One night, while I was surfing the Internet, spying on what the other hotels in Corfu were offering to their guests, I was so disappointed to see that many of them were advertising “Full English Breakfast” and “American Brunch”. I couldn’t help wondering why people would go on a holiday away from their country just to have the same kind of breakfast they have everyday. What is the purpose of travelling? Travelling is not only going somewhere, visiting monuments and museums, buying souvenirs and taking pictures in order to remember how many places and beautiful things you’ve seen in life. You haven’t really been to a place if you haven’t tasted local cuisine and taken part in local events at least one time. Because travelling means leaving behind what you are used to and be open to experience something new: new views, new cultures, new flavours, new people…
The most of us every now and then feel the need to travel. Sometimes, when we cannot travel physically, we just do it with our minds. We imagine the places we’ve never been, the people we’ve never met and the things we’ve never done. But we can also travel back in time, recalling the happy moments of our lives.
Reading these advertisements, I started to travel with my mind back to my childhood and my home-town. In all the years I’ve been living away from my family, I’ve been so concentrated on studies and career, that I never thought about cooking. Before quitting my job and deciding to go back to Greece to think, I never had time to cook. If I wasn’t working (and I was working twelve, sometimes even fourteen hours a day), I was studying or simply commuting from my working place to my flat, which took more than an hour. I was so used to the ready made canteen food of the hotels I was working for, that I had almost forgotten the tasty and crunchy hot from the oven cheese and spinach pies that I was eating when I was a child. The thought of the pastry cracking between my teeth and the soft spinach melting in my mouth made my stomach rumble. In a heartbeat I could see two plates in front of me: one was filled with bread soaked in olive oil (from my grandparents’ fields ! ) and the other with fresh and sweet tomatoes, juicy cucumber and feta cheese. Soft cakes made from our garden’s oranges and lemons were smiling at me in this daydream. Not to mention the creamy Greek yogurt decked with honey, walnuts and cinnamon. My favourite!
I was sitting on my empty kitchen table wishing I could really have all these delicious Greek dishes in front of me in that exact moment. But the sad truth is that I was terrible at cooking. I mean, as I told you, I’d never really tried to do it, mainly because of the lack of time, not only the time to cook, but also the time to go looking for the fresh and ripe ingredients without which the result would never be the same as the authentic.
However, even if I loved London and it’s lifestyle, every time I was putting between my teeth a full mouthed sandwich from some Pret-A-Manger, I couldn’t help thinking about how delicious Greek food was compared to that. I was already nostalgic enough of the Greek food, If I’d started cooking, I would have started missing Greece too much. And anyway I wouldn’t be able to cook like a “proper” Greek, at least I thought so. But if there’s a thing I don’t like it’s giving up, conceding defeat.
I am able to do lots of things, I am an independent woman with three degrees…why shouldn’t I be able to do something as common as cooking? Although it was already 2.00 a.m., my stubbornness (as my mother used to say!) obliged me to, at least, search the Internet for all the traditional Greek recipes that came to my mind and that I loved: Spanakopita, Tyropita, Bougatsa …After having written down on my Moleskine all the recipes, I surrendered (for the moment, just because I had no ingredients to cook anything. If I had, trust me, I would have started cooking in the middle of the night!) and decided to go to bed, although I doubted that I would manage to fall asleep: my stomach was still grumbling and my brain was full of adrenaline!
As I woke up the next day, I jumped out of the bed and went to the shop to buy all the fresh ingredients to make a Spanakopita. As soon as I came back home, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. “And now let’s learn how to cook!” I said to myself, happy about embarking on a new adventure. I soon understood that cooking may be common, but not simple. At all.
When my flatmates woke up and saw that I was in the kitchen, they started worrying that something was wrong with me…more than worrying they were probably thinking that I’d gone completely nuts. They’d never see me cooking like that before and, you know, when people we think we know very good start doing something new, something unexpected, we immediately think that there’s something going on. As I shouted “Hi guys! Greek lunch today! Are you up for it?” their faces became even more concerned. Today I still think that they were desperately trying to find a way to get out of my invitation, because they had absolutely no hope that the pie would be at least eatable. But as soon as they took the first bite, their faces immediately enlightened: “This pie is amazing! Why haven’t you cooked it before???” “ Ha! I am even good at cooking” I thought, proud of proving my ex-boyfriends wrong, who thought that I couldn’t cook because I was never doing it for them (for some reason perhaps?). I was just putting my career in front of everything.
But now, in this period of transition, I not only had plenty of free time, but I also had a good reason to cook: conceiving my “full Greek breakfast” based on my “full Greek” childhood memories. In fact, after following meticulously the standard recipes for some time, I started experimenting and making my own versions of the pies and cakes. So it was really “my” breakfast and my flatmates were extremely happy to offer themselves as guinea pigs for this good cause.
I normally wouldn’t have a big breakfast, after all I am Greek. Usually a coffee and a piece of cake is enough for us, maybe a cigarette (not in my case, I’ve never been a smoker, and anyway, cigarettes are not food!). However, in Greece we always have a ten o’clock snack, which includes a piece of pie or cake and a second coffee. Living in the UK had taught me to appreciate the value of a rich, tasty and nourishing breakfast. So, my idea for a “full Greek breakfast” was to move the ten o’clock snack to breakfast time and mix the sweet morning cakes with the later salty vegetable and cheese pies. Unique, local and Greek! How was it possible that no one before me came up with a similar idea? Greece is known everywhere in the world for it’s beautiful sea and for it’s tasty food! And what were we doing in Corfu? Offering English and American dishes for breakfast!
When I went back to Benitses in summer 2003 to run the hotel, I was baking the pies and cakes in my mother’s house, next to the hotel. It was a shock for me to see that even in July and August the hotel was almost empty. I’d expected it to be fully booked, but instead it was deserted! I still remember that I had to go to London for a week, from the 11th to the 18th July, to sign the papers that were sadly confirming that my beloved flat was no longer mine. Guess how many rooms we rented in that week? One! It was a disaster, a complete disaster. But it wasn’t only our hotel that was deserted, the whole village was incredibly empty! Before I moved to London tourism was crazy! The village was flooded with tourists, music and parties. What happened to the place in my years of absence is another story though, which I’ll tell you very soon, but not here.
It was almost a waste preparing a pie and a cake every morning having only a few guests. Luckily, from the following year things started getting better, the number of guests started increasing again and it soon became impossible for me to find the time to prepare pies and cakes. So, I decided to train the housekeepers and to put them to prepare the breakfast. Since the guests were more and the amount of food to prepare was more, we started to cook in the hotel’s kitchen. In 2007 I decided to buy Bella Studios, which meant even more guests, more work, but also more satisfaction from the breakfast. People appreciated it and, since business was picking up and I wanted to improve our service, my managerial mind suggested me to create some questionnaires to give to my guests to fill in before they left.
One day, when I read the rating of a Russian family who was coming every year since 2006 (the questionnaires were anonymous, but I could recognize their writing), it broke me to see that they scored the breakfast only six out of ten. It meant that the breakfast was good, but not impressive.
I was so pissed off, I was putting so much effort in it and it was still not enough! The reason for the low score was that, staying for a month, they found it boring to have the ‘same’ pie and the ‘same’ cake every morning. I realized that, although the food was good, people who stayed for a longer time found it repetitive. But I didn’t want to give in, I didn’t want to offer a normal breakfast without Greek flavours. So…I decided to introduce Greek, namely Corfiot dishes like Pastitsada and Sofrito. For breakfast???
People thought that I was crazy (especially the housekeepers, as well as my own mother!), but the guests liked it! Russians especially, loved having proper food, like meat, for breakfast! Swedish and German guests suggested to introduce cooked vegetables as well, like greek ‘Briam’. I wanted to satisfy guests’ requests, but I decided to answer them “in Greek”… I slowly created a Greek menu based on guests’ needs and wishes. The Italians wanted the sweets and we prepared not one, but three and sometimes even four different sweets (all in Greek style, of course!). Everybody, from everywhere, was absolutely crazy about the Breakfast! And I achieved to promote Greek flavours for an international audience!
My purpose wasn’t only to create an original and Greek menu for breakfast, but also to create a new experience. What I wanted to give visitors was primarily attention and offering food has always been a symbol of care and love. Trekking around Corfu Island it’s easy to meet locals who invite you to their house just to offer you a glass of Ouzo or a Greek coffee and a piece of Loukoumia. This is because in Greece we love to give without asking anything in return, people call it Greek hospitality, and of course the first thing you would give to a traveler is food, nourishment. Milk is the first thing that a mother gives to her children, it’s her first act of love towards them. And as we grow up, preparing food for the people we love, for our friends and family, is a way of showing that we care about them and the only thing we ask in return is their attention.
Offering people you love the food they desire means that you listen to their needs and wishes. This is why I slowly changed and improved the “full Greek breakfast” according to guests’ suggestions. Breakfast at Bella Vista is special, because it is prepared and served with the most important ingredient we all need and deserve: love.
Love is the only thing that can defy individualism, because love means paying attention to the individual, it means giving without asking. Love is a matter of small gestures that make the other person’s day better. Being loved means to have somebody who wakes you up with a smile, asking you “Good morning, how are you today? Did you sleep well?”. What I wanted for guests is to feel loved, to feel that somebody genuinely cares about them.
When I train my interns who are practicing to become business executives, I insist on them working during breakfast and learning what it means. I applied my own MBA knowledge, experience and personal style to the breakfast and I got great results. This is why I want students to feel and learn entrepreneurialism first hand. Breakfast is so much more than just waiting tables and carrying plates!
Looking guests straight in the eyes not only makes them feel important, but it is a way to make live market research. Although books are essential, observing the functioning of a small business can teach a lot. It’s all up to the perspective from which we observe things! The capitalistic society in which we grow up leads us to think of the other as somebody who should fulfill our needs, the other is always supposed to give us something. But we shouldn’t forget that what makes humans truly happy is the possibility to give, to share something of ourselves with others. Generosity and attention are contagious. Try and go for a walk smiling at everybody who happens to walk in your direction. You’ll see that everybody will smile back at you and soon you’ll notice that you made somebody’s mood, including yours, better…only with a smile!
A smile is for free, it comes without a price tag, but still it’s invaluable. This is what I wanted to offer for breakfast: a piece of cake or pie prepared with love and served with a smile. Because breakfast is how you start your day and it’s better to start it with the delicious smell of a freshly-baked chocolate cake, some relaxing music and a lots of positive energy.
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