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Monthly Archives: March 2012

We all know the official harbingers of DC spring: cherry blossoms, hordes of eighth graders, and delectable seasonal lamb dishes popping up on restaurant menus all over town. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool lamb-lover, you’ll want to set up camp next month at Zaytinya, the popular José Andrés outpost that, according to the restaurant’s publicist, is the largest purchaser of lamb on the restaurant DC scene.

Last night, Zaytinya held a reception (which I attended on behalf of Flavor Magazine) to unveil a lamb-centric menu available during its annual two-week celebration of Greek Easter, featuring a variety of dishes that play a significant role in Greek Easter traditions, many of which are only enjoyed this time of year.

The Easter menu will be available April 8-22, and diners will be able to enjoy its offerings in a variety of ways. All of the special dishes will be available as part of a ten-course tasting menu ($99 for two people), and individual dishes will be offered as specials on the restaurant’s regular a la carte menu.

In addition, Zaytinya will reprise two popular items from past Easter celebrations: a lamb sandwich cart featuring spit-roasted lamb on fresh pita with tzatziki and pickled onions (the cart will be located on the restaurant’s outdoor patio, where guests can enjoy the sandwiches picnic-style or purchase them to go); and an assortment of Greek Easter cookies available as a dessert or in a take-home bag. The restaurant is also offering a pair of specialty gin-based cocktails during the festival.

See below for pictures of select dishes from last night’s reception. Learn more about Zaytinya Greek Easter festival (full menu coming soon) here.

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Zaytinya Greek Easter menu

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Spit-roasted lamb

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Anastasis (specialty cocktail #1): Beefeater gin, Cocchi Americano, kumquat liqueur, lemon juice, sour cherry sphere

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Glossa: thinly sliced lamb’s tongue, potato skordaila, green olives, pickled red chilis, celery, candied pistachios

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Spanakorizo: rice pilaf with wilted spinach and tomato, spinach puree, feta cheese, preserved cherry tomatoes

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Bizeli Me Yiaourti: English peas, garlic yogurt, pistachios, micro lemon mint

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Greek Easter lamb kleftico: spit-roasted lamb, kefalograviera cheese, English pea skordalia, feta cheese, dill

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Attica (specialty cocktail #2): rose-infused Plymouth gin, lemon juice, house-made grenadine

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Loukaniko Me Patates: traditional house-made lamb sausage scented with orange and cumin, potato, garlic

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Tsoureki bread pudding: macerated strawberries, candied almonds, orange flower ice cream

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Assortment of Greek Easter cookies

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Sometimes, I wish I was crazy. Not “get these bugs off of me” crazy; rather, the kind of crazy where the screws are just loose enough that you can break free from the shackles of normalcy and pursue greatness unfettered. Normal sensations like self-awareness and the need for sleep are all well and good, but they keep us grounded. Crazy lets us fly.

Alas, I’m not crazy, but I have had the privilege of witnessing it first-hand by way of an unusual mix of two professional experiences with nearly nothing, at least on paper, in common: national politics and fine dining. Yes, craziness is manifest in the long hours, hectic pace, and stress level of both careers, but it is nowhere more apparent than in the behavior of the men and women at the top. And after having been exposed to my fair share of these people, I can say definitively that both chefs and politicians are completely bonkers.

The differences between professional cooking and professional governing are numerous and, for the most part, fairly obvious. First, while the hours in both jobs can be long and unpredictable, the basic schedules are almost completely inverses of one another. In government, it’s Monday through Friday, nine to six (or seven, or eight), and a little on the weekends, mostly via your taxpayer-subsidized BlackBerry. In the kitchen, you work nights, weekends, and holidays. Over the course of six months, I worked two eight-day stretches and two ten-day stretches, neither of which is remotely abnormal in the industry. A fellow cook told me he once worked 32 straight days, then shrugged and went back to slicing chives.

Second, the people you work and interact with in each job could not have less in common. The political class consists mostly of white, educated, middle-class people whose desk televisions are tuned to CNN all day and who regularly peruse on-line news sites. The professional kitchen I worked in was the picture of diversity, with whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos, and immigrants from all over the world represented in nearly equal measure. Some were educated; others were not. Most were working-class people who thought about coming into work the next day and earning a paycheck rather than about whether it’s really fair for Iowa caucuses to always be the first contest on the primary calendar, regardless of how loudly I bitched about it to the fry cook.

Lastly (and this may shock some of you), government work is different than kitchen work. The first is performed primarily seated, in cubicles in front of computer screens and in conference rooms, and consists of producing and exchanging pieces of paper. The second is performed almost exclusively in the standing position, and consists of taking organic material that has been harvested, killed, or foraged and fabricating it into something that, between the hours of 5:30 pm and 10:30 pm, strangers can arbitrarily order. The first can be performed with relative effectiveness while drinking chai at Starbucks; the second involves copious amounts of salt, butter, and yelling.

But the similarities between the two professional environments are even more interesting. Both are uniquely stressful and require feverish multitasking. Both involve managing and coexisting with a wide range of personalities–people are people, after all, and idiosyncrasy and insecurity are always present, whether you’re around the copying machine or over the stove.

Most importantly, both are performed under the leadership of crazy people.

Let’s start with the politicians. The men and women who hold elected office in this country are often maligned for being lazy do-nothings, but the ones I’ve witnessed first-hand are nothing less than torrents of energy, miniature funnel clouds that whip in and out of meetings and events, leaving a trail strewn with slapped backs, half-empty promises, and annotated policy memos.

Their professional arc and daily responsibilities are largely to blame. In order to even get the job, they’re required to campaign relentlessly for months on end, and to win an actual election involving thousands (sometimes even millions) of actual voters. Once they’re in office, they have to be unconditionally available to a never-ending parade of constituents, special interest organizations, and lobbyists; and to interact effectively with colleagues just as crazy and harried as they are. The pace is as relentless as it is exhausting. Those who willingly endure it–even thrive in it–can’t help but be a little “off.”

On the other hand, it’s no secret that chefs are crazy; in fact, many are renowned for their insanity, and others are all too willing to play the part. They too are whirling dervishes, constantly spinning from one challenge to the next all in the name of running a profitable restaurant. On a daily basis, chefs order and keep track of hundreds of ingredients; shepherd those ingredients through the process of being cut, peeled, prepped, mixed, cooked, sold, and eaten; and corral staffs of often unreliable and unruly people whose absence or tardiness could send the entire tenuous enterprise into outright chaos.

And they do all of these things from a cramped, hot, messy kitchen chock full of other miserable bastards. Levelheaded people, these are not. I once watched a chef eat 15 shishito peppers in an effort to ascertain their spiciness, only to proclaim that his “face [was] burning off.”

Strangely enough, due to the peculiarities of the Washington social scene, the paths of chefs and politicians cross often despite the very different worlds they occupy. The involvement of celebrity chefs in various political initiatives aside, the fact of the matter is that politicians like to eat out (there’s no better setting for political brinksmanship than at a dimly lit table over an alcoholic beverage), and Washington restaurateurs are used to seeing famous political names appear on their reservation lists with some frequency. In my short time in a DC restaurant, I had the opportunity to cook for a sitting Vice President (Joe Biden) and a former one (Al Gore), as well as Cabinet Secretaries, senators, and any number of high-level staffers and operatives.

For me, this is where the true intersection between the two worlds exists. Listing the unheralded shared traits of chefs and politicians makes for good entertainment, but it’s a far more fleeting enterprise than a good meal, cooked, served, and eaten by people from very different backgrounds and with very different interests and skills, around a table where people can find respite from, or an outlet for, the unusual impulses that make them do what they do.

Ultimately, I’m glad I’m not crazy, even if I sometimes wish I had at least a little bit of the insanity that drives chefs and politicians to thrive in their respective, absurdly demanding professions. I ended up leaving the kitchen in large part because I couldn’t get past not being at home with my wife in the evenings–a sensation far too “normal” for the life of the professional chef. It’s enough for me to have had a seat at the table, a place behind the stove, and the chance to regale anyone who will listen with stories of the wonderfully crazy people I met along the way.

We have a schizophrenic relationship with food. Food can be a profession, a passion, a daily source of joy; it can also be a way to make ends meet, a necessary evil, and a daily source of stress. What and how we eat affects our health, how we feel, and how we feel about ourselves. While food comes in many forms and can be prepared in limitless ways, our beliefs about what even constitutes food is shaped by our environment, culture, and personal ethics.

Why all the fuss about food? Simply put: with limited exceptions, we need to eat every day. The vast majority of us eat several, regular meals a day, and when we don’t, it’s because we can’t or consciously choose not to (and in those cases, food is significant in its absence). Like it or not, we’ve got to deal with it, and so we tend to make a big deal out of it.

Some might ask, “so what?” or “who cares?” To those, I would say, “screw you, this stuff is important.” Those same people might reply, “fine, but who the hell are you, anyway?” I thought you’d never ask.

In December 2011, I left a job as a line cook at Washington, DC’s Blue Duck Tavern. Before that, I attended culinary school at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, MD. And before that, I worked in politics — eight years for two U.S. Senators, and two years at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. I don’t know whether that makes me a cook who used to work in politics, a government employee who learned to cook, or just a guy who made some questionable career decisions. Whatever I am, it’s because at some point, I decided that food is important enough that I wanted to make it — cooking it, eating it, thinking and writing about it — the focus of my time and energy.

I am not going to tell you that I always had a passion for cooking or that my earliest food memory was forming meatballs with my grandmother when I was three. In fact, for most of my childhood, I disliked more kinds of food than I liked, and I didn’t weigh 100 pounds until I was in high school. I watched my dad cook — he enjoys cooking and is pretty good at it — but never really cooked with him (he hates being helped). And partly because I grew up on an island whose seasonal economy meant its handful of restaurants were closed eight months out of the year, I never spent much time around anything that could be called “fine dining.”

As a result, until I graduated college and had to really fend for myself for the first time, I didn’t think of food as anything other than a way to fill up my stomach. If it happened to be good, all the better.

After college, the realities of living on a budget and having to provide for myself increasingly steered me toward the kitchen, and I figured that if I was going to cook, I might as well figure out how to make stuff I liked. Not having the slightest grasp of the fundamentals of cooking, I was strictly a recipe guy, scouring the internet and the few cookbooks I owned for familiar dishes: lasagna, pork chops, barbecued chicken, spaghetti sauce, and other staples of my gastronomic repertoire to that point in my life.

I was a novice, and my ingredients came mostly from a tiny, poorly stocked grocery store near my house. Nevertheless, it began to dawn on me: food, when prepared thoughtfully with fresh ingredients, tastes good. I simultaneously discovered, thanks to efficiencies of scale and the presence of culinarily challenged roommates, that such meals were even more enjoyable when shared with other people.

Over the next decade, as I continued to struggle with my professional trajectory, my non-working hours (and many working ones) were increasingly devoted to thinking about, preparing, and consuming good food. As a hobby, it was impossibly fun. As an intellectual exercise — a self-imposed challenge to figure out how to make a variety of different dishes the right way — it was stimulating, with every new discovery only serving to fuel an unquenchable thirst for greater knowledge. And as an existential aspiration — the idea of being a chef — it was cool.

Somewhere along the way, I hit a breaking point, and the balance between my love of food and my lifelong relationship with rational thought tipped in favor of the former, and I left my political career to attend culinary school. That experience, along with my brief stint at Blue Duck Tavern, cannot be adequately described in less than several volumes (I’m working on that), so it suffices to say that I saw a lot and I learned a lot — about the finer points of cooking, but also enough about the lifestyle and demands of the profession to know it wasn’t for me.

The dust having settled somewhat from this upheaval, I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that I am now a decent cook. I have a deeper and more intuitive sense about how to prepare food than I did before; I picked up some tricks and techniques by working with the pros; and I think I cook food that tastes and looks good. But I am not, and never will be, Thomas Keller, Michel Richard, John Melfi, or even half of the line cooks at Blue Duck, and I have friends and family whose natural talent for cooking — if not their experience — equals or exceeds my own.

I am also not an authority on food, nor do I think people do or should care about what I think about the subject, per se. I only believe that the various facets of my relationship with food over time — as a disinterested bystander, devoted hobbyist, policy-maker, professional cook, and always enthusiastic diner — are relatable, and might encourage people to think more and harder about their own relationships with food, as well as about what it means every time they cook and eat a meal with friends or family, go out to a nice restaurant, grab a burger on the go, or consciously forgo a meal.

The significance of food is broad, but it’s also deep. Every morsel of food ever eaten came from somewhere and was eaten by someone, however long a path it traveled along the way. Food piques our interest at a molecular level (there’s scarcely a type of food whose nutritional content we haven’t dissected) and as a global policy challenge, where the objective is to ensure that all people have access to the amounts and kinds of foods they need to live long and healthy lives.

If you’re still reading, you definitely love to eat, probably love to cook, and are interested enough in the broader implications of food to engage in either of the first two pursuits thoughtfully. In other words, you agree that food’s important — in all the crazy ways we make it important — and, hopefully, you’ll keep reading.