Activist and Educator in a Chef’s Coat
Chef José Andrés is no stranger to culinary fame, with a roster of destination restaurants in DC (Jaleo, minibar), Las Vegas (é by José Andrés) and LA (Bazaar), and enough awards to make any chef jealous (not to mention he used to work for Ferran Adrià at elBulli in his native Spain). You might also see him at the White House, working with Michelle Obama on her anti-obesity campaign, or at DC Central Kitchen combating poverty and hunger issues through job training. We talk with José about modernist cuisine, working with the First Lady and what’s on his plate for 2013.
AndrewZimmern.com: Is there a specific food memory that elicits nostalgia for your native Spain?
José Andrés: It’s hard to say just one because so many of my favorite memories of Spain involve cooking at home and going to the markets, where we would get the most amazing vegetables, beans, cheeses and eggs. Going to these markets is what made me really appreciate the goodness of the earth and what first planted the seed of cooking. As a young boy, I was always amazed by the possibilities of food so these markets were always a big inspiration.
AZ.com: What drew you to molecular gastronomy?
JA: I don’t know that molecular gastronomy is the right word. It’s a very new way to describe science in cooking, but if you look back at the past it’s been around for years and years. For example, we use penicillin to make blue cheese and bread, even a simple puff pastry can be considered molecular gastronomy. Great chefs like Antoine Careme, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, and Georges Auguste Escoffier used gelatins. These men were ahead of their time creating food that was modern and avant-garde. I was really inspired and influenced by these great chefs of the past that were really forward thinking. I was a young boy when I started my career in Catalonia in the 1980s and that’s when Spanish gastronomy was undergoing an evolution. We had great chefs like Josep Mercader, Ferran Adrià, and Juan Mari Arzak who had begun to transform Spanish cuisine. I wanted to learn and be part of this evolution and continue that conversation around food. So that’s what first drew me to avant-garde cooking, but always I’m motivated by wanting to learn new things and to push the envelope of what we thought was possible.
AZ.com: What tricks or techniques can a home cook draw from modernist cuisine?
JA: I think the most important lesson for any cook is to not be afraid of failure and to experiment. Some of my best discoveries have happened by accident. I always say that even though I’ve been cooking for many years, I’m still learning how to be a cook. I’m always learning new techniques and improving beyond my own knowledge because there is always something new to learn. And I think this is true whether you’ve been cooking as long as I have, or you’re just starting.
AZ.com: Your restaurant, minibar, is one of the most coveted reservations in DC. What’s makes minibar so special? What do you want diners to take away from the experience?
JA: Minibar is very close to my heart. I opened minibar by José Andrés in 2003, as my way to learn, to be inspired, and to create a conversation around food—to create things that may challenge the mind and excite your senses. At minibar, I want to take my guests on a culinary adventure to surprise them and to give them a totally new experience. I want guests to be open to see flavors and ingredients in a new way. This is very important to me because minibar is the heart of what we do in my company. From here, we are able to create É by José Andrés in Las Vegas and Saam at the Bazaar in Los Angeles, very unique places that continue this conversation and bring excitement and new ways of looking at food.
AZ.com: You are known for advocacy work, including helping Michelle Obama with her anti-obesity campaign. What are your prescriptions for changing the country’s bad eating habits?
JA: As a nation, there is so much that we could be doing to improve the eating habits of America. The First Lady is doing a great job focusing her campaign on healthier eating habits and I think this is the right approach. It has to start at the school level by providing children with healthier meals and teaching them the right way to eat, especially in poorer areas where children eat their biggest meals at school. This is where we can start making a difference by feeding them and teaching them about healthy fruits and vegetables. But of course there are so many different parts of the problem. Subsidies are a huge issue here in America that I think prevents the food business from being on a level playing field. I am not for or against subsidies, but I am for a fair and level market and with the way that food is subsidized now, we don’t have that. Our subsidies go to the corn industry, so that kind of encourages people to eat a certain way, when really our food industry should be more focused on producing more fruits and vegetables. It’s really important that congress acts fast to sign a farm bill that works for everyone and gives equal opportunity to small farms. So there are many levels, but we really have to make food priority and it has to be on the political agenda to really come up with solutions.
AZ.com: You’ve built a restaurant empire with ThinkFoodGroup, any new projects on the horizon?
JA: Anyone who knows me knows that I always like to keep moving. My team is always thinking about what’s next, whether it’s opening new restaurants or going into a business that we may not know much about. We are always learning and growing. We just renovated Minibar which really means a lot to my team and me. I am very happy that Minibar now has its own home. It’s a new chapter. Next month we are opening a new restaurant called Mi Casa at Dorado Beach, Puerto Rico with the Ritz-Carlton Reserve. This will be the first reserve in the Americas and the second in the world so it will be unique, special and unlike anything I’ve ever done before, so I am very excited about that.
I am also very interested in education. While I was maybe not such a good student in the traditional sense, I have always had a passion to learn and to teach. Recently, I become Dean of the School of Spanish Studies at the International Culinary Center, it is the first professional culinary program of its kind that is dedicated to the cuisine of Spain. I created the menu with my friend Colman Andrews, who is an expert in Catalan cuisine. The classes start in the Spring and we´re really excited. I also continue to teach our program on Science and Cooking at Harvard, and I hope to soon help create a program that looks at food’s influence in all areas of academics, both for children and university. And in January, I will begin teaching course about how food influences every aspect of our lives at George Washington.
AZ.com: What are three “must” dining experiences travelers should have in Spain?
JA: I love to eat in so many different restaurants wherever I go. I would tell you that the best places to eat are at the small bars. They are so astonishing. It’s impossible for me to say just 3 places that I would recommend because really there are so many amazing places. I love going to a place in Sanlúcar de Barrameda called Casa de Balbino, which has the best tortillitas de camarones or baby shrimp fritters. When I’m on vacation, I love to go to Zahara de los Atunes, in the south of Spain where you will find some of the most amazing restaurants, within less than 30 minutes away from each other, in the most beautiful town you can imagine. There I love Casa Juanito, El Campero, Albedrio and Hotel Antonio.
AZ.com: Favorite off-the-beaten-path restaurants in Washington D.C.?
JA: Right now, I really like Toki Underground on H Street. When my friends Ferran Adrià and Gaston Acurio were in town a few weeks ago, I took them there and we loved it. I love what these kids are doing with something so simple and yet complex as noodles. It’s astonishing.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
JA: My wife and I love to cook at home for our family. More often than not we love to make humble dishes that are good and fresh and healthy. My wife makes an amazing chickpea and spinach stew. I also love eggs. There’s nothing like a perfectly fried egg with some fresh herbs and of course a little bit of jamón on the side.
Check out José’s recipe for Gambas al Ajillo (sautéed shrimp with garlic & guindilla pepper).
Named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2012 and “Outstanding Chef” by the James Beard Foundation in 2011, José Andrés is an internationally-recognized culinary innovator, passionate advocate for food and hunger issues, author, educator, television personality and chef/owner of ThinkFoodGroup. TFG is the team responsible for renowned dining concepts in Washington, DC, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, and Puerto Rico including minibar by josé andrés, Jaleo at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, The Bazaar by José Andrés at the SLS Hotel Beverly Hills and South Beach as well as Mi Casa at Dorado Beach a Ritz-Carlton Reserve. Recently he was named Dean of the Spanish Studies program at the International Culinary Center. He is chairman emeritus of DC Central Kitchen and the founder of World Central Kitchen. He is also culinary ambassador to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, an effort championed by Secretary Hilary Clinton. Andrés also teaches “Science and Cooking” at Harvard and in the spring of 2013 will begin teaching “The world on a Plate: How Food Shapes Civilization” at George Washington University.
Photo by Jason Varney.