Stepping into the limelight of sorts, Michael Costa is now the head chef at the ever-busy, ever-popular Mediterranean tapas restaurant, Zaytinya.
Costa, who replaced "Top Chef" star Mike Isabella, has moved in with great ease and enthusiasm.
"Joes (Andres) has always been an influence on me," he says. "I used to go to Jaleo and fell in love with the food there. I had met Mike Isabella when he was on 'Top Chef.' It's a great restaurant group."
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Now as part of the culinary team surrounding Andres, Northern Virginia native Costa has hunkered down to do what he loves best in life: cook.
"My mom with tell you that when I was 3 or 4 years old," he said. "I was baking and cooking."
Years later, as a college student at the University of Virginia, he kept asking his professors, not about class work necessarily, but about exotic cooking. That's when he realized that maybe he needed to pursue a different career path after graduation.
And he did just that. With a move to Texas to spend time with his family, Costa attended night classes at a local culinary school, the El Centro College in Dallas, from which he earned an associate's degree in applied science, culinary arts.
"I enrolled out of curiosity," he said, "and I got a scholarship from the National Restaurant Association."
He was mentored there by the culinary school's Greek founder, Costas "Gus" Katsigris, who help to develop Costa's ensuing love for Greek and Mediterranean foods and flavors -- something that guides him well in his job at Zaytinya.
"He is a nice guy," Costa said about Katsigris. "He wrote the textbook on kitchen equipment."
After graduation, Costa worked at the Dallas restaurant, Abacus, owned by chef Kent Rathbun.
"I called the chef every day for two months, and finally got the job," he said, adding Rathbun is a James Beard-nominated chef. Once hired, Costa worked at Abacus for one and a half years.
When Costa decided to leave Dallas and return to the D.C. area, he went to work for Michel Richard at Michel Richard Citronelle, where he became the restaurant's private dining chef. Richard got young Costa a cooking job in Paris, at the Michelin-starred Michel Rostang Restaurant, where he lived and cooked for six months before returning to the United States and signing on with Baltimore's Cindy Wolf, part owner of Pazo with Tony Foreman.
While under Costa's direction, Pazo received a three-and-a-half-star review from the Baltimore Sun and earned a three-star rating from the Mobile Travel Guide. Because of his work at Pazo, Costa was nominated for "Chef of the Year" by the Maryland Restaurant Association in 2010. And working at Pazo had another benefit: "I met Mike Isabella through mutual friend and 'Top Chef' contestant Jessie Sandlin, who was my sous chef at Pazo," he said.
Now that he has taken over the kitchen at Zaytinya and stepped into Isabella's shoes, Costa sees menu formation is definitely a collaborative effort.
"I must keep the food consistent," he said. "This is one of the most popular places in D.C. ... When a dish is ready, we let Jos? taste it, comment and fine-tune it," he added, pointing to his very thick notebook of recipes with commentary jottings in the margins.
"It's a dream to work for Jose," he said.
Q&A with Chef Michael Costa
What's your comfort food?
Country French. We ate that growing up. Also Vietnamese pho.
What is your cooking philosophy?
To me, it's all about the ingredients, especially in Greek cooking. I love to use modern techniques, but only to make a dish better. I work with a lot of local farmers. I get great local garlic from Pennsylvania.
What is your favorite cuisine?
American. Hamburgers nicely done.
Which is your favorite restaurant?
Palena is up there. Pollo Rico does chicken the best. Jaleo, Zaytinya. My wife and I came here on our third date.
What's in your fridge?
Greek white wine from Santorini, mineral water, cheese.
From the Chef's Kitchen
Crispy Duck Breast with Kalamata Olives, Preserved Stone Fruits and Attiki Honey
Chef Costa recommends the following: Try to find Attiki honey from Greece, well worth the effort. Do not discard the duck fat; instead, freeze it for future use in roasting potatoes or saut?ing chicken. To test the duck for doneness, insert a metal skewer into the thickest part of the breast meat, then touch it to your lips. If it is still cold, the duck is raw. If it burns you, the duck is well done. If it is just slightly warmer than your skin, it is ready to come out of the pan.
Serves 4 as an entr?e or 12 as an appetizer
6 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, preferably Petrina brand from Greece
2 Tbsp honey, preferably Attiki honey
8 Kalamata olives, pit in
4 dried apricots, quartered and rehydrated in sweet white wine, like Samos Muscat
1/4 cup roasted, shelled pistachios
8 fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped
4 (8-oz.) Muscovy duck breasts
Pinch coarsely ground black pepper
Pinch ground allspice
Whisk the olive oil and honey together in a small bowl. Remove the pit of the olives. Add the olives, apricots, cherries, pistachios and mint. Set aside until ready to serve.
Score the skin of the duck breasts by making shallow cuts with an extremely sharp knife in a crosshatch pattern just so the knife exposes the fatty layer. Season meat side of duck breasts with salt, pepper and allspice. Season the skin side with only salt. Place duck breasts skin side down in a shallow cast iron skillet over medium-low heat and gently render the fat, pouring the fat off as it renders. When fat has rendered, after 15 to 20 minutes, increase the heat to medium-high and brown the skin until golden brown. Turn the duck breasts over and cook for a couple of minutes. Flip it again to finish on the skin side, cooking until just warmed through.
Remove from the pan and blot the skin with a towel to keep it crispy. Rest it on a wire rack set over a pan for 5 minutes. To serve, slice the duck thinly, arrange on a plate, and garnish with the olive mixture.