“Tastes & Traditions Expert” and “Master Foodie” are the best titles for Mara Papatheodorou, although entertainer extraordinaire, culinary expert, culinary consultant, storyteller and author are also fitting. After spending 10 years in London, Mara made her way back to the states and spent the next 12 years at Bon Appétit, where she educated readers on entertaining with style. Throughout her career, she has developed a true talent for connecting the everyday entertainer and cook with experts in the fields. Trained as a chef, Mara made the choice to be a storyteller of food, culture and entertaining. An esteemed member of Les Dames d’Escoffier and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, she continues to make her mark on the industry. Although still often found traveling to California, Mara decided to call Nashville home with her husband and son in recent years. We are thrilled to welcome her to Music City, and as today’s FACE of Nashville!
How did the food and travel connection come to be so much a part of you?
My family says I was born clutching my passport! With a mother from New England of Irish/English descent and a father from Greece, the world was immediately a smaller place to me. Growing up in California with family in Boston and Greece, the beautiful gift of travel was given to me early. When we traveled to visit relatives, my parents always added another destination to the trip so we could see and learn about another place. The world really was my classroom.
The food connection came later than usual as neither of my parents are in the culinary world. (My dad was a neurosurgeon, and my mother is a retired health educator in mental wellness.) I spent my junior year abroad in Paris, and it was there that the cultural connection to food began for me. The markets, the purveyors, the cheesemakers, fish mongers and wine makers were fascinating. I wanted to know as much about them and what they did as much as what they sold and provided. What was their story? What was the history of the ingredients?
I took a fun cooking class with some girlfriends, and the teacher told me I had a knack for cooking (which was a surprise to me!). I delayed my return to the States and attended La Varenne Cooking School — talk about a detour! It was founded and run by Anne Willan, and she pointed out to me that as much as I enjoyed the kitchen, I seemed even more curious about the “story” from beginning to end. She was right!
When I returned home and graduated, I got an internship at a small travel magazine and started writing about restaurants — and it went from there.
You are called a Tastes & Traditions Expert and a Master Foodie. Why Master Foodie?
I’m delighted by the boom of people’s interest in food and that to me is a “foodie.” They are curious about what they are eating and enjoy the details of what the dish is, and who is preparing it. Cooking or dining out is a hobby for some and a passion for others. Likes and dislikes of food flavors and tastes is so personal.
The Master Foodie moniker came to be as I worked with Master Chefs and told their stories. Often, I co-present with them at demonstrations to be the connector to the audience of home chefs. Master Chefs know their stuff, but they cook on a very different level than a home cook. I’m the communication link between the specialist and the one who wants to learn more about what the Master Chef does. The audience loves the folklore and facts I add to the presentations about the ingredients or methods the chefs use.
My Tastes and Traditions knowledge further developed when I was an editor at Bon Appétit. We devoted issues to regions and countries to highlight the unique culinary and cultural elements of those destinations.
My love of history of “why and how come?” led me to where I am today. I’ve just been incredibly lucky.
When did you know you had a knack for entertaining?
I realized early on that I was intrigued by the stories that entertaining creates. And at heart, I am a storyteller. From culture to culture, dish to dish, I believe the world becomes a smaller place around the table. Whether you eat to live or live to eat (like I do!), food unites us. It brings people together intentionally or unintentionally. When we break bread together, we learn from each other. We learn about tastes, whether mild or bold, and about traditions, whether established or new. It is about caring and sharing wherever that may be, whatever the occasion. That’s entertaining to me.
What is the most memorable party/get together you have hosted?
I hope it will be the Then & Now Conservancy Gala in the Parthenon on November 4! [Beth Courtney and Mara Papatheodorou are this year’s gala chairs!] It has all of the special and important elements that make a memorable party unforgettable: an amazing venue, a unique theme of then and now, delicious tastes and traditions, fantastic music and a terrific group of people who want to have fun with purpose.
At Bon Appétit, we featured memorable parties showcasing how real people entertain around the world. The multi-generational family celebrations were very awe-inspiring. There were mouthwatering moments and memories all the way around.
What is the key(s) to throwing an unforgettable party?
Be creative, yet practical. Be flexible, yet organized. Ask why you are throwing the party and who is going to be there. Make a list, create a seasonal menu with logistics that can work when and where your party takes place. The biggest key is to be engaged as a host so your guests become engaged in being there.
Would you rather attend a party or host it?
Both! I’ve found over the years, because of my food work, people are intimidated to have me to their home. I so appreciate being invited to a party and the effort a host has put into having one. And I hope I’m a low-key, low-maintenance kind of guest. One of the best I’ve been to was when friends welcomed us to the city by serving take-out barbecue. It was fantastic! We had a blast because we were together, laughed a lot, and ate and drank a lot!
I host get togethers of all sizes. One favorite is a party my husband and I throw about three times a year that we call Musical Dish. It started as friends jamming together, then it blossomed into a bigger, buoyant, casual party. It’s about great music, food, wine and camaraderie. You can play or listen, sip and savor, have fun!
As the holidays approach, how can people avoid the panic of entertaining?
The holidays are about spending time together and celebrating the time of year. Plan ahead and be clear about the type of meal and party you are giving. Make a list, keep the menu simple and well balanced. Mix and match home-cooked items with quality store-bought items. Delegate to family and friends. You don’t have to cook everything! Just be sure to remember what each person is bringing so you don’t end up with too much of one thing and not enough of another! Feature one star dish you’ve prepared ahead of time. This is not the time to serve something new and untested. You can augment the main course with fresh vegetable side dishes, salads and breads or biscuits. Purchase small dessert bites, like festive macaroons or chocolate truffles as a sweet finale.
What are your entertaining essentials?
A calm approach, a great platter of different types of international cheese, crackers and breads, and great bottles of wines. Good hors d’oeuvres always get the conversation started, and wines keep it flowing! The food is important but becomes secondary if people enjoy being there. The host’s manner sets the tone.
If you could invite three people (dead or alive) to a dinner party, who would you invite?
Julia Child to talk about food and travel; Marco Polo to talk about travel and exploration; MFK Fisher who, to me, was the ultimate food writer; and George Bernard Shaw to talk about writing and storytelling — after all, he said, “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.”
Where can we find you hanging around Nashville?
Anywhere for a good cup of coffee. I love Frothy Monkey on 12th and BOX Bongo on 10th. I love that the food scene in Nashville is booming! Lockeland Table, Margot, Henrietta Red, Adele’s, Pinewood Social and Chauhan Ale & Masala House keep me intrigued and well fed.
What is the best piece of advice you have received, and from whom?
My parents each said, “Follow your passion through and through. If you love what you do, learn all that you can as it makes the commitment, the effort and the resilience to do it worth it.”
And Anne Willan from La Vareene first put the idea in my head that the whole food story isn’t always just in the kitchen. And she was right.
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
My passport, humor, kindness (and I love a great glass of champagne)!
A special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for today’s gorgeous photos of Mara!
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