Lady #1: Maria Koutsogiannis
Occupation: Owner/Founder/Creator of FoodByMaria, a largely plant-based food blog.
Claim to fame: Started an Instagram account in 2014 with no education in photography (much less food photography) nor formal cooking training, and built a following of nearly 100,000 followers just three short years later. Operates her website http://www.foodbymaria.com, supplies numerous Alberta and Saskatchewan establishments with her (delicious) clean eats, has had her contributions published in various magazines, and is constantly hustling to expand awareness of her brand and build her business.
Life mantra: “Everyday we feed to fight disease.”
What makes her different: While she is hyper-focussed (yes, that’s actually how you spell focussed) on her business and its growth, Maria is just as passionate about the human connection. Despite working a second job while managing her growing empire, she still finds time to use her success and skill-set to help others. Whether it be organizing a clothing drive for the victims of the Fort Mac fires last year, taking leftover food from banquets at her restaurant job to feed the homeless downtown after a long shift, or using her birthday to throw a fundraiser for the Calgary Eating Disorder Program, Maria puts just as much effort into helping others as she does helping herself.
If you have ever spent five minutes with FoodByMaria founder Maria Koutsogiannis you know she is not meant to be an accountant. To confine the energy that bubbles out of her to a five by nine office, or worse, a cubicle (those poor, imaginary co-workers!), just seems… wrong.
When I first met her, at our serving job at 1600 World Bier House, she had just graduated with a Bachelor of Accounting, with minors in finance and economics. I remember our first shift together; I was having a “bad night” and had already committed to being in a foul mood. We has just met, I was grumpy, but Maria, in true Maria fashion, either A) did not care, B) wanted to fix it and make me smile, or C) a mix of the two. I remember her tap dancing around me (literally), her high-pitch laugh piercing the air and infecting my steadfast grumpiness with positivity. Who was this weirdo?
When I consider it, it seems odd how easy and naturally our friendship is flowed. She moved to England for a year, then came back, and nothing had changed. If you look at us, we appear to be opposites. Maria hardly wears make-up, tosses her hair (the kind of hair girls like myself have to pay for) in a scrunchie when she’s ready to get down to business, and firmly believes in living a largely “natural” life. Meaning, among other things, we don’t see eye-to-eye on the two nose jobs I’ve put myself through, partly to conform to a certain standard of beauty.
But although on the surface we are as opposite as the sun and the moon, our roots were planted in the same soil. Perhaps because our parents nurtured us with similar diets of love, tough love and strength, we were both able to evolve into souls who are cut from the same kind of cloth.
It’s hard to capture this woman of a million words in under 2000, but I am going to attempt to do here, in the spirit of attention spans. Knowing Maria before she was FoodByMaria has blessed me with more lessons than I can articulate, and I feel it is only fair to share with the world hopefully even 1/1000000 that she has taught me. FoodByMaria embodies so much more than just food, recipes and fabulous pictures, and is so much bigger than the brand she is created. This woman has a message, and I feel grateful to be able to be a messenger of her words.
We all are privy to the food she fuels her body with, but here I hope to share with you the factors that have fuelled her passion. Read on….
Maria was bullied from Grade 5 to Grade 10.
Maria Koutsogiannis (MK): “I was bullied for all kinds of things. Growing up, my family didn’t initially have a ton of money, so I was made fun of for having Walmart shoes, weird sandals. They told me my feet were ugly. I was too weird, too loud, too different. There was one particular kid, let’s call him Mike. Mike would make fun of my big nose, would tell me that I was super ugly, that kind of thing. Eventually, the principal found out and it was sort of resolved at school. The thing was, I hadn’t told my parents. I didn’t want them to know what was going on, I was strong, I could handle it. I was embarrassed that I was being bullied. So when Mike’s parents knocked on my door one day, asking to talk to my parents about what had been going on, I was mortified. I remember mouthing to my dad “Just act like you know what’s going on.” I just didn’t want anyone to think I couldn’t handle the situation on my own.”
While the bullying hurt her, she was more confused by it than anything.
MK: “I just didn’t get it. I didn’t get why people didn’t like me. It just didn’t even occur to me that I could be ugly, it just never registered that way in my head. I felt like a huge outcast, but I couldn’t comprehend why. I would go to Greece, observe real poverty and be so lost as to why I was made fun of for shoes that people in Greece would appreciate having.”
Being bullied taught her lessons and shaped her into who she is.
MK: “It taught me how to speak up. I don’t take shit from people now. When people bully me now, or I see it happening, I now know that it is a reflection of them, it has nothing to do with me or the other person.”
Maria’s passion for nurturing others began early and her childhood dream was to become a pediatrician.
MK: “I’ve always loved kids, I’ve always loved the idea of saving people, and I love to make people feel better. The only reason I didn’t pursue that dream was because, when youre young, you have these ideas and expectations as to where your life has to land at certain stages. Pediatrics was going to take at least eight years, and I envisioned myself married with kids by 28, so I wanted to go into something that wouldn’t take as long, which ended up being accounting.”
Maria tried her hand at accounting, but knew in her heart it wasn’t for her.
MK: “I was good with numbers, so accounting made sense. After graduating, I gave it a shot, but I just knew it wasn’t going to work. I had such high expectations for myself, and I guess I just really like to shine. Accountants do wonderful work, but I just needed something with a little more interaction. I knew accounting just wasn’t going to allow me to be my best self.”
Surviving a car crash when she was 16 had planted a seed that she couldn’t ignore.
MK: “I remember coming to, and someone asking me, “How many survivors?” I answered, “All of us.” The person responded with, “Well then, youre all miracles.” After that, I knew that I was kept on this earth for a reason. That incident inspired the belief that people were put on this planet for a reason, and since then, I knew I was going to do something out of the ordinary, something that would cause impact.”
The road to finding her path wasn’t easy and Maria was sick with bulimia for 6 years before overcoming it, which was part of the reason she hadn’t been overly vocal about her passion for food.
MK: “I was kind of ashamed. I felt like I knew what my passion was, but how could I share that when I was so sick. How could I claim my passion was something that I puked up?”
FoodByMaria was born overseas, created on a couch, and named by Maria’s partner, Andrew.
MK: “71A Widmore Road, Bromley England. Andrew and I were sitting on the couch and I said, “Babe, I think I’m going to start that food account I keep talking about.” So we started thinking up names, like Blueberries and More, Colours of the Rainbow. And then Andrew said, “Well screw it. You’re the one who’s going to be making the food. Just call it FoodByMaria!”
FoodByMaria wasn’t an overnight success, but a whole lot has happened in just one year.
MK: “At first, I would just post bad photos, with the recipes in the captions. But one day, my dad called me and said, “Maria, when are you going to do accounting?” That’s when I knew I needed to really start doing this, if I wanted to start doing this. I called my friend Caitlin, who helped me develop the website and it kind of took off from there. So much has happened in a year, it’s hard to wrap my mind around it all.”
It hasn’t been a walk in the park.
MK: “It’s been scary. Cutting down on my shifts at work, not making much money at first is pretty terrifying, especially to someone who is so number-conscious like myself. I couldn’t ask my dad for help, because I wasn’t sure if he would support me. He really wanted me to be the accountant, and it took him a while to get on board. Plus, there is no one in my life who is doing what I’m doing, so it is sometimes hard to find guidance and people to relate to.”
Family motivates her, but so do total strangers.
MK: “My parents came from nothing. My mom has no more than a grade 6 education. They envisioned that they could make something out of nothing, and with hard work, they did. They are extremely successful now, and I was able to see where hard work can take you. I’m also inspired by the courage of those who are sick (with eating disorders) who are trying to get better, working at it every day. Getting over that shit is hard, I get it. I’ve been there, and it takes strength and commitment, I willingness to be uncomfortable with yourself. You need to recognize and believe that what you see in the mirror that day, that week, isn’t permanent, and we all have the power to change within ourselves.”
She knows why FoodByMaria is different, and why she has been successful.
MK: “FoodByMaria is authentic. I’m not pretending to be perfect all the time. I’m honest about who I am, and I don’t give a fuck if you don’t like it, or if I look weird to you. I believe in who I am, I have flaws and that’s okay. I’m not going to try and hide that, because I wouldn’t be being true to myself then. It took me going through some shit to love myself exactly as I am, so I’m just going to own that person.”
She’s learned some lessons over the last few years, that have had a huge impact on her and shaped where she wants to go, and how she plans to live her life.
MK: “I’ve always believed in myself, but the last few years I’ve proved to myself that literally anything is possible. I had to allow myself to be vulnerable to be able to achieve what I’ve achieved, and will continue to do so. FoodByMaria really saved my life. Not everything has worked out, but I really believe three steps back and one step forward is still progress. You just have to keep pushing through. Yes, fate plays a part it things, but why not work hard, feed your body and soul positive, healthy things, and stack the odds in your favour? What’s the worst that can happen if you try?”
I’ve said many times that I believe the world exists in grey, that nothing is black and white. Maria acknowledges the black that is fate, but mixes in the white aspects that can be controlled, painting her world in varying grey tones. She puts herself out there, gets uncomfortable and takes chances, never fearing the black. And while there are many food bloggers living in the land of social media, there are none that are paving a path marked by stones of candor and sincerity that Maria is.
“Just know, that where you are in this moment is not permanent. Things can, and will change, all you need to put in is a little effort, a little hard work. If you feel hopeless, just think, will this moment really matter all that much in five years? Ask yourself.”
Tremendous things are in Maria’s future, having just signed with Toronto-based agency Notable, as well the upcoming filming of the pilot of a potential FoodByMaria TV show. Keep up on the flurry of FoodByMaria action by following @FoodByMaria and @mildmarouli on Instagram, and if you really want to see what all this food fuss is about, check out www.foodbymaria.com.