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The menu that kept a José Andrés restaurant going

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In Zaytinya, Hilda Mazariegos is responsible for turning on the lights every morning. A middle-aged woman with an easy laugh, Mazariegos never attended culinary school. She was about to become a schoolteacher in Guatemala when she took a job at a restaurant in Virginia, thinking her job in the kitchens would be temporary. Four months after Zaytinya opened, she was hired as a line cook at the fry station. She then mastered all the other steps of cooking: salad, stir-fry, grill, oven, main course, bread and dessert. She is now the restaurant’s executive sous chef. She can prepare each of her signature dishes from scratch and has trained most of her cooks. Many have worked at Zaytinya for more than five years. “I’ve been here 13 months,” the head chef, Terry Natas, told me, “and I’m still the new guy.”

The Thursday I came to visit him, I found Mazariegos in the Zaytinya chief’s small office, working on the program for the following week. About 25 cooks and dishwashers are in the kitchen each shift, and by 8 a.m. the space was already buzzing with the sound of staff members scrubbing surfaces with soapy water. In the back prep kitchen, Antonio Machic, born in Guatemala and working at Zaytinya for about a decade, trims 80 pounds of chicken, saving spare parts so he can add them to stock.

“The beauty of this food is that everything is prepared as if you were preparing family food at home,” Mazariegos explained to me in Spanish, which is still his preferred language. Almost all dishes are prepared daily, requiring skill and attention. There are machines that make dolmades, for example, but in Zaytinya they are filled and rolled by hand by a Salvadoran woman, Julia Hernández, who produces thousands of them every week. She also makes the restaurant’s juicy kibbeh, a cinnamon-spiced football-shaped meatball encased in a crispy shell of bulgur and ground beef.

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

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