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Restaurant staffers shed pounds under chef-prescribed diet

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On a warm weekday evening in late November, Nicola Sambazis — a server at the Midtown West Greek restaurant Loi Estiatorio — handled the bustling outdoor dining scene expertly.

But just four months ago, she said, she would have struggled to keep up. 

“I was morbidly obese and wouldn’t have been able to walk nearly half as much without puffing and panting and my whole body hurting,” the 55-year-old told The Post. “When I came on board here in July, chef Loi put me on the road to saving my life.”

Chef Loi is Maria Loi, a blond-bobbed superstar in her 60s who is known as the Julia Child of Greece. Instead of waxing poetic on the beauty of butter, however, she touts the health benefits of extra-virgin olive oil. In fact, Loi, the author of cult favorite cookbook “The Greek Diet,” has made it her life’s work to teach the world about the Mediterranean approach to eating, which emphasizes plants, nuts, olive oil and seafood as key ingredients.

When the pandemic hit, Loi set out to make her 10 employees, some of whom were dealing with serious ailments, as healthy as possible. “So many people were getting sick and eating and drinking to excess. As restaurant workers, we were at higher risk for contracting the virus than people who stayed at home,” she said. “Food for me is like medicine.”

Nicola Sambazis before and after.
Nicola Sambazis before and after.
Courtesy

With Loi’s guidance, her team — who she considers family — have been taking their medicine dutifully. 

Loi’s food philosophy focuses on quality ingredients instead of calories, and emphasizes pleasure. All staffers begin their shifts by drinking a spoon of her branded extra-virgin olive oil, which costs $25 at Whole Foods. Loi said it strengthens the heart, and while she’s partial to her own, any good quality extra-virgin olive oil will do.

Come mealtime, they have the run of the menu, which Loi — who arrives at the restaurant at 8 every morning — helps prepare herself. Staff favorites include the village salad, a mix of tomatoes, red onions, green peppers and feta cheese, and cannellini bean soup or “fasolada” as it’s known in Greek. Fish dishes, including grilled branzino and wild cod en papillote, are also popular. 

Cod in parchment paper at Loi Estiatorio.
Cod in parchment paper at Loi Estiatorio.
Brian Zak/NY Post

Loi touts a diet that is proven to have numerous benefits, said Dr. Stefanos N. Kales, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who co-hosts talks with her at conferences around the world. “There is plenty of research indicating that a Greek Mediterranean diet reduces your risk of chronic illnesses, cancer, cardiovascular disease and obesity,” he said. “People who follow it live longer, sleep better and have a higher quality of life.”

Her staff all say they’re converts.

Maria Loi with her staff.
Maria Loi with her staff.
Brian Zak/NY Post

Sambazis said that she was 270 pounds, at just 5-foot-4, when she started the job this past summer. Her knees and back ached, she had sleep apnea and was sluggish. “I was miserable,” she said. “My doctor at Mt. Sinai told me six months ago that I better do something to lose weight and get healthier, and that something turned out to be Maria.” 

She’s already lost 24 pounds, and continues to drop more weekly. She’s also sleeping soundly and is largely pain free. “I saw my doctor two weeks ago, and he looked at me twice in amazement.” 

Many others on the team say they’ve had miraculous results. 

Chef de cuisine Felipe Teutle, 36, and sous chef Jesus Sandoval, 41, have worked for Loi for eight years. But since the pandemic started, and they ceded their diets to Loi, both men have managed to lose weight and — to their shock — control their Type 2 diabetes. Just by eating healthier, they’ve both been able to go off Metformin: a medication that helps stabilize blood sugar levels.

Loi’s co-owner, Alex Antimisiaris, 56, has stopped taking cholesterol medication, lowered his blood pressure and dropped 30 pounds since the spring. He said all of the older men in his family have had heart attacks or suffer from heart disease. “I was at my doctor a few weeks ago, and he looked at me in shock and told me that I had basically escaped my family history,” he said.

Alex Antimisiaris before and after.
Alex Antimisiaris before and after.
Courtesy

Loi’s goodwill also reaches a larger community: She delivers meals to numerous hospitals in the city. She does a daily meal pickup for the homeless in the front of her restaurant, stuffing brown paper bags full of the same healthy meals her staff and customers enjoy, including roast chicken and spinach pie. 

For Dara Bliss Davenport, the restaurant’s corporate chef and partner in the Loi brand, the diet has benefits that even go beyond the physical.

“[Loi’s] food has also kept me in a good mood during the pandemic, which has been anxiety provoking for so many of us,” said Davenport. “Let’s just say I feel healed and nourished in more ways than one.”

Cannellini Bean Soup (Fasolada) 

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound dried cannellini beans, or three 15 ½-ounce cans of cannellini beans
  • 8 cups lukewarm water
  • 2 medium red onions, finely chopped, or 1 large white onion, finely chopped
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped into ¼-inch rounds (or however preferred) 
  • Fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped for garnish (optional)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper 
  • Lemon wedges, for garnish to serve
  1. Cook beans according to package directions. Drain and discard the cooking water. 
  2. Return the beans to the pot, add the lukewarm water, and bring to a boil. Add the onions and olive oil to the pot of beans, stirring to combine. Cook the soup over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. 
  3. Stir in the celery, carrots, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Continue to boil over medium heat until the beans and vegetables are tender, another 20 minutes. 
  4. Serve the soup garnished with parsley if desired, and with fresh lemon wedges.

Serves 4.

Fish en Papillote – Fish in Parchment Paper

Serve with steamed greens and some wild rice for a balanced meal.

Ingredients:

  • Extra-virgin olive oil as needed
  • 2 cups wild greens (such as fresh spinach, Swiss chard, or chicory), rinsed and squeezed dry
  • 1 lemon, thinly sliced
  • Two 4-ounce portions fish fillet (such as cod, halibut or salmon)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 6-8 grape or cherry tomatoes
  • 1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
  • 3 sprigs of fresh thyme or an herb of your choice

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400° Fahrenheit.
  2. Line a baking sheet with foil, and drizzle the foil with a little olive oil. Fold a piece of parchment paper in half, center it on top of the foil and place the wild greens on one half of the parchment paper, and arrange the lemon slices on top of the wild greens as a bed for the fish fillets.
  3. Liberally season the fish fillets with salt and pepper and arrange them in a single layer on the lemon slices. Top the fish with the tomatoes, garlic and thyme, and drizzle with 5 tablespoons of olive oil.
  4. Fold the parchment over the fish. Crimp the longer edges of parchment paper together to seal. Roll the two shorter edges of the parchment toward the middle so that the fish is fully enclosed in a parchment package. Rub a little olive oil on the outside of the parchment paper.
  5. Bake the fish for 13 to 16 minutes, or until the parchment paper puffs up. Serve the fish in their parchment packages for a beautiful presentation.

Serves 2.

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