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
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.
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.
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