The Menu That Has Made One José Andrés Restaurant Endure

One afternoon this January, I watched the celebrity chef José Andrés flip through the page proofs of his newest cookbook, “Zaytinya.” He had the pages spread out over the glass top of a custom-made foosball table inside the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the sprawling food group that bears his name. Here Andrés was like a king in his throne room. The José Andrés Group now directs more than 30 eateries — from a two-Michelin-starred restaurant to a food truck — as well as retail products, a podcast, newsletters and television programs. (His charitable organization, World Central Kitchen, runs through a separate nonprofit.)

Yet Andrés’s success appeared to bring him little comfort. In his opinion, several of the cookbook’s images lacked flair. He didn’t like the way the mushrooms were photographed. He thought the Octopus Santorini needed more glistening olive oil. He flipped the pages morosely, mumbling to himself. “This one is bad.” “This one is bad. No, it’s next-level bad.” Others earned his grudging approval: “That’s OK.” “That’s OK.”

Andrés’s kingdom rose from the enduring popularity of several Washington restaurants — principally Jaleo, Oyamel, Zaytinya, minibar and China Chilcano. All specialize in small-plate menus, a dining concept Andrés pioneered in the 1990s. Many were opened with backing from the entrepreneurs Rob Wilder and Roberto Alvarez and are in Penn Quarter, near the National Portrait Gallery. Jaleo, a collaboration with the chef Ann Cashion, honors Spanish tapas; Oyamel does Mexican. Minibar serves “avant-garde cooking,” while China Chilcano dishes out Chinese and Japanese by way of Peru.

But the vegetable-centric Zaytinya has become one of the group’s most successful restaurants. When it first opened, in 2002, its modern interpretations of Greek, Lebanese and Turkish mezze bowled over diners in the capital, who were more used to steak and potatoes; on Saturday nights, they would happily wait two and half hours for a table. A year later, it was shortlisted for the James Beard Foundation’s award for the best new restaurant in America. Today, after more than two decades in business, Zaytinya is a kind of institution in Washington: a midpriced gourmet restaurant with dishes that start at $8, serving more than 700 people on a typical weekday and over a thousand on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s where my family takes out-of-town guests. It’s where we eat lunch before visiting museums on the Mall, where we grab a bite before a show.

The pages on the foosball table contained at-home versions of the dishes that Washingtonians love. There was a recipe for spanakopita, the spinach-and-feta pie. It’s usually served in a square or triangular slice, but Zaytinya’s is shaped like an egg roll and pan fried. There was a recipe for crispy brussels sprouts, which almost every table seems to order: sizzling wedges on a bed of garlic-confit yogurt, topped with lemony barberries. There were instructions for making Zaytinya’s phyllo dough and its cloud-light pita bread. The proofs looked gorgeous to me, but Andrés seemed disappointed that they weren’t even better. When he reached the last page, though, he seemed to realize the futility of his perfectionism and patted the messy pile with resignation.

“But it’s a good book, no?” he asked the group’s publishing director, Ann McCarthy, who used to be a managing editor at the gourmet magazine Saveur.

“It’s a great book,” she answered.

He sighed. Cookbooks rubbed him against his own mortality. He has an office filled with rare volumes, including early editions of Auguste Escoffier’s “Ma Cuisine” (first published in 1934), Irma S. Rombauer’s “The Joy of Cooking” (1931) and Ángel Muro’s “El Practicón” (1894). He recently traveled around Europe and the Middle East carrying, for light reading, a cookbook from the 1700s. Andrés had already published four cookbooks, but, at 54, he was all too aware that each new volume represented a chance to shape how he would be remembered.

With Zaytinya, part of that legacy may be his knack for research and team-building. Andrés had never even traveled to Greece when Alvarez, who was a vegetarian, suggested they open an eastern Mediterranean restaurant. To develop its menu, Andrés ate his way through Lebanon, Turkey and Greece, where he forged a lasting partnership with the cookbook author Aglaia Kremezi, who taught him to make Lenten-style dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with tomatoes, pine nuts and fennel). He learned to make hummus from Grace and Dany Abi-Najm, whose family owns the restaurant Lebanese Taverna. His process for making phyllo came from Abdelrazzaq Hashhoush, a Palestinian-Lebanese chef who was one of Zaytinya’s original cooks. Andrés and his team still make regular pilgrimages to explore the markets, restaurants and coffee shops of the eastern Mediterranean, often eating two breakfasts, three lunches and four dinners in a single day.

The heavy lifting for creating Zaytinya, of course, was complete decades ago. Since then, Andrés has developed other restaurants outside Washington. He has also become, arguably, more famous for his work on television and with World Central Kitchen — which provides food aid in the wake of natural disasters and violent conflicts — than he is as a restaurateur. But even as restaurants across the United States have shut down, Andrés has several in Washington that have survived not only the pandemic and inflation and labor shortages, but also the Great Recession of 2008, helping to transfMarcela Valdes is a staff writer for the magazine, primarily covering Latino and Latin

American politics and culture.orm a neighborhood once blighted by crime and store closures. When they signed the original lease for Zaytinya, Wilder told me, the portrait gallery was closed for renovations and no national restaurant company wanted its location on Ninth Street NW. Now there’s an Hermès store two blocks away.

During Zaytinya’s early years, Andrés haunted the kitchens of his Washington restaurants, working with each head chef and often standing at the pass to expedite dishes. But after the ThinkFoodGroup, as it was then named, opened its first restaurant in California, it was no longer possible for him to work in every kitchen. As the public face of an expanding company, he needed not only to establish menus but also to woo business partners and customers with public appearances.

“I feel like I’m a foreigner here,” he confessed as we sat over margaritas at Oyamel. There was a time, he said, when he would have known every person at the host stand, behind the bar, serving tables, washing pots, mixing guacamole. “I used to be much more a player,” he said, over another round. “Now I’m more the coach. They are the ones on the field.” A few days later, he hopped on a plane to make an appearance at an A-list cookout in the Cayman Islands.

At Zaytinya, Hilda Mazariegos is the person responsible for switching on the lights every morning. A middle-aged woman with a ready laugh, Mazariegos never attended a culinary school. She was on track to become a schoolteacher in Guatemala when she took a job at a restaurant in Virginia, thinking her work in kitchens would be temporary. Four months after Zaytinya opened, she was hired as a line cook on the fry station. She went on to master every other station in the kitchen: salad, sauté, grill, oven, flat top, bread and dessert. Now she is the restaurant’s executive sous chef. She can make each of its signature dishes from scratch and has trained most of its cooks. Many have worked at Zaytinya for more than five years. “I’ve been here for 13 months,” the head chef, Terry Natas, told me, “and I’m still the new guy.”

On the Thursday that I came to visit, I found Mazariegos in Zaytinya’s closet-size chefs’ office, working on the next week’s schedule. About 25 cooks and dishwashers are in the kitchen during each shift, and at 8 in the morning the space already hummed with the sound of staff members’ scrubbing down surfaces with soapy water. In the back prep kitchen, Antonio Machic, who was born in Guatemala and has been working at Zaytinya for about a decade, was trimming 80 pounds of chicken, saving the spare bits so that they could be added into stock.

“The beauty of this food is that everything is made like you make family food at home,” Mazariegos told me in Spanish, which is still her preferred language. Nearly every dish is made from scratch daily, which requires skill and attention. There are machines that make dolmades, for example, but at Zaytinya, they are filled and rolled by hand by a woman from El Salvador, Julia Hernandez, who produces them by the thousands every week. She also makes the restaurant’s juicy kibbeh, a football-shaped, cinnamon-spiced meatball that is encased in a crispy shell of bulgur wheat and ground beef.

That Thursday morning, Mazariegos made a batch of phyllo using the technique that she learned almost two decades ago directly from Abdelrazzaq Hashhoush. She flattened a dozen baseball-size rounds of dough into single sheets, each larger than a pillowcase. Then she layered these together with handfuls of cornstarch and ran a rolling pin over the stack until it turned into one thin, silky sheet, nearly the size of a throw blanket. “This is my workout,” she joked as she flipped the phyllo for the fourth time, using a long wooden dowel, and then rolled it even thinner. Phyllo made this way is more elastic than the kind sold in stores, so Zaytinya can stuff it with more spinach and shape it into a cylinder for spanakopita.

Michael Costa had no experience cooking Greek, Turkish or Lebanese food when he was hired, in 2010, to begin what would be an 11-year run as Zaytinya’s head chef. “Hilda trained me,” he explained over lunch. When he told Andrés that he was nervous about his inexperience, Andrés said not to worry: The way Zaytinya worked, it wouldn’t matter. “It took me a really long time to understand — like really, really understand — what he meant by that,” Costa said. “It’s a village of talented people who have contributed over the years, documenting and standardizing what we do so that we can be consistent.”

Local diners like their favorite dishes to remain unchanged. So Zaytinya’s cooks, most of them Spanish-speaking immigrants, excel at consistency. As they skewered kebabs, roasted eggplants and heated the base for the slightly pine-flavored mastic ice cream, nobody needed instructions: They just churned out enormous quantities of excellent food without a fuss. “There’s a shared understanding,” said Costa, who is now Zaytinya’s “concept chef.” He and Andrés often swap ideas just by texting each other photographs. “He’s in my head, in my bones,” Costa said, “whether I want him there or not.”

Andrés himself no longer spends much time worrying about Zaytinya. His mind is more consumed with other projects and challenges, not all of them happy. “You are catching me now in one of the little low points in the last 23 years of my life,” he told me, in his office, as we drank cava cocktails laced with cherry-blossom bitters. Over the last two years, he spent more than 100 days in Ukraine, weeks in post-earthquake Turkey and post-hurricane Mexico, days witnessing the horrors of Gaza. Seven volunteers for World Central Kitchen had been killed in Ukraine. His daughters were growing up and leaving home. And his business nearly sank during the pandemic, in part because the Jose Andrés Group decided to keep all its restaurants’ employees on payroll for six weeks during mandatory shutdowns. The only way for the company to survive afterward was for the partners to dilute their ownership and take on additional investors.

“Everything happens to you at once,” Andrés said. “And every time, you meet more people, and you have a phone filled with WhatsApp messages that you don’t have time to answer.” He showed me some: Among the texts from friends and family were hundreds from World Central Kitchen outposts in Japan, Lebanon, Gaza, Israel and Ukraine. Image after image of crises around the world. No wonder he felt a wave of dismay as he stared at a glossy photograph of mushrooms.

He was in a better mood when we talked again several days later, but he admitted that he often felt grumpy lately. “I don’t know, maybe with the things that are wrong in the world, I’m getting very anxious that we are not fixing them quick enough,” Andrés said. “I don’t even want people around me,” he added. “I want to go and I feel free. You know, when I’m in Gaza, I feel free. When I go to Turkey and I’m going around, I feel free. But I’ve been making sure that the restaurants are well run, behind. So in part, you could say I’ve been very selfish in giving the Costas of the world — ‘this is yours’ — because I’ve been getting my freedom to do other things. Because I’ve been running restaurants now for a long time.”

Zaytinya does run well without Andrés around, thanks to its village of chefs, managers and administrators. Last year, a new Zaytinya opened inside a Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York City. This year, another opened inside the Ritz-Carlton in South Beach, Fla. A third is slated for Las Vegas and another for Palo Alto, Calif. The expansion has been spearheaded by Sam Bakhshandehpour, who joined the group in 2020, and the head chefs at the new locations are supervised by Costa. Mazariegos has already traveled to New York and Florida to teach another generation to make phyllo, dolmades and kibbeh.

It’s hard to imagine, though, that Zaytinya will ever mean as much to anyone outside Washington. You can replicate the food and the décor and the cutlery, but you can’t replicate a restaurant’s role in the urban psyche. In Washington, Zaytinya isn’t a place where hotel guests grab breakfast or people go to spot celebrities. It’s where locals meet to woo, celebrate and negotiate. Food tourists come and go, but it’s regulars who carry Zaytinya through the slow weeks of winter.

I went back recently with my family for dinner. It was a mild March evening, and every table in the 5,764-square-foot dining area was taken. On a typical Friday night, attending to all those customers requires 17 servers, 17 bussers, seven runners, five hosts, four bartenders, four bar backs and three polishers. It feels strange to describe such a vast operation as homey, even if much of it is divided into softly lit alcoves and nooks. But a well-loved restaurant is like an extension of your living room, a space decorated not just with candles but with memories. I could almost see them shimmering like the water wall behind the host stand as I dipped my pita in olive oil: all the gossamer traces of bestie brunches, birthday parties, first-date dinners, Mother’s Day hugs and deal-making handshakes that Washingtonians had left there over 22 years.

Costa, Natas, Mazariegos and all the veterans in the kitchen have kept Zaytinya cooking while Andrés travels the world. If there is a secret to his success, it may be his ability to build such a reliable system. “For me, keeping a routine running for a long time is hard,” Andrés told me, in Spanish. “I can’t.”


Marcela Valdes is a staff writer for the magazine, primarily covering Latino and Latin American politics and culture. PEDEN + MUNK is a director-and-photographer team based in New York consisting of Taylor Peden and Jen Munkvold.

https://www.ctptimes.com

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