Michael Psilakis is a passionate man. A strong sense of pride is clear in the Greek chef’s voice as he describes how his mother's cooking influenced the menus at his three New York restaurants – Kefi, MP Taverna and Fish Tag. The former Food & Wine Best New Chef and Bon Appétit Chef of the Year is also quite the baseball fan and doesn’t hesitate to state his allegiances.
“I love the Yankees, man,” he says, as he speculates on their chances to win it all this year. “It’d be nice to do it for Jeter in his last year, a real crowning jewel. But it’s a double-edged sword: if they go to the World Series, it’s probably going to cost me a few hundred thousand dollars,” he jokes, referring to the skyrocketing costs of sports tickets. Psilakis sat down with us to talk all things baseball, in both English and Greek (where the sport is affectionately known as beizbol.) Turns out that he has quite a few theories on the evolution of the game.
When you think of “baseball food,” what’s the first thing that pops in your head?
I think about hot dogs and popcorn equally. I grew up in a Greek family that took a picture of the country they left, hung it up on the wall and raised me in the vacuum of that picture. We played soccer, but growing up in Long Island in those years, soccer wasn’t really a popular sport at all. Baseball being the national pastime was a vehicle for me to assimilate with the younger kids. It was a bridge for me.
Who were your favorite players growing up?
The Yankees that I remember as “my own” were Chris Chambliss, Lou Piniella, Oscar Gamble and Graig Nettles, who was probably my favorite player of the era. I remember Chambliss hitting the home run to take them to the pennant – I was running around my house, jumping up and down on the couches.
Did you go to any memorable games?
I remember getting out of church, getting home and turning on a Yankees game. My father said we had to go cut the grass and I told him I would do it after. He got really upset and we shouted at each other a bit. I finally went outside to cut the grass, and about half the way through, I guess he felt guilty. He goes, “Stop. Come on, let’s go.” I asked where we were going, and he said, “don’t worry about it, just get in the car.” We drove up to the Bronx, he scalped two tickets and that was my first baseball game ever. It was the Yankees and the Royals and we sat way up in the Upper Deck. I didn’t even know where Yankee Stadium was before then – it was just something I saw on TV. It was awesome and it became so real for me at that moment.
Have you taken your children to any games yet?
I became friends with a few people at Yankee Stadium, and they asked if I had any kids about five years ago, when my son Gabriel was four. They gave me tickets and we got to walk out on the field and into the dugout. He got to meet the players and they signed balls for him. I have pictures of Gabriel sitting on top of the Yankees dugout and I remember thinking to myself that if my father were around, it’d be intense to be able to understand that process of the immigrant grandson sitting on top of the dugout.
Have you ever cooked for the Yankees?
The team has guest chefs cook at the stadium, and they called me up. It was right around the time they had just developed the Legends section, which is great. I don’t know how “real baseball” it is – you have lobsters and oysters on the half shell, filet mignon and unlimited sushi – but it’s great.
What’d you cook?
Greek stuff, man. What else? [laughs].
Have you noticed a shift to Legends-type food in ballparks in the past few years?
I think with the evolution of television and media, people just know a lot more about food today than they did years ago, and they care a lot more. When I was growing up, the Europeans knew about food and the Americans knew shit. That’s not true anymore – Americans have caught up and have a tremendous amount of thirst for information, and food has become one of those things where media has been able to fulfill that thirst. They are eating things that they wouldn’t have even tried years ago.
Have you changed your cooking as a result?
Earlier in my career, food was a vehicle to create an art form – an extension of what my mind was feeling. When my father passed away and I revisited everything, food became what it is for me today – a vehicle to an experience. The memory of the experience is not the food as much as it is that food is the catalyst to the memory. You go to a game and eat your first hot dog, and that moment is influenced by the game. The game is what you’re remembering.
You don’t remember what you ate at that first Yankees game?
No! What’s most important is who you’re with, what you’re experiencing and the emotions you are sensing. If you have a kid and bring him to his first game, it allows you to experience what your father experienced when he brought you to your first game. That déjà vu is an important part of growth. It allows you to relive moments of innocence. I think that’s what gets us so hyped about our kids playing sports and our memories of playing sports – those times were better times because they were a lot easier for you and you didn’t have to struggle with a lot of the shit that you do as an adult.
Do you see baseball through a child’s eyes?
I will always see baseball as a child. I don’t look at baseball through an adult’s eyes, because it doesn’t mean the same thing to me at all. I remember going to school an hour early so I could flip baseball cards. I had thousands of them – the rebels would chuck up a bunch of them and we’d kill each other for them. Kids today have changed and a lot of that has to do with parents. Unfortunately, you’re forced to do certain things if you want your kid to be able to compete. You have a college player tutoring your five-year-old one-on-one in a sport so that he can start to develop an aggressive need to be the best. I don’t know if baseball is going to change because of that.
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