It’s hard to believe that a chef as experienced as José Andrés, who started cooking in his teens, felt the need to consult with anyone prior to opening a new restaurant. But this past summer, before he launched New York-based Zaytinya, a Mediterranean eatery within the Ritz-Carlton NoMad, he worked with Aglaia Kremezi, the Greek cook and scholar specialized in Mediterranean cuisine.
Much of the news coverage that includes Andrés these days is filed from the frontlines where World Central Kitchen, the disaster relief organization he founded in 2010, operates that week. Lately it has done work at the Poland/Ukraine border, in Gaza and in Panama. Obviously, this hasn’t prevented him from continuing to expand his ThinkFoodGroup restaurant roster.
Turns out the chef and Kremezi met more than twenty years ago when the chef was creating the first Zaytinya, meaning olive oil in Turkish, in Washington D.C. “I wanted to look beyond Spain, explore and learn about the history and connectivity of the foods of the Eastern Mediterranean, one of the richest parts of the culinary world,” said Andrés.
“José called me and said, ‘I’m coming to Athens to see you,’” Kremezi said recently, from her home in Greece. “And I responded, ‘I don’t live in Athens, I live on the island of Kea.’ So even though he had no idea where that was, he switched to ‘I’m coming to Kea to see you.’”
Before he arrived on the northern Cyclade island Andrés had already eaten his way through Turkey and Lebanon, but it was the cuisine of Greece that spoke to him the most. Kremezi worked for 35 years as a lifestyle journalist in Athens until she realized she’d rather be cooking and writing about Greek and Mediterranean culinary traditions.
“We cooked together, we ate out, we spoke for hours,” she said. “I had finally met someone who went to bed and woke up the next day devising recipes in his head. Just like I do.”
Kremezi believes all the cuisines of the Mediterranean are connected, even if the dishes don’t necessarily look alike or taste somewhat different from country to country. She reminds us that Greece lived under Turkish rule for 400 years and that over time currents of immigration flew through the Balkans.
“It’s a cuisine shaped by the women who had to make do,” she said. “Growing up we couldn’t afford much meat. Once on Sunday, and then perhaps kofta on another day, a meatball containing half meat, half bread.” Mezze or small plates are eaten throughout the Mediterranean, she added, and they come with different breads, but every dish is ingredient based.
She explains that Andrés intimately understands this because his mother cooked this way as well. In fact, in his cookbook, Vegetables Unleashed, the chef features green beans with onions cooked in tomato sauce, a dish both his mother in Spain and Kremezi’s in Greece used to make.
Kremezi didn’t learn to cook from a book though, and no one told her what to do. “I cooked alongside my mother,” she said. “We never wrote down recipes.” Of course that changed when she started writing cookbooks such as the award-winner The Foods of Greece. In the off-season, she and her husband organize cooking vacations on Kea.
On the menu at Zaytinya in New York, she’s particularly keen on htipiti, a spread made of roasted red peppers, feta and thyme, the chicken soup avgolemono, the crispy brussels sprouts afelia, her grape leaves dolmades and the kebabs. Soon, someone will be added to the team to make her recipe for phyllo, by hand.