2012 American Chef of the Year: José Andrés

Looking across the American culinary landscape, one chef in the US stands higher above the rest this year
José Andrés talks about tasting menus, time travel, chefs' social responsibility, and working outside your comfort zone.

Jovial, charming, rakish, innovative, kind, successful, ambitious, talented, skilled, and well-liked — when you think about all the adjectives with which you could describe chef–restaurateur José Andrés, it almost doesn't seem fair. In fact (and you should read in the wink here), maybe "selfish" should be thrown in: Think he could maybe leave a few crumbs for everyone else? All kidding aside, with all his accomplishments, and all the success and praise, why add another accolade? Well, besides the fact that his humility makes it easy, consider just some of the accomplishments and projects Andrés completed and undertook during 2012.

Read: The Daily Meal's Chefs of the Year 2012

Read: 2012 International Chef of the Year: Massimo Bottura

Last March, he launched a food truck Pepe (#49 on The Daily Meal's inaugural list of 101 Best Food Trucks in America). In June, he opened a new restaurant in Miami (The Bazaar at the SLS Hotel). And in November, he unveiled the reincarnation of his D.C. institution minibar. Launching two restaurants and a food truck in two different cities plus maintaining the same high standards at his catering company and 13 more in Washington, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas could drive anyone to a gin and tonic. But those are just the restaurant-related goings-on that the chef undertook in 2012.

Before, between, and after those launches, all the chef did was get named Dean of Spanish Studies at the International Culinary Center in New York City (where he's working on the curriculum with The Daily Meal's own editorial director Colman Andrews), announce plans for a class at George Washington University in spring 2013 called "The World on a Plate: How Food Shapes Civilization," become the culinary advisor on NBC's Hannibal Lecter TV series, and sign up for the American Chef Corps, a Diplomatic Culinary Partnership launched by The State Department and James Beard Foundation. He also continued his charitable efforts in Haiti where he has begun filming a project that will highlight the country’s gastronomy and was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World for 2012 by TIME magazine. There was also that little matter of promising to Grub Street back in April that he would be launching a restaurant in New York City within two years.

Slow year, huh?

For these reasons, we're pleased to announce that chef José Andrés was singled out by The Daily Meal as 2012's Chef of the Year in America (joined this year by The Daily Meal's 2012 International Chef of the Year Massimo Bottura).

We reached out to the chefs to discover where they, and along with them the state of food, may be heading. In this interview with José Andrés, the chef discusses the future of Spanish cuisine in America and around the world, his feelings about the Sietsema minibar review, the key to a successful tasting menu, and the state of dining in America. Oh, there are bits about time travel, Mars astronauts, and the answer to why Spanish chefs love a good gin and tonic, too.

 

Spanish cuisine still has great potential to grow influence in America and around the world  what are some of the Spanish traditions and dishes that you see Americans becoming more interested in?

People have heard me say that I won’t be happy until there is a paella on every backyard grill in America! When I first came to the States more than 20 years ago, people really didn’t know about Spanish cooking and the Spanish way of eating. Jaleo was the mechanism to introduce Spanish cooking and culture here in America. It was the Trojan horse that allowed us to be more bold with Spanish flavors. From there, we grew and in a way it helped to open minibar and The Bazaar by José Andrés in Los Angeles and Miami, and with é at The Cosmopolitan. I think Americans will only be more open to learning about Spain; and still Jaleo is the perfect example. After nearly 20 years, we renovated the original Jaleo in Washington, D.C. I wanted Jaleo to channel the Spain of today — modern, creative, provocative — not just the Spain of yesterday. That is what is amazing about Spain, it is such a mix of modernity and tradition. But you know, for me, to see so many chefs cooking and working with Spanish ingredients like jamón ibérico, piquillo peppers, and cheeses like Cabrales and Valdeón. It makes me so proud.

You’re known for working on many projects at the same time. What is it about this way of thinking and working that you like?
Anybody who knows me knows that I always like to keep moving. It may seem like I’m working on different projects at the same time, but I believe in synergies, in seeing how things fit together, how they feed off each other, whether it’s opening a new restaurant or getting involved in education with Harvard, George Washington, or the International Culinary Center, or launching a nonprofit. Our team believes that you can change the world through the power of food, so this is what we try to accomplish in everything that we do.

It's difficult to imagine there's a new idea or cooking approach you haven't considered  is there something you're not involved with (whether technique, style, or medium) that you want to try?
I think the most important lesson I’ve learned has been to not be afraid of failure and to experiment because inspiration most often happens when you work outside your comfort zone. Some of my biggest discoveries have happened by working and learning with people from other fields like the great artist Dale Chihuly and his beautiful glass sculptures, or by working with the scientists at MIT and Harvard. Even though I’ve been cooking for many years I’m still learning how to be a chef. I’m always learning new techniques and improving beyond my own knowledge because there is always something new to learn.  I’m fascinated by my friends at NASA, and the challenges they face to feed people who will one day travel years in space to reach Mars. How will we do that? How will we create the right foods, nutrients, and flavors to sustain them? (We are talking — don’t worry.) But what can we learn from that work that we can also use here on Earth, every day, fighting hunger, malnutrition, and obesity?

Can you explain your interest in opening restaurants so far from your own experience — Greek/Middle Eastern, Mexican/Chinese?
For me, opening restaurants is about telling a story. This is true of everything that I do, so through food I’ve been able to learn about the history, culture, art, music, and cuisines of the world. I love that. What I look for is the story that inspires the menu, the place, and the experience. That is what I need to begin my ideas. Greece and the Middle East are part of the Mediterranean that touches Spain, and we have ancient history that connects us. The Moors and the North African influence that is so rich in Spanish food — it’s an easy story to connect. Mexican and Chinese cuisines may seem odd for a Spaniard, but it was the galleon ships of Spain’s King Phillip II that connected these two worlds hundreds of years ago. Those Spanish ships allowed for an exchange of foods, dishes, stories, and traditions. When we opened Oyamel, I made many trips to Mexico with my research and development team to make sure that everything we did was rooted in tradition. When we opened Zaytinya, we traveled to Greece, Turkey, and Lebanon to discover those authentic flavors to recreate them but in a different way and make them our own. I’ve traveled to China to learn the traditional way of making noodles and I’ve traveled to Singapore and Asia to learn about the street-food culture that is so popular there. So when you come to my restaurants, this is what you see in the restaurant and on the menu. We root everything we do in a story, in something authentic, whether it’s historical or personal, and then we have fun with it.

Is there another cuisine you'd like to tackle?
I’m sure there is. I will just have to find the story that fascinates me and sends me on a quest.

Is there a chef who challenges you? One who inspires you to better, greater things? Or at some point do you feel like you’re competing against yourself?
I’m a lucky boy in that I’ve had a lot of people that have helped push me and challenge me along the way. As a young cook starting my career, Spanish gastronomy was undergoing an evolution. We had chefs beginning to introduce new ideas into our very traditional foods and create the avant-garde cuisine that Spain is known for and which has become influential here in America and around the world. Being part of this change and evolution became the building blocks of my career. And as a young chef I met Ferran Adrià, my friend, mentor, and inspiration who has always been a very important influence and friend for me.

At the same time, I believe you have to look back to push forward. I love history and I love collecting old cookbooks, so for me reading about the culinary philosophers like Brillat-Savarin has also had a major impact in the way that I look at food. Brillat-Savarin was ahead of his time and I think his book The Physiology of Taste is one of the most important pieces of literature on food even today. It was he who that said, "The future of nations will depend on how we feed ourselves."

But who inspires me to be better? To do greater things? Next to my wife and daughters, I think it has to be the cooks that I am meeting right now in Haiti. You know that I’ve recently been traveling throughout this amazing country. I am humbled and inspired by the determination, the love of food, and the love of life that I see there in all these faces.

 

"Foie Bomb."

Tasting menus have recently come under fire. As a chef known for his affiliation with elBulli and minibar where the tasting menu is the dining experience, what do you think about these attacks?
Food critics have the freedom and the power to say whatever they want. You can agree or disagree with a critic’s opinion or a critic’s review, but that’s their opinion and we respect it. Even I will always tell them they have to be aware of the power they have — to launch a restaurant to success as much as to close it down. And that power cannot be taken lightly.

But with the long tasting menus, I believe some critics are worse than those during the days of Galileo, of what can and cannot be allowed. In this world there is space for everything, for a hot dog in the streets of Manhattan, a taco at a truck in Los Angeles, a tapas hunt going from bar to bar in streets of Seville, a hearty bistro meal at a café, and sometimes, yes, a 30-course tasting menu in an elegant restaurant. It should be one of the most fascinating experiences anyone can have.

In the end, as Juan Mari Arzak said, there are only two types of cooking: the good one and the bad one. So if you don’t enjoy long tasting menus with lots of different flavors and textures, you are free to eat as you like, but don’t make a statement like it’s an ultimate truth. Long menus come from before the Roman times. And tasting menus will be here long after all of us reading this are gone. And actually I know, I’ve been to the future, and now that I’m back, I know so…

You’ve become fairly involved in social causes over the year  why is it important for chefs to become socially involved?
I believe that food is our most important resource. Next to breathing, eating is the one thing we do every day. Food touches so many parts of our lives — health, education, security, culture, politics, and business. It’s what inspired me to create a class with the George Washington University this spring, looking at how food touches our lives in so many ways. In the years to come, chefs will play, and will need to play, a bigger role in food issues facing our nation and the world — whether that’s food security, obesity, or nutrition. There is a lot of potential for chefs to become involved in a major way and I think we need to push forward on that. When people come to the table to talk about food policy, farm bills, international aid, and childhood nutrition, chefs should be at that table. Yes, we cook for the few in our restaurants, but we have the power and knowledge to cook for and feed the many.

In his recent review of the new minibar, Tom Sietsema criticized it for not being innovative enough, and for serving "food that places the intellectual above the delicious  the head before the heart." Did you think there were any truths to the review? Do you think the review was fair? Is there anything you would take issue with?
I have always respected Tom. And we spoke soon after his review. He knows that I felt it was unfair for him to come once and make his rating only a few days into our new opening. We treat every guest and every experience, whether its day two or day 2,000 just the same, giving it our best. There are always things to learn and improve upon, and there are also places where we will have to just disagree, and that’s OK. I believe restaurants like minibar are a conversation, how things are shared between our chefs, our guests, and the person sitting next to you.

I want to believe the rating he gave minibar was not a comparison against any other restaurant. I want to believe he’s rating it against minibar and I want to believe that he is pushing me and my team to be better. Personally, I think minibar is one of the most unique menus you can have anywhere, and there are many people coming after the review saying so.

We expect you’ll be involved with many new projects and exciting things for years to come, but if you were to reflect now on what you wish your legacy will be as a chef, what would you say that is?
We are creating a course at George Washington University called "The World on a Plate" that will focus on how food touches every aspect of society. I’m really excited about this class because I think this is the start of building a food institute right here in Washington, D.C. where chefs and food experts can gather with scientists, economists, doctors, lawyers, politicians, NGOs, military leaders, and teachers, all coming together to discuss ideas for addressing the food issues we face, improving the food system, helping small farmers, getting better foods into people’s hands, making sure children are fed to be ready to learn at school, or how we can come up with cleaner technologies for cooking in developing countries. The possibilities are endless, but I think this will help put food on the global agenda. This is something I hope will really become a reality with or without me.

And what else would you like it to be?
Really, your legacy shouldn’t be described by you, but by others. Hey, I’m only 43! When I’m 60, we’ll talk.

What's your assessment of the state of food and dining in America? Is food exciting in the States right now or are the most interesting things happening elsewhere?
I think food in America is truly unique. We are such a vast country with such a variety of regional ingredients, traditions, and stories. Many friends in Europe make assumptions about what they think American food is. I always tell them they have no idea how rich and also refined it really is. The America Eats Tavern we opened last year in celebration of our collaboration with the National Archives was astonishing for me. Our research peeled back layer after layer of amazing stories and peoples that have shaped the cooking of this country. I wanted to celebrate that. We shouldn’t lose those stories or connections. And I am inspired by what so many chefs are doing now on each coast and throughout the country. From Dan Barber in New York and Katie Buttons in Asheville, N.C., to my guys Chris Cosentino in San Francisco and Michael Voltaggio in LA. So many talented, passionate chefs, pushing, learning, and creating amazing things.

Why do you think Spanish chefs love gin and tonics so much?
Why wouldn’t you?

Read: The Daily Meal's Chefs of the Year 2012

Read: 2012 International Chef of the Year: Massimo Bottura

Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Follow Arthur on Twitter.

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