Orexi is a collection of more than 80 recipes inspired by the flavours of Greece and Cyprus. In this book MasterChef UK’s Theo Michaels, from Harpenden, pays homage to his family heritage, championing traditional dishes and sharing his own modern cooking.

Born in Edmonton in London, Theo lived in America for five years before moving back to London and eventually settling in Hertfordshire, now living in Harpenden with his wife and three children.

We sat down with the chef to discuss his new cookbook and his love of Greek food.

Why is food so important to the Greek and Cypriot culture?

Food is entwined within our culture, it is the common thread that everything else frays from. The food itself is important, of course, but its more about what it signifies and forces you to stop, sit down, and spend time with people. That’s the real magic.

Did you grow up with Greek/Cypriot food in the home? What was the food culture like?

It’s a cliché, but my mum is an incredible cook so albeit the food was mostly Cypriot, depending on where we lived contributed to what other ingredients we ended up using. The bonus was most of my friends also enjoyed Cypriot food during their childhood as they knew what time dinner was and that our Greek hospitality would always set them a plate.

How is life in Hertfordshire?

Brilliant, in Harpenden we’ve got tons of great restaurants, bars and shops and stuff to do. Specifically I really like the Silver Palate in Harpenden, they’re one of the oldest, most established restaurants and also where I first started my pop-up restaurant a few years ago. Oh, and they’ve just brought out a new menu which is fab and a great place to take the kids for brunch. Equally when we’re cooking at home or I’m ordering supplies for events I always use our local butchers, Jelley’s Meats in Southdown. If we’re after some fresh air Harpenden Common is a great place with lots of different events taking place over the year.

What does Orexi mean? Can you tell us about the concept?

Orexi literally means appetite – the French say bon appetite, the Greeks say kali orexi – it means the same, we just say it louder! The concept was all about championing Greek cuisine, at its heart it’s about opulence, hospitality, simple beautiful ingredients, restraint and proper food, the stuff you want to eat. It was also about showing a new side of Greek cuisine and promoting the fact that it is so much more than hummus and moussaka.

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What do you do?

I ran my own recruitment business for the best part of 15 years and eventually just lost the passion for it. It was after reaching the heats of the semi-finals on Masterchef in 2014 that I decided to follow my heart and try to carve a career in food. I had no idea what, but gave myself one year to try. At first I was doing pop-up restaurant nights and private chef work and now five years on I’m the executive chef for Elsewhere Events managing the design and delivery for events from 25 people up to 250. We bounce around between our chateau in Provence, manor house in the Alps and our Estate in Norfolk and various pop-up corporate events.

Besides the executive chef work I write a weekly food column for Best Magazine which I love and have just had my third cookbook published.

You have experience of high end cuisine, but now focus on simple and accessible food. What’s the biggest difference between family friendly food and fine dining?

Family friendly food is the day to day, it’s our sustenance – it’s the reality of modern life. Fine dining is an event, it’s an experience, a rarity.

For me, it’s two-fold. The food that I really enjoy, that brings me real pleasure is usually the simpler of foods, a whole fish cooked on the barbecue, a simple salad of the freshest of ingredients - it nourishes my soul as much as my body.

I’m also a father of three (all under 10) and what we eat at home is hugely important; it makes or breaks our health. It teaches our kids how to eat and how to cook, which is a life skill. But I’m also a realist and wild horses couldn’t stop me diving head first into the odd ruby-murray takeaway or a decent fish’n’chips!

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What was it like being on Masterchef?

Intense, surreal, an honour. Masterchef was an incredible experience and I’m forever indebted. Seriously, it was life-changing. I didn’t win and was gutted at the time, but there is something about being the underdog, about having to prove your worth and fight for every win and bit of progress.

Food is evocative and like most chefs much of my inspiration comes from childhood memories and family stories; it creates an intimate and personal muse from where you start to create new dishes and recipes. My mother and father are excellent cooks, as was my yiayia’s (Greek for grandmother). My new book Orexi showcases some of those traditional recipes from the villages of Cyprus and Greece (and my nan’s north London home!) but I also wanted to show more of what modern Greek food is about. As such most of the book is full of exciting new Greek recipes that are easily accessible and perfect for the upcoming summer!

It’s a Thursday night, you’re late home from work, and the cupboards are pretty bare. What’s your go-to quick and easy dinner?

Presuming we’re discounting takeaways, I do like laap; pork mince (in the freezer), lots of lemon grass (again in the freezer), chili, ginger, garlic – you’re done in ten minutes and wrapped in a lettuce leaf. Either that or a simple tomato salad, quality olive oil and decent bread to mop it up.

If you only had five ingredients that you could cook with for the rest of your life, what would you choose?

Coriander, garlic, chili, lemon, olive oil – that’ll basically work with anything else I can find!

Orexi! by Theo Michaels, photos by Mowie Kay.

Publisher: Ryland Peters & Small. The book is priced at £16.99.