Q&A: Nick KatsorisAlumnus Nick Katsoris '91 in The New York Law Journal, February 03, 2012
Nick Katsoris, 45, is general counsel of the Red Apple Group, which controls supermarket chain Gristede's Food as well as oil refining, newspaper and aircraft leasing businesses owned by entrepreneur John Catsimatidis. In addition to leading a team of five attorneys, Mr. Katsoris is a children's book author, with five books following Loukoumi the fluffy lamb. Throughout the series, Loukoumi travels the world, ponders what she wants to be when she grows up and learns about good deeds and giving gifts from the heart. Along the way, she teaches children lessons including "believe in yourself and dreams come true," and "the secret ingredient is never give up!"
In his latest book, "Loukoumi's Celebrity Cookbook," Mr. Katsoris collected favorite childhood recipes from more than 50 celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, Eli Manning, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Taylor Swift, Jay Leno and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The series, which has been translated into Greek and Chinese, has more than 100,000 books in print with at least $2 of each sale benefiting charities. Published by NK Publications/Day Dream Press, books cost $15.95-$19.95 and are available at Loukoumi.com.
Q: What sort of work do you do as general counsel of the Red Apple Group? How much of the company's legal work is handled in-house?
A: I have been general counsel for 16 years since leaving Cahill Gordon & Reindel in 1995 and even today the job poses new and interesting challenges. The department is run like a small firm within the company. I find that it is much more cost effective and efficient to do as much of the work in-house as we can. On that note we handle many litigations in-house as well as corporate and real estate matters like leasing, contracts, etc., but over the last 16 years we have touched on other aspects of the law including intellectual property, aviation and even environmental.
Q: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
A: I have always enjoyed writing from when I was a kid where I wrote for my school newspapers and formed my own newspaper in the fifth grade. Then in law school at Fordham Law I interned for The National Law Journal and wrote for its sidebar and influx columns. It was a great experience because I would write about interesting cases in the law. I guess I get the writing gene from my father, Constantine Katsoris, who has been a professor at Fordham Law for 48 years. We always joke though that his writing never contains any illustrations and mine contains no footnotes. My father always said that I could be anything I wanted when I grew up as long as I became a lawyer first.
Q: What was the first book you wrote and what was it about?
A: My first book was a legal thriller called "Crimes of Fire." It was inspired during my two-year clerkship with Judge Nicholas Tsoucalas of the U.S. Court of International Trade. Judge Tsoucalas loves criminal work, and did the sentencing in the "Son of Sam" murder case. We sat by designation in district courts across the country—it was known as the Club Med clerkship because we traveled to warm states in the winter months. So here I was in the courtroom watching murder trials, arson trials and things that you think only happen on television, but as you know they happen in courtrooms every day. So after my clerkship ended, I took six weeks off, and rented an apartment in Key Largo, Fla. Everyone thought I was a beach bum, but I was really writing 10, 12, sometimes 14 hours a day. Six weeks later I was on the plane with a 400-page first draft and a dream of becoming the next John Grisham. While that never happened, I did do a 10 city book tour with Barnes & Noble and had a lot of fun.
Q: What motivated you to make the jump from legal thrillers to children's books?
A: Well, I have actually written a sequel to "Crimes of Fire," but the draft is sitting on my computer somewhere and I have not looked at it in about seven or eight years. Someday I will get around to it, but then I had this idea for this children's book character and it has been an incredible experience not only creating the series, but being able to do something for kids and the charities involved.
I was motivated at a young age from my Aunt Katherine. She was a national Teacher of the Year, and she encouraged me to believe in myself and to pursue my writing. Like she did for me, I always wanted to encourage kids to be the best that they can be and to help them make a difference in their own lives and the lives of others. This is why I have written these books, each with a different lesson.
Q: Where did you get the idea for Loukoumi? What is she like? Are you fond of her?
A: I actually am fond of Loukoumi. CBS News once called her "a fluffy little lamb that just wants to make the world a better place." And that sums her up perfectly.
Loukoumi gets her name from loukoumi candy, which is a type of jelly candy with powdered sugar on top. In fact, we have just teamed up with a loukoumi candy manufacturer to make Loukoumi the lamb loukoumi candy. It all started one day when someone had brought me a box from Europe. I was in the kitchen with my wife and I said to her, "Can you please hand me the box of loukoumi, Loukoumi?" I called her "Loukoumi. It just came out of my mouth," and then we looked at each other and I said 'wouldn't that make a cute name for a children's book character?'
Q: What ages are the books aimed at? Was it difficult writing for children?
A: The Loukoumi books are geared towards children ages 4 to 8, although "Loukoumi's Celebrity Cookbook" is for all children in the family, even teenagers, because the book is about creating family memories in the kitchen. Writing children's books is different than most types of writing because there are few words and you need to get your message across quickly. Writing the first draft does not take a lot of time, but then you need to step back from it and digest, and edit it because every word is important.
Q: Do you have any children? What do they think of your books?
A: Yes, my wife Voula (who is a real estate attorney) and I have two children; a 7-year-old son named Dean and a 3-year-old daughter, Julia. Thankfully our kids like Loukoumi. I go to their classes each year and read the books and my daughter sleeps with three of the Loukoumi plush lambs every night. My kids are also my built-in test audience. I always read the drafts of the new books to them and ask them for their thoughts. My son wanted an elephant character in one of the books so Effie the Elephant made her debut. I also asked for his input with my new book, "Loukoumi's Celebrity Cookbook," which has a storybook in the beginning and then features favorite childhood recipes from over 50 celebrities. So in addition to having recipes from "adult" celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Jay Leno, Eli Manning and Jennifer Aniston, I wanted to include some recipes for the younger audience too. So I asked Dean whom he wanted to see in the book, and that is how we got Miranda Cosgrove from iCarly and eight of the stars from the Disney Channel.
Q: How did you persuade people to participate in Loukoumi's Celebrity Cookbook?
A: My philosophy is: 'You never know until you try,' and I just started asking and people were so wonderful and so willing to participate in the project. The idea for this book came from talking with Iron Chef Cat Cora. Cat and I had met in 2009 at a charity event. That year, my fourth book in the series was released, "Loukoumi's Good Deeds," which is narrated on CD by Jennifer Aniston. Cat narrated the book at the event. Afterwards she said that she would love to be part of the next book. I created a new character in the series named Cat Cora, an illustrated cat chef that teaches Loukoumi how to cook. The secret ingredient in cooking and in life is to "Never Give up." So what do they cook in the book? Cat's favorite childhood recipe which is her Grandmother's Italian Cream Cake. Then I thought, if Cat has a favorite then other celebrities must have favorite childhood recipes too. Ten months later I had over 50 favorite childhood recipes. We even have a recipe from Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor for "Mini-Mexican Pizzas," which she used to make on her family ranch as a child.
Q: Has the series been popular with children and their parents?
A: Thankfully yes. The new book especially because it is all about getting parents in the kitchen with their kids and creating favorite family memories together. There's nothing like making a mess in the kitchen to bring a family together.
Q: How do you think the series has influenced children?
A: In addition to entertaining kids the purpose of these books is to teach children lessons and to help them make a difference in their lives and the lives of others. Once a year we participate in national Make a Difference Day where over 10,000 kids read "Loukoumi's Good Deeds" and then go out and do a good deed.
I sponsor a contest called Loukoumi Dream Day where kids draw a picture of themselves in their dream careers and I make their dream day come true. Our first winner wanted to be a Mars Rover Engineer. I didn't even know what that was. So I called NASA blindly and arranged for this 8-year-old Long Island girl to visit NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., to watch the Phoenix spacecraft land on Mars from Mission Control on Memorial Day weekend of 2008. Other Loukoumi Dream Day contest winners have played soccer with the New York Red Bulls and cooked on television and met Rachael Ray on the set of her show.
Thankfully, the books have sold well. They have also been translated into Greek and now a Chinese publisher is translating the series into Chinese. I donate proceeds from the books to children's charities. My second book benefited the Make A Wish Foundation. The last three in the series benefited St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Loukoumi's Celebrity Cookbook benefits both St. Jude and Cat Cora's charity Chefs for Humanity.
Q: Do you plan to write more books?
A: Absolutely. Writing these books is something that I feel like I was always meant to do. While I really enjoy the challenges of the legal profession, at the end of the day after litigating and negotiating I look forward to entering the simpler world of children's books. It balances me, and as long as kids keep reading them I will continue to write them.