Mom’s Recipes Inspired Orlando’s Most Popular Greek Restaurant

by Laura on May 5, 2017

in From the Experts, Jan29

Katerina Coumbaros is a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef and the owner of Taverna Opa in Orlando, FL. After nearly 10 years in business, Taverna Opa is now Orlando’s most popular Greek restaurant, enticing more than 140,000 locals and tourists annually.

 

You know what they say, behind every successful restaurateur is a great woman. Taverna Opa is known for its nightlife, napkin showers and Greek entertainment. But what people may not know is that the cuisine is as authentic as you can get this side of the Aegean Sea.

Katerina Coumbaros is first-generation Greek and several menu items are her mother’s authentic Greek recipes.In anticipation of Mother’s Day, we sat down with Coumbaros to find out how her mother’s recipes have inspired a restaurant that has become a landmark in Orlando.

First things first, which recipes on your menu are authentically Greek?

 Nearly everything on the menu is authentic Greek food. I really did not set out to change our recipes very much when opening the restaurant. If there is something that is not Greek, it was probably a dish that our customers requested. (Everyone loves sliders, right?) Most of our ingredients are imported directly from Greece, which helps give our dishes that authentic flavor that people rave about. We ship fish from the Aegean Sea every week. That’s how committed to keeping my recipes authentic I am.

Spanakopita Opa_1

One of Mom’s recipes: Spanakopita

Which of your menu items are your mom’s recipes?

There are quite a few menu items that are my mom’s recipes. The spanakopita, pastitsio and Opa ekmek (which is the restaurant’s signature dessert) are all my mother’s original recipes. Even the Greek yogurt that’s used as a main ingredient in many of our recipes is a family secret.

 

Were there any culinary techniques or cooking advice that she passed down to you?

Never be afraid to season!

 

Pastitsio Opa_1

Pastitsio

Can you tell us more about your mom and her life?

My mom left Greece when she was 18 and moved to Canada for a better life.  She was engaged to my dad when she left Greece, and he had to finish serving in the army before he could move to Canada, too. They remained together in spirit despite being apart physically.

While my mother was in Canada, she worked in a clothing factory. It was not until my father arrived in Canada and they were married that she started to take her cooking seriously. My dad worked as a mechanic while they lived in Montreal and my mother cooked as a homemaker more or less. He suffered from allergies during pollen season that were so bad they started to consider moving. It was then that they found a gas station to purchase in South Florida and moved to the United States to start their new life.

In Florida, my parents were very involved with the Greek community. My siblings and I grew up watching my mother cook for events at our Greek Orthodox church. It was amazing to see her cook for up to 500 people at times. Even today at 75 years old, she continues to make desserts for Greek festivals and even runs her own a booth. She loves it!

 

What are some early memories of cooking with your mom?

My memories of cooking with my mom always take me back to Christmastime.  We hosted Christmas at our house and she would cook a massive dinner from scratch for 60+ guests. There, in our little blue kitchen, I would help make and roll out the dough to make spanakopita (just like we serve in the restaurant!) and tiropita. I’d help her turn the dough through the rolling machine until I got too tired. Even now when I go home and visit her, we cook together. There is something so comforting about the food that comes out of her kitchen. It’s something I have tried to emulate in our recipes and it’s always great to hear from other people who have Greek families that our food reminds them of home. Likewise, if we can remind someone of their trip to Greece, it feels really good.

 

How does your mom continue to influence the cuisine you serve at Taverna Opa Orlando?

Recently, people have caught on to the fact that a Mediterranean diet is healthy. But this is the way that we have always eaten! My mom has a garden at her home where she grows various vegetables and herbs.  She has grapevines that grow the grapes leaves for her dolmades.  While we may not be able to pick directly from her garden, we do seek out ingredients that are like the ones that she grows.

There is a farm about an hour north of where she lives and once a month she goes there to pick her own tomatoes, zucchinis and eggplants. She gets so excited about it! For us, it’s inspiring to see her still seeking out the freshest ingredients and creating recipes based around what’s in season and I think that carries over into our restaurant as well.

Our entire kitchen staff knows and loves my mother! They always ask when Mama Sofia is coming to visit. When my mom first visited the restaurant, she made a point to teach them her techniques so when she comes to visit they always try and make her proud. Just like I do.

 

Yogurt with Honey

Yogurt with Honey

Why is Mother’s Day important to you?

When I was younger, Mother’s Day was important because it was my opportunity to do something special for her and show her how much I cared. Now that I am a mom too, Mother’s Day is about celebrating with the whole family. And as a restaurant owner, I love that I can create a space where so many moms celebrate with their families on Mother’s Day.

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