Carving Her Path: Maria Tampakis, Executive Chef, Four Seasons Hotel New York Downtown
Daughter of a celebrated pastry chef and instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in New York, ICE was Maria’s playground as she grew up surrounded by food and family. After attending the hotel and restaurant management program at the University of Delaware, she later trained at ICE, but it was her drive and ambition that has led her on a direct path to working with some of London and New York’s most influential culinary masters.
As the only female Executive Chef in the Americas within Four Seasons, Maria is at the forefront as the prestigious hotel chain expands their female leadership team.
Hi Maria! It’s always fascinating to hear an “origin” story, but to grow up surrounded by pastry and dessert…that’s every child’s dream!
I was always so lucky to be around my mother. She would take me to international and national pastry forums, cooking shows, competitions she was judging, and even just to visit other chefs, but the most constant thing in my life was dinner! We always sat together at the dinner table—cell-phones away, television off—to share an incredible home-cooked meal. This is something I hope to continue with my family.
Your mother must have been a wonderful role model. Besides your mother, do you have other family members who work in the industry too?
I do not. But I have a grandmother who can put a meal up for 25 people with 3 hours of notice.
Did you always know you were going to become a chef? Did you ever consider any other fields or job?
I always wanted to be a chef because I have always loved to cook. It comes naturally to me, so I never put much effort into anything else. When I was in high school, I liked the idea of becoming an architect, but ironically thought being a chef would be easier and more enjoyable.
Can you tell us a little bit about your training?
My training started when I was around 10 at my grandmother’s house. I come from a big Greek family with lots of personality and lots of opinions. My first restaurant job was in a local pizzeria when I was 14 years old. I worked throughout high school, but knew I wanted to go to the University of Delaware for college. When I graduated, I only wanted to work in one restaurant in NYC: Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s flagship, Jean-Georges. A few years later, I moved to London only wanting to work for one chef in the UK: Heston Blumenthal. When the team behind Gordon Ramsay called to offer me a role in their new restaurant concept they were launching, I initially said no, but my time with GR was some of the hardest and challenging, but most enjoyable work I have ever done.
What steps have you taken in your career that brought you to where you are right now?
I have always thrown myself into kitchens with the highest level of prestige, led by big name chefs with lots of expectations and demands. This has molded me into the person that I am: someone who is confident in my skill set, aware of what I can and cannot do. I always want to challenge myself by stepping into an environment I am not fully comfortable in, in order to push myself further.
There is a very male/macho intensity that comes to mind when we think of the chefs you have worked with. As one of the few women in the world to be leading the kitchen at such an esteemed hotel, do you find that you bring a different energy?
The kitchen team is male-dominated, so I automatically stand out. Patience is key, but listening is even more important. The team here at Four Seasons is a great group—they have worked together for many years. They know what works and what doesn’t, so it’s important to listen to them and make sure they know their opinions are valued. When we are planning the menu, I always ask them what they think of x, y z so we don’t make the same mistakes that were made in the past. I also ask them to create a dish or an aspect of a dish that they are confident that they can do well— why not put their dish on our menu!?
The best leaders are not afraid to let their people shine! Are there any other specific things that you do to support your team?
It’s important that they know that I am also part of the team and not watching from the rooftop. I get in early and leave late, trying to listen to everyone, and deal with everything thrown in my direction each day.
Having worked extensively in both New York and London, are there “cultural” differences in how kitchens are run?
Huge differences! London is a much harder place to work. Cooks can work 60-70 hours a week, for minimal pay starting as young as 16 years old. These kids need to be motivated, inspired, and kept on track. There’s also a different tone in the kitchens— you need thicker skin in London as the guys don’t hold back their opinions of you.
In your rise to the role of executive chef, as a woman, what is an obstacle you’ve had to overcome on your career path?
Being heard. That is, not just having my team hearing me, but actually listening, understanding, and following. I have a very strong personality—I am out-going, loud, high energy. Living in the UK had both its advantages and disadvantages, but I made a point to come off as the strong, American woman dominating an all-male kitchen crew.
Is there anything you are hoping to help change in the industry (for women) over the next year, 5 years, or 10 years?
Acceptance and being taken seriously. I rose up the ranks within Gordon Ramsay Restaurants and was one of 4 female executive chefs; here at Four Seasons Hotels, I am one of 2 in the Americas. I look forward to there being multiple female chefs running our hotels around the world.
As mother to a young child, how have you had to adapt your working style?
I have to remember that it’s not about me anymore and that has been the most challenging. I have a 3 year-old daughter who is waiting for me the second I get home and sometimes I need to say to myself, “I can do this tomorrow.” My family must come first at some point.
“Children of chefs are never picky eaters”—true or false?
I would say true to an extent. My kid can be incredibly difficult at the dinner table when she wants to be, but she will also be the first to order an octopus in a restaurant and ask the waiter if the salmon is fresh because that’s the best.
As executive chef of Four Seasons Downtown, you are also responsible for the menus/culinary experiences at the residential part of the hotel. Is there a difference in how you design the menus? What is meant by a ‘culinary experience’?
We are updating the menus in the hotel, so they have a seasonal aspect to them. We’re lightening them up and bringing some new life. With the residents, we are so fortunate to have a consistent group of people who are with us always. It is so important that we focus on them. We’re looking at how we can offer family-style meals to be delivered to their residence and what other experiences they would want to partake in. We’re working on wine dinners, liquor/spirit and food pairings, bringing in chefs from NYC to collaborate with us on our menus each month, and other exciting prospects.
The restaurant and hotel industry has obviously been hit very hard by the pandemic. Were you working during this time? What has helped keep you busy (or sane) during this period?
I was fortunate to have landed a great job working as culinary director for Estiatorio Milos, a global high-end seafood restaurant group, and worked through the whole pandemic. The first few months were nerve-wracking as I was new to the job and was not sure when this would all turn around. I focused on the work that I needed to do to keep myself sane.
You are a born and bred New Yorker, who has obviously grown up experiencing some of the best food New York has to offer. After being in London for years, are you happy to be back in New York? What did you miss most?
I am so happy to be back in New York—this is my home. I had missed my family and my friends, but I also missed the daily grind of New York. I have always wanted to come back to New York and progress in a career that my children would be proud of. Returning home has been the best decision I have made.
We’d love to hear about some of your personal favorites! What is your favorite food to eat?
I love Phillipino food and Spanish Tapas. There’s a dim sum place in Staten Island that is delicious and I regularly drag my husband and daughter there.
What is your favorite food to cook? Do you have a signature dish?
Growing up Greek, I will always fall back to a Mediterranean diet and style of cooking. I like a few fresh ingredients brought together with some good extra virgin olive oil from Kalamata, Greece (where my family is from). My husband and I go fishing quite often, so I love making fresh ceviches followed by a nice piece of fish.
Downtown NY is always ahead of the curve, what do you think is going to be the next big food trend?
Nothing would truly surprise me. I do not think it is a trend, but we are seeing guests with a higher level of awareness and expectation. Restaurants are pivoting to accommodate more vegan/vegetarian options along with ones geared toward particular allergies and dietary restrictions like celiac.
What are your top 3 can’t-live-without items in your personal kitchen?
My 3.5 cup food chopper
My silicone spatulas
Do you have a cooking tip or trick can you share?
Less is more. I am the queen of 20-minute meals at home, utilizing a few great things I picked up at Trader Joes, to produce a great dinner.
What is a sure-to-impress dish that even your most kitchen-phobic friend can make?
Roasted chicken with lemon potatoes. It’s one of my all-time favourites. You can’t go wrong.
Until we can make it to Four Seasons Downtown, would you be willing to share a recipe with our readers?
We are just starting to go through menu development and tastings for our lunch and dinner offering. Healthy vegan superfood bowls, flatbreads, fresh fish and perfectly grilled meats will be gracing our menus in the coming months. When I finally have something to share, I will!