“Go back to ancient Greece.”
The words came to Maria Benardis in answer to a prayer. Deeply ill, her body plagued with precancerous cysts and mind burdened with anger from childhood physical and emotional abuse, she turned to God for help when modern medicine failed her.
“You’re just going to be sick all your life,” the doctors had said, citing her family history of cancer.
Frustrated but undeterred, Benardis pushed forward—by turning to the wisdom of her Greek ancestors.
“What were they doing in ancient Greece, and why were they so healthy and living beyond 100?” she asked herself. “Why can’t I live beyond 100 and be healthy?”
Taking matters into her own hands, she combed through piles of books and ancient texts for answers, acquainting herself with the likes of Hippocrates and Aristotle, Archestratus, and even Pythagoras. She found in them what the ancients knew to be the cornerstones of health: how we eat and how we think. Adopting ancient ways of doing so, she sought to repair both diet and mind.
Today, over a decade after the start of her self-healing journey, she’s completely cured—and thriving. At 49, she’s rosy-cheeked and bubbling with energy. She exudes a light and youthful charm, a kind of unabashed openness that could disarm any heart.
A chef, author, and founder of cooking school Greekalicious in Sydney, Australia, Benardis has dedicated herself to reviving and sharing the ancient Greek wisdom—in the kitchen and in daily life—that she credits with her recovery.
Lost and Found
There’s a lot to be learned from the ancients. Even without modern technology, Benardis says, the ancient Greeks “had the intuition to work out things we’re just finding out today.”
Though much of their knowledge has been lost, Benardis wants to bring it back.
It’s fitting, then, that her journey began at the church of St. Fanourios, the patron saint of lost things in the Greek Orthodox religion.
Deeply unhappy and strapped with illness, Benardis traveled from her home in Australia to Greece in 2004 for the first time since her childhood, hoping to reconnect with her family and the place where she’d grown up. On the island of Mykonos, she happened upon the tiny, whitewashed church. There, she prayed to God for guidance.
“Suddenly, I experienced an epiphany and saw all that was about to happen in my life pass before me,” Benardis writes in her book, “My Greek Family Table.” “I realized it was time for me to reinvent my life, and in that church I saw a new path set out for me to follow.”
That new path was laid in food, and it led her to her roots—to rediscovering how the ancient Greeks ate, thought, and lived.
‘Let Food Be Thy Medicine’
To the ancient Greeks, food was healing. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, famously proclaimed, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food.” For the sick, food was prescribed first; medicines were a last resort.
“Those were their chemicals,” Benardis says, “but healthy chemicals.”
Today, however, many of the healing properties of food have gone overlooked. We jump to conventional medication for quick solutions, and modern medicine seems to have forgotten its ancient foundations. “When does a doctor ever prescribe food?” Benardis asks. It’s ironic, she says, that all doctors are required to take the Hippocratic Oath before being allowed to practice.
Into the trash went her bottles of pills, as she resolved to return to the ancients’ ways of eating. Choosing simple, clean, and harmonious ingredients, and opening herself up to their healing powers, she saw her body responding in kind. Now, she guides those like herself, who are searching for help, to their diets.
“I want people to go back into the kitchen, because that’s where all the healing is,” she says.
Feeding the Mind
But health goes beyond the surface—the ancients knew that, too. “The natural force within each of us is the greatest healer of disease,” Hippocrates counseled.
Benardis insists that all illness starts in the mind. “If you don’t get the mind right, forget about the diet. You’re wasting your time,” she says. She learned that the hard way.
“That was my problem,” she says. “Even though I was eating right, my mind was always angry and upset and unforgiving—that’s what caused my illness.” Only when she turned her focus inward did her health truly make a full recovery.
In the kitchen, that meant always cooking with positivity and “agapi,” the Greek word for unconditional love. In ancient Greece, chefs were kicked out of the kitchen if their energy wasn’t good and happy—cooking with negative energy was almost akin to breaking the law, Benardis says.
“When I touch your food, if I’m angry or I’m upset, I’m putting that energy in your food,” she says. “Only food cooked with good energy and love and laughter can truly nourish and heal our bodies and souls.”
And in daily life, that meant always thinking good thoughts, forgiving those who had wronged her, and adopting a number of ancient Greek therapies—prayer, meditation, and affirmation therapy among them—to heal her mind. “Whenever something unpleasant enters my mind, I go into affirmation mode,” she says. “I start reversing what my mind is thinking into something positive.”
Supplementing healthy eating with a healthy mind, Benardis made a recovery that seemed nothing short of miraculous.
But she refuses to take credit for any of it. That, she says, belongs to God and the ancient Greeks.
“I’m merely the vehicle,” she says.
From her new home in New York, she’s working on culinary tours and cooking classes, speaking at events, offering personal health and wellness coaching, and writing a fourth book. Exciting collaborations with Maria Loi, an accomplished Greek chef and author at the helm of Loi Estiatorio, are also up ahead.
As the philosopher-mathematician Pythagoras said, “everything comes round again, so nothing is completely new.” And the ancient wisdom Benardis imparts is perhaps more relevant than ever today.
“[The ancient Greeks] have downloaded this information for me,” Benardis says. “They’re saying, ‘Bring this alive. Let the people know this information so that they can heal themselves.’”
“It’s almost like God is saying to me, ‘It’s forgotten. Bring it back.’”
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