Friday, December 3, 2010

Synthesis or fusion?

This article appeared on It is an interview with my wife, by Panos Georgoutzos.

It is about the girl I met at art school, the one that prepared salty dolmades for my father, at our engagement party. She has grown into an amazing cook, and I am sure her skill in entertaining, has been a great help in my career
as well as in our life in general.

My size proves it as well as our kid’s ability to cook. This is her view on food and cooking.

“I loved the pumpkin soup we had last night. I love you too.”

Jeannine Birbil is an American of Albanian Epirot descent, whose maternal grandfather came to America in 1904. She was born in Massachusetts and was raised in NYC. Attending Pratt Institute she studied Fine Art & Illustration, and is an illustrator. She is married to an American of Greek descent, a born Brooklynite. They met at Pratt, and have 3 grown children.
Due to her husband’s job, in Advertising, they have lived, for the past 45years, in London, Madrid, Milan, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Mexico City, Bogotá, and finally Athens. They now live in Porto Heli, a beautiful port, in the Peloponnesus.

Since Jeannine loves to cook, this seems to be a perfect formula for a fusion cuisine. Her creativity, the spices, the ingredients, the dishes, the local customs, the restaurants, the friends, all this multicultural exposure have helped make her dishes unique and a true fusion. 
You cannot live in all those places and not shop. Jeannine has an extensive collection of dishes, glasses and various china wear, that she uses constantly. Among her favorite dishes are the colorful Talavera plates that she commissioned in Puebla, Mexico. 
As a child she learned traditional cooking from her grandmother, mother and father. Her creativity, her travels, and her interest in cooking have done the rest.

-What is your relationship with food? How did you come to love cooking?

I just love it. It is such an absorbing creative experience. I love the colors and the presentation of food is important to me. It is like painting a portrait and food is the medium. Living in so many countries as my family and I have, it’s always about what influences you bring together from all these different cultures into your cooking. Once when I was very young, visiting my grandparents I opened the fridge to get some milk for breakfast and I saw three lamb heads sitting there staring at me. You could say that it was a disturbing thing for a little girl of 5 or 6 years old to see. Instead of being scared, I was truly curious to know what my grandmother would do with them. She expressed her distaste and told me that my grandfather was the one who would cook and eat them. Intrigued I sat beside him at the table watching him enjoy this odd meal and he offered me a taste expecting me to say no, but I was more than willing to try. He gave me the best part, the soft, tender and succulent cheeks and they tasted wonderful. This experience triggered my curiosity and all my interest about food.

-So, which countries have influenced your cooking?

All of them!

-England too??

(laughs)…Well… yes! When we lived in England in the 60’s, food wasn’t a priority. If you wanted to go out and dine, you could only go to the center of London, where all these foreign restaurants were. English food was all about steak and kidney pud, roast lamb or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, which although are hearty nourishing meals I don’t find them very challenging. I did learn to make great scones though and I always looked forward to the sweet cinnamon glaze on a tasty hot cross bun. Having tea and dainty sandwiches at Fortnum & Mason and strolling through the food halls of Harrods was a marvelous, elite experience. However England has changed and an interesting cooking culture has emerged. They now have some superb young chefs that have incorporated international elements to English cuisine and have done a wonderful job.


Spain. I loved Spanish food. In season, flavorful artichokes and peas sautéed with Jamon Serrano give a lovely salty, robust flavor to the vegetables. I still dream about the wonderful parrillada’s (a seafood platter) we enjoyed. Seasonal asparagus and wild strawberries from Arranjuez consume you for weeks. I learned how to make paella and now I love to make it in so many different ways. Also, Mexico for me has probably the most varied cuisine outside of Asia. As varied as the Chinese cuisine. It is a fabulous fusion of traditional Spanish cooking mixed with New World foods and indigenous preparation. Chilies are a very basic element that I incorporate into my cooking from my years in Mexico. At first I assumed that they are used in all Latin America but they are not that popular outside of Mexico. I realized that for the Mexicans, having more than 50 varieties of chilies, they are almost sacred. So I really like using chilies. I have to be careful in Greece, because not everyone loves chilies… Mexico was a real experience, and I kept as much as I could from that cuisine. Italy was wonderful too. Of course, there I learned how to use all kinds of ingredients to make pasta and a variety of risotto and especially how to use basil as an ingredient in sauces and pesto. As you know Greeks traditionally never use basil to cook with.

-What about Greek cuisine. Has it made any impact on your cooking?

Of course! It was my first cooking experience watching my mother and grandmother make those famous large round Epirus cheese and spinach pies. I stood by as a child mesmerized as they rolled out the filo. I loved the squishy, soft, tactile feel of the ball of dough my mom placed in my hand as I watched and eagerly tried to imitate their filo making. Here is an amusing story involving my Greek cooking. When my husband Greg and I were engaged, his family came to our home for the engagement dinner. I knew that his father loved dolmades so I decided to make them for the first time. I found a recipe and did everything right except for one very important detail. I didn’t know that the vine leaves are kept in brine and so I just rinsed them a bit under the tap, instead of soaking them. And if that wasn’t enough during the cooking process my father, a terrific cook himself, lifted the lid of the pot and to my horror added even more salt…My dad had never made dolmades either but was laughing when I told him how salty the vine leaves already were. When I tasted them I really had second thoughts about whether to present them to my father-in-law to be, but in my vanity to show to his family that I too can roll dolmades prevailed and in the end I served them. Unfortunately the first dish offered to him was my dolmades. Everyone was staring at Greg’s father for approval as he took the first bite, he paused and then someone asked him what he thought of the dolmades. His reply was: “The bride is very beautiful”. He didn’t touch another thing for the rest of the evening! (laughs)

-And how do all these influences come together? What is the result?

I use ingredients from all these cuisines together. I can use up to six different spices in one dish and people will go asking me “what is this”? Sometimes I even forget, because I’ll just grab 4 or 5 jars and go “oh, that would be alright to mix…” Most of my dishes are originals.
-So we come to the word “fusion”. Is that what your cooking is all about?

My husband doesn’t like that word…(laughs). Well it’s very difficult to find another word to substitute that. My way of naming my cuisine is “synthesis”, which is actually a Greek word.

-Which are your favorite dishes? What do you usually cook at home?

When I have friends over I love making Greek food. I make all the traditional dishes like moussaka, pastitsio or roast lamb. But I also improvise a lot. I make dishes with a twist from my international cooking background. I make a mean ceviche, spicy and colorful using fresh Greek fish and a wonderful oyster mushroom dish sautéed in olive oil with spring onions, chopped garlic, chili guajillo (a tasty, dried, calm, flavorful chili that you soak) coriander leaf and tequila. I love to marinate chicken or sliced turkey breasts in orange juice, fresh garlic, finely chopped ginger and curry with a dash of soy sauce. Sometimes I will use fresh limejuice instead of orange juice and combine lemon grass, just a touch of soy, you don’t want to overwhelm this dish with too much soy sauce, ginger, garlic, spring onions, a dash of white wine and a few fresh chilies as I sauté the chicken breasts in olive oil. I always use olive oil, which we harvest from our own olive trees and a variety of chilies, that I grow in pots on my terraces. 
As a variation you can cut the marinated chicken breasts into strips and sauté them in olive oil and chopped garlic along with strips of finely cut sautéed sweet red peppers and onions for a variation adding cumin and a dash of vermouth. There is no limit to what one can do with food. Creativity, imagination and fearlessness are the only tools you need. Know your herbs and experiment using cloves and cinnamon with meats, something that Greek chefs have been doing for centuries. Besides, always remember that cooking is fun.


  1. Nyummm! Repost this with a photo of mom at the bottom! And yes - no one cooks like mom - I bet she could make real cardboard taste gourmet!

  2. There is no meal better than a Jeannine meal. It's amazing that Greg can stay so slim.

  3. I haven't been called slim in 39 years, but it is all relative

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