, the first thing he will ask me is ‘What do you want to eat tomorrow? What do you want me to cook for you?’ And this is something, honestly, I feel very privileged to have. And I really hope I will remember and try to replicate it. Do it the way my family did. I know it’s another time, but let’s sit around food and talk. That is something that is important. We talk about everything, including politics, and a lot about food.
“One Sunday I was in Athens, and my father said, ‘I have this beautiful kokora and we’re going to do it with pasta.’ It would have been just the two of us, so I called my cousins and said my father has a beautiful kokora, and you’ll have to come for lunch. They said ‘wonderful, we’re coming.’ And suddenly my sister Dora decided that she was coming with one of her kids. So instead of eight, we were sixteen. Of course, the beautiful kokora was not enough, so we needed to cook a second dish.
“That’s how it works. Either we’re trying to find people to eat the food, or food to feed the people. We keep adjusting. We might have big or small arguments, but the fact that it’s happening around food helps.”
The Mitsotakis family continues to gather every summer at the family home in Crete, including children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “Between July and August, everyone comes to see their grandfather or great-grandfather, and he loves it. They call him Big Pappou. The family is so large that it requires scheduling, but everyone makes it to Crete sooner or later in the summertime.”
Although Alexandra’s husband is French and she lives in Paris, she insisted that her children learn to speak Greek.
“I made a big effort. First of all, they went on their vacations to Crete, where they learned to speak Greek with my mom and their cousins living in Greece. And in Paris, I had a Greek teacher come to the house through their school years until they were seventeen.
“That was very, very important for me. Because I’m Greek, you see. I’m not French. My husband is French, but I’m Greek. And my grandchildren, I want them to speak Greek. I have spent many years in France but I consider myself living partially in Greece. The difference between being in France and in the United States is that you can go easily between Athens and Paris, and I have an apartment in Athens.”
Alexandra rescued the Greek Cultural Center in Paris. “It was on the verge of closing down when I was approached. I said hold on, Greece will not have a cultural entity in France? To promote our culture, our heritage, our poetry, photography?
“I found a few friends and three months later I was chairman of this thing, and five years later we have a really wonderful cultural center, doing many many, things. We don’t have any public money. We raised money because we had good projects and inspiring ideas. We just finished a film festival showing sixteen new Greek films. We do it every two years. It’s wonderful. People love it.”
She personally avoids politics. “I prefer the civic society,” she says. “I believe in politics you need to be a very good and strong person to remain true to yourself. It doesn’t bring out the best side in people. And I believe in everyone there is a good and a bad side. And it’s nice to do things that appeal to the good side. Because there is a good side in everybody. I believe that.”
She does have her views on the current political situation in Greece. “I worry that people might be very disappointed. I worry because I know that the Greek people have suffered very much. It’s unfair to give them promises that can’t be kept. But we have to be optimistic, and I am an optimist. In any case, let me say that whatever happens, even if things go badly in the short term, I am absolutely certain they will work in the long term.
“The assets that Greece has are very great. We have summer tourism, but we should have tourism year round. In every corner of our country, we have something to show, something to share. There are a million things we could do.
“I’m convinced that Greece’s potential has not been realized. We could become a fount of knowledge and also technology. We can do all that. All we need is to work a little bit hard and have a government that can solve the institutional problems of Greece. I am convinced we will do it because we have to. It will happen.”