I decamped to Washington, D.C., after wrapping up college in the late ’90s. Like most recent grads, I was seeking an affordable apartment, a stable job, and an active social life. What wasn’t on that list? Great restaurants. Because up to that point, the nation’s capital dining landscape was mostly dominated by bland, overpriced steakhouses.
There were a few standouts, though, like Jaleo. Opened in 1993, it was José Andrés’s first restaurant in the country, and helped introduce a community of conservative eaters to a world of vibrant, regional small plates – at the time, the concept was foreign to most – from his home country of Spain.
Andrés continued his lifelong mission of education through eating by opening Zaytinya nearby in Penn Quarter in 2002. But this time around, the focus was on the Mediterranean. To help him dive deep into Greek culture and food beforehand, Andrés enlisted the expertise of one of Greece’s top culinary experts and journalists, Aglaia Kremezi. Over the years, they developed such a close bond that Kremezi is lovingly referred to as Andrés’s and Zaytinya’s Greek grandmother.
And this fall, Zaytinya is offering a unique opportunity to go straight the source of much of Andrés’s inspiration for Zaytinya. Taking place September 1 through 6, the inaugural “Zaytinya’s Culinary Voyage to Greece” will be held on Kea, an island off the coast of Athens where Aglaia lives. In addition to spending time in a picturesque setting – Kea is renown for its peaceful beaches – you’ll get to explore important historical sites, hike along picturesque trails, and of course, immerse yourself in Greek cuisine. Below, Andrés, Aglaia, and Zaytinya chef Michael Costa – who’s co-hosting the trip with Aglaia – discuss how this special trip all came about.
Why did you open Zaytinya?
Andrés: I always am saying that I do not open restaurants, I tell stories. Well, as a Spaniard I know very well the Mediterranean, but I wanted to be able to tell its story. So we traveled and explored the foods of the eastern Mediterranean, of Greece, Turkey, and Lebanon, and gathered many recipes and stories to share.
How did you get involved with Aglaia Kremezi, and why is she so important to Greek cuisine?
Andrés: Aglaia is brilliant. She is the most trusted person in the world, when it comes to Greek food. When I first met her at her cooking school in Kea, I knew that I had so much to learn from her – the history, the culture, the techniques, the ingredients of Greek cooking. Aglaia is truly Zaytinya’s Greek grandmother, and she is almost like my Greek grandmother, too!
And why is Greek cuisine important?
Costa: Aglaia’s expertise and Zaytinya’s cuisine expand beyond Greece, which is an important part of why our cooking has resonated with so many people. When you look at Greece, Turkey, and Lebanon on a map it is clear. That part of the world is literally where Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East all come together. The culinary and cultural influences are as complex and compelling as any other part of the world! Traditional Greek cooking is a foundation, and from there we explore the world.
What makes this culinary-focused trip stand out from the others?
Costa: This trip is all about the place. For people living in urban environments, the opportunity to connect with nature in a culinary context is a rare treat that’s only possible with people that know their area well. There are not a lot of places in the world where one can encounter mountains and pristine beaches in such close proximity as Kea.
And why is Kea an important destination?
Aglaia: Kea has excellent local products – seasonal cheeses, loza (the ‘jamon’ of the Cyclades), preserves, incredible thyme honey, plus wonderful fruit and vegetables. As part of the trip, guests will taste and use these in our cooking.
Could you go into more detail about what guests will experience on this trip?
Aglaia: People will come to where Costas (my husband) and I live. (Kea happens to be the island of my mother’s family. My mother was my mentor, the person from whom I learned to cook and organize my home. )
We will get immersed in Greek food, cooking, and way of life in our own home. But cooking with us and preparing the meals we consume is only the beginning. We will enjoy long, leisurely lunches paired with selected Greek wines in the veranda – surrounded by aromatic plants, olive, and almond trees.
Guests will learn the original, healthy, and delicious ways of Mediterranean home cooking. They will learn how to adapt our recipes for their own kitchens at home. Plus, they will also get a few precious tricks and variations by renowned chefs. That is a unique experience that does not happen often.
Besides cooking, people will have the chance to wander in the picturesque villages and landscapes, savor specialties in the island’s taverns, and if they like, hike on the old, wonderful trails. They can also visit the magnificent ancient city of Karthea, on a hill overlooking two inviting, pristine beaches.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.