Sotiris Kitrilakis, 88, worked for the NASA space program in the 1960s as well as being involved in the development of artificial hearts, an unlikely path to a career in the specialty food industry.
“I got into the back door of the food business,” he says. The Athens-born visionary founded importing companies and was an educator on food history, cooking, sustainable agriculture, and traditional preservation.
Kitrilakis’ father, a Greek army general, ran an anti-Nazi spy group during World War II when Germans occupied their country. His father encouraged him to go to America as an exchange student when he was a teenager (his mother wasn’t quite as pleased, but she came around). “I liked it so much I decided to stay,” he says. He went on to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering. After working on the space program and at Thermo Electron Corporation, researching nuclear energy sources for an artificial heart, he moved to Berkeley, California and founded his own company, Tecna. He holds several patents on medical devices, including for a blood pumping and processing system and an infant and pediatric ventilator.
In the mid-1970s, he sold the company and bought a summer home on the Ionian island of Zakynthos where he enjoyed watching “80-year-old men herding goats and sheep on the mountainside, running after them like 20-year-olds.” He became enamored of the local cooking traditions, seeing for himself that “the connection between diet and health is profound.”
The heavy promotion of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides on the island bothered him. “It became a real dilemma for olive growers, groves that had been there for hundreds of years, family businesses passed down from generation to generation,” he says. “The intrusion of chemicals caused the soil to become inert. Life there was dying. The ones who didn’t succumb to using chemicals I felt were worth the support.”
Kitrilakis returned to California with a suitcase full of his favorite olives, olive oil, and feta. Guests at one of his dinner parties were so enthusiastic about the quality they suggested going into business together to import the products.
“It started another adventure,” he says.
Kitrilakis’ company Peloponnese imported several fine Greek items and was purchased by Hormel Foods in 1995. Hand-crafted Greek cheese was the specialty at Kitrilakis’ Mt. Vikos, which UNFI acquired in 2007. The co-packing facility he founded, PELOPAC, produces innovative Greek and Mediterranean foods rooted in tradition. Most recently he’s been consulting at Big Picture Foods, focused on small-batch fermentation of organic olives, capers, red peppers, and pepperoncini without the use of additives or preservatives.
Kitrilakis lives in Santa Fe now and has given up his island home, though he was glad to see before he left that a lot of young, educated Greeks were returning to the land, interested in preserving traditional ways over embracing modernity. But overriding everything, he says, is flavor. “You eat food because it tastes so good. Health benefits are the collateral that come naturally.”