Baklava cupcakes and beyond, by LA host Christina Xenos
You read that right: baklava cupcakes. After a series of sold-out Eatwith dinners, Christina has perfected her recipe, and is constantly adding new exciting dishes to her spreads. She was raised in a Greek home in Ohio, moved to LA during its culinary boom, and now, from writing to cooking, has officially turned her passion for food into her career. Book a seat at her Sweet Greek Seasonal Feast, and get ready to transport yourself straight to Santorini on her serene Hollywood patio.
Tell us about yourself and your foodie story. How did you get into cooking?
When you grow up in a Greek household, someone is always cooking. Those people were usually my grandmothers. I have a really early memory of my grandmother sending me out to the backyard to pick grape leaves off her chain link fence so she could make domathes. When I was a little older, my mother would take me to our church during my summer vacation, so I could help out the women of the church bake for our annual Greek festival. I learned so many techniques and tricks there. They became pretty much ingrained into my brain, like a new language. I spent days rolling spinach and cheese mixtures into spanakopita and tiropita triangles, baking spiced nut-stuffed kouloudia and kourambethes and the sweet holiday tsouraki bread.
Then when I was 15, my mom, who had always been a stay-at-home mom, went to work for the first time in my life. With her and my dad both out of the house all day, I thought the least I could do was put together meals, so they didn’t have to worry about it when they got home.
I moved to Los Angeles just as its culinary scene was really starting to boom. It was (and continues to be) so inspiring, and suddenly a career path that really didn’t seem viable in Ohio, was right in front of my face. I’ve spent the last 10 years chronicling it in the various publications I write for; during that time I enrolled in pro-cooking and baking series at the New School of Cooking, and the rest is history.
What’s your most memorable Eatwith event?
At my first dinner one of my guests said she liked Eatwith because she was a labor and delivery nurse and didn’t always have time to get out and meet people. Eatwith gave her the opportunity to do that. She met up with one of her former patients. It turned out that my dinner was the first night she had been out after she had her baby. I really wanted to make it memorable for them both, and think I succeeded.
My last dinner had a lot of people who didn’t know one another, which I always find exciting — just to observe the dynamic and see who connects with whom. At one point — I think I was plating dessert — my whole patio erupted into laughter. It was a really fun night for all of us.
Why did you decide to become a host on Eatwith?
I was in cooking school and one of my classmates said, “You know, you should really look into signing up as a chef with Eatwith. You’d be really good at it.” So I looked into it, and it took me two years to get myself organized to actually do it. I really wanted to connect with people through food. When I was thinking about how I could do that, working in a restaurant seemed way too impersonal and disconnected. It’s incredibly rewarding to have a group of people come over to my house and interact/serve them as I would my family and close friends. There’s a level of connection that is so incredibly deep and inspiring.
Who is your food role model?
My favorite food role model has to be my mother-in-law. Georgia Lyras is not only an authority on Greek food, but also she ran with the best of the New York culinary scene before chefs were more recognizable than world leaders. I love hearing stories of her epic dinners that were often written up in the local paper. Her cookbook, Yes You Can Cook Greek, is my bible. I love using and riffing off her recipes and having her just a phone call away, in case I need advice.
What is your favorite cuisine and why?
My first love will always be Greek and Mediterranean cuisine. It defines the best way to eat: with fresh local ingredients, embracing vegetables and legumes over meat and evangelizing olive oil.
However, after moving to Los Angeles, I’ve been able to explore our abundant Korean dining scene and am totally obsessed with it: everything from Korean barbecue and soon tofu to cold noodle dishes, etc. It’s one of the best social ways to dine out as well.
What is your favorite dish to make?
I make a lot of spanakopita, the Greek pie that is a decadent mixture of spinach and cheeses surrounded by crispy layers of buttered phyllo. I’ve been working on mine for years and it placed in KCRW’s Good Food pie contest a few years ago. Right now, I’m obsessed with perfecting my recipe for baklava cupcakes. I’ve been serving them for dessert with homemade olive oil gelato at my Eatwith dinners. The last round were nearly perfect. Luckily there are usually leftovers for me!
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about becoming an Eatwith host?
If you have a love of cooking and hospitality than definitely do it! Also, get a co-host. I don’t know what I would do if my husband wasn’t on hand to act as co-host/sous chef/dishwasher. I’m really, really lucky.
Photography by Amanda Meyer.