“It’s really only us as Americans that focus on huge pieces of meat,” Mike Costa, executive chef at Zaytinya, tells me when I ask him about the Mediterranean restaurant’s new vegetable dishes. He admits, of course, that in places, people also kiss the toes of lamb roasting on an all-day spinning spit.
“But if you really look at the history of the cooking and the history of the culture, it’s really way more vegetable-driven cuisine. And I think these days, Americans are wanting to eat healthier, wanting to have more vegetables in their diet.”
Stemming from the season’s newest edible pleasures, Zaytinya recently released a line up of small plates with whole grains, fresh beans and ripe vegetables, such as seared halloumi and melon salata ($9.50), roasted fresh chickpeas with ladolemono, dill, sea salt ($7.50) and whole wheat couscous with beech mushrooms, squash, Eenglish peas, harissa broth ($8.00).
New dishes, however, can’t just be whipped up within a restaurant in José Andrés‘ restaurant empire. “The way things work in ThinkFoodGroup is less about the individual chef and more about the collaboration,” Costa explains, listing himself; his sous chefs, the company’s director of research and development, Ruben Garcia, and Andrés himself as attending these brainstorming sessions. The group discusses which dishes should be replaced and what dishes should be developed for the next menu change.
For the next two weeks, Costa and his team scrounge up time between lunch and dinner service (or sometimes, Costa will practice as early as 7 a.m.) to “work on different versions of them to get the right kind of flavor, the right proportions and perfect the dish.”
The next step is a tasting for Andrés, where, as Costa puts it, he’ll “give us his feedback and offer his insight, which is obviously invaluable to the process.” Once the dish is approved, it’s standardized in the recipe and accounting software. But it’s not always this smooth.
“Sometimes he’ll say, ‘I hate this! Get this out of my face! Let’s do something completely different!”‘ Costa easily acknowledges his boss’ uncompromising standards. “Its funny how it works. He pushes me to do the dish that I really want to do. He pushes me to go further than I would go myself, which is what is awesome in working for him.”
The cucumber soup, pictured, recently played the role of dish-in-trouble.
Costa originally envisioned a cold take on a traditional Turkish green tomato soup. But, Andrés, as Costa remembers,”just hated, hated, hated” the concoction. The soup then switched from one that was first cooked, then chilled, to a completely raw soup, with extra cucumber peels added to heighten the springy green color.
But the crown to this liquid bowl of beauty is the Greek yogurt granita, an ice castle built with tangy and salty flavors that melt instantly on the tongue. The dish comes together hitting both subtle vegetal notes and bright bursts of brine, proving Andrés’ trials, and Costa’s care, create food worth waiting for.
Photos by Stefanie Gans