Chef, entrepreneur and philanthropist, Maria Loi has cooked for U.S. Presidents and was named an Official Ambassador of Greek Gastronomy by the Chef’s Club of Greece. She owns Manhattan restaurant, Loi Estiatorio, a successful line of specialty foods, and is launching a television show, “The Life of Loi,” on PBS (WGBH) later this year.
Loi’s enthusiasm for Greece is boundless. Name a food and she’ll quickly identify its Greek heritage. Her other passion is people.
Food: A Life-Changing Second Career
Loi was born and raised in Thermo, a mountain village in Greece. As a young girl, she helped out on her family farm. Her father encouraged her to cook.
“When I was seven, I made my first meatballs. My father was so proud of me and how good my meatballs were. He made me the chef of the house! I saw how happy my food made him, and that was all I needed to know. This was my true calling!” said Loi.
But Loi didn’t start her career as a chef. She worked as a lobbyist for large corporations for several years. She was successful, but the work was unfulfilling.
“The only time I was happy was when I was cooking for my friends. One day, I was reading a book of poems by [Constantine] Cavafy titled As Much As You Can. The words struck me so deeply. I decided in that moment to change my life…and I did,” said Loi.
Loi opened her first restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 2011. She moved to her current location in midtown, opening Loi Estiatorio in 2015. The menu serves authentic Greek fare in a casual setting. Portions are generous, and sharing plates is encouraged.
Bringing Health & Wellness To Customers
Healthy cooking is a way of life for Loi. She’ll happily share the benefits of following a Mediterranean diet, highlighting Greek products. Her line of Loi Food Products is made with recipes she developed using carefully sourced ingredients with health and wellness in mind.
“It was clear to me that consumers were ready for healthy, high quality, authentic products from Greece, and Loi Food Products is able to fulfill that need which has continued to grow. With the Covid pandemic, people are now realizing they need good ingredients to boost their immune systems and eat healthfully,” said Loi.
“I first introduced Loi Pasta, and then Loi Dips, our refrigerated line of yogurt and vegetable-based dips. We added our Loi Meli Organic Greek Honeys because there is nothing like Greek honey. Then came our Loi Ladi Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Crete, which won the Sofi™ Award from the Specialty Food Association for Best New Product in the Olive Oil Category out of over 2000 entries! Now we are launching two new lines, Loi Beans and Loi Botanical. Both are certified USDA Organic and Kosher, and we have many more projects in the pipeline!” she shared.
Loi’s Other Passion
What Loi does when she slips away from her restaurant is her other passion. She is a co-founder of the Elpida Foundation (the Greek word meaning “hope”) to support children with cancer and will visit with those in need. Helping the disadvantaged is a crucial part of her life.
“Philanthropy is important to me. It’s what drives me to do everything that I do! There are many foundations and organizations that I support. Two of my deepest involvements are The Loukoumi Foundation which encourages children and young adults to make a difference in their own lives by following their career dreams, and to make a difference in the lives of others by paying forward their talents through community service projects – all while having fun in the process.
The other organization is The Center for Discovery in upstate New York. I am one of the DaVinci Master Chefs of their Department of Nourishment Arts. They do incredible work for children (and adults) with serious physical and mental disabilities and believe that food is medicine- which it is!”
On a personal note, when my husband, David, was suddenly hospitalized for two weeks, resulting in our cancellation of a long-planned trip to Greece, Loi and the team delivered a Greek feast to the hospital to cheer us up.
Navigating The Pandemic One Meal at a Time
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Loi Estiatorio remained open. Loi and her team prepared and delivered thousands of nutritious meals to frontline healthcare workers, doctors and nurses at hospitals all over New York City and provided for the homeless and elderly.
“When we heard the shutdown was happening, I spoke with my team and asked them if they wanted to continue working and doing good for the community, and they all said ‘Yes!’” she said.
A Place at The Table
Having cooked for world leaders and serving as a culinary diplomat and humanitarian, I asked Loi if she could put together a corner table of influential people at her restaurant who could change the world for the better; who would she include? Her guest list includes:
President Joe Biden, President Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama, Senators Gary Hart, and John Kerry, Former First Lady Michelle Obama, Entrepreneurs Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson, and Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Melinda Gates, and Father Alex Karloutsos, Vicar General of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
“This is a group of incredibly powerful and influential people across multiple sectors that could really change the world for good – both through their individual expertise, morals, ethics, and values, as well as together….what a dinner this would be!”
I also asked Loi, what she would tell a room of culinary students how she defines success. She responded,
“My definition of success is being happy and satisfied. You can be successful on paper – like I was in my previous career – and be unhappy and unsatisfied. The key is to never give up on yourself and your dreams. You can always change your life!”
This is the poem that inspired Maria Loi to change her life:
Constantine Cavafy, Celebrated Greek Poet
And if you can’t shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
by too much contact with the world,
by too much activity and talk.
Try not to degrade it by dragging it along,
taking it around and exposing it so often
to the daily silliness
of social events and parties,
until it comes to seem a boring hanger-on.