Food Critic Richard McComb talks to psychotherapist Stelios Kiosses about the healing powers of cooking and fine food.
It is a blistering hot day and I am sitting in the garden of one of Birmingham’s best known restaurants mulling over menu choices with Stelios Kiosses.
We have finished our main courses at Simpsons and have asked for our desserts to be served outside on the shaded lawn. We’re breaking protocol but we don’t mind lapping it, posh picnic style. Stelios, as his name suggests, is Greek, so he will eat pretty much anywhere and I am just happy to be here. Al fresco it is then.
Nestling back in a large armchair, my lunch companion explains how restaurant customers’ orders are charged with meaning, conscious or otherwise. What we select from the à la carte reveals something about us, and something about our past.
So why did Stelios choose the seabass, accompanied as it was by a crab risotto, caramelised fennel, red pepper and a Parmesan emulsion. (And very good it was, too.)
“Easy,” says Stelios. “It reminds me of Greece. Childhood. The sunshine. It’s hot today.”
For the same reason, he had the scallops. Seafood, sunshine... and perhaps safety.
For dessert, Stelios has “strawberries and cream,” which is actually a strawberry granita, Chantilly cream, mint jelly, marinated strawberries and sherbet meringue. He’s had a similar pud before at Simpsons and it was served in a glass. Stelios asks the waiter how the dish is presented this time. It’s in a white bowl.
“Hmm,” says Stelios, then pleads: “Can you ask the chef if I can have it in the glass?”
“Of course,” says the waiter.
It’s a feel-good connection, not just the dessert but the glass. Stelios wants to replicate the mood and sensation he experienced the last time he had the dish. The poor fellow may have to put up with my company but at least he can lose himself, albeit briefly, in the transient recollections evoked by berries, cream and cold glass. The setting here, reminiscent of a monied London square, and the surfeit of fine food may seem like a world away from the reason I have met Stelios, the country’s best-known TV shrink.
The 47-year-old Birmingham-based psychotherapist, who bears an uncanny resemblance to brooding Hollywood actor Victor Mature, is the star of The Hoarder Next Door. The Channel 4 show has been the spring schedule’s unexpected ratings triumph, hitting over three million viewers and ringing alarm bells in neurotic suburbia. Ironically, the number of viewers coincides with rough estimates as to the number of untreated hoarders in the UK.
Stelios is an expert in combating hoarding disorder, a condition bedevilled with shame and secrecy that prompts patients to do exactly that – hoard. Anything is fair game: old clothes, busted furniture, train tickets, crumbling newspapers, junk mail, rotting food, cigarette butts, charity shop tat. The list of possible items, like the hoards themselves, is endless.
Until Stelios’s show and recent publicity about the phenomena, hoarders generally were cruelly belittled as neighbourhood nutters. The Hoarder Next Door has helped to challenge prejudices and highlight that hoarding is a mental health problem. The tendency to hoard is currently viewed under the catch-all grouping of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder but it is set to be formally recognised as a condition in its own right, possibly next year. So what does the propensity to ram your hallways, kitchen and bedroom with mountains of clutter have to do with Michelin-star dining in the heart of leafiest Edgbaston?
According to Stelios’s innovative treatment programme, quite a lot. He hit on the idea of using the preparation and consumption of good cuisine as a practical therapy for hoarders. Sufferers are taken out of their comfort zone (actually, their rubbish-filled homes are their biggest enemy) into the realms of high-end dining for a course called: “Good food. Good mood.”
The idea grew out of Stelios’s friendship with Simpsons’ owner Andreas Antona. Stelios says: “Therapy is not just a science, it is an art. As a therapist, I consider myself to be like a chef. I take the ingredients and make something that people are happy with. I have the same passion as Andreas. I said to him, ‘Let’s show people with mental health problems something really unique.’”
Looking at the way he tucked into lunch, and ordered more bread, it seems a silly question, but I have to ask: does he really enjoy food?
Stelios looks at me in disbelief. “I am Greek!” he says. “Cooking is part of our culture and our faith. You finish one meal and start talking about the next.”
But couldn’t he take his patients to the local greasy spoon, or a more modest restaurant? It wouldn’t work, he says. His food therapy requires a sumptuous backdrop; the ingredients, the cooking and attention to service detail has to be first rate.
Stelios says: “The food prepared here at Simpsons is three dimensional. We could have gone to KFC or McDonald’s, but that is one dimensional. You go there to satisfy your hunger. It is animalistic. Here, you satisfy all your senses.
“A theme with compulsive hoarders is lack of nutrition and neglect. Food becomes a secondary purpose in your life. What we do is reignite the creative side of the brain that is numb.”
Antona did not have any reservations about Stelios’s classes and thinks the link between cooking and therapy for mental health conditions makes perfect sense.
Antona says: “When you are cooking, you have to give 100 per cent concentration and it takes everyone away from what they are doing. You start beginning to think there is more to living than meets the eye.
“What we do at Simpsons is provide a platform. Once the inhibitions are broken down through cooking, people start to talk and that is where Stelios’s work begins.”
After a chat from the day’s chef, patients attend a morning session at Simpsons’ cookery school, learning how to make bread, pasta, a dessert or chocolate. They then sit down to lunch in the private dining room, where they can talk confidentially, and eat some of the food they have made. Stelios or one of his team will then lead a group therapy session in which the focus is on the experience of cooking and eating communally.
Clients enjoy “a million and one things” about the food – the smell, the taste, the feel, the sense of satisfaction from cooking – and “suddenly something happens,” says Stelios.
“Therapy is a process and cooking is a process. It gives people a sense of belonging and accomplishment.”
He regrets the demise of the traditional evening meal, where the extended family gathered to discuss the day’s events, or at the very least acknowledge each other’s existence. That is because food has a power beyond mere nutrition. Stelios says: “Food is communion. Everywhere you go in the world, even in the middle of the Amazon, there are two things you will be invited to do – to eat and to dance. You don’t have to speak the language. All major religions have food as a priority for communion and giving.”