Chef José Andrés On Closing America Eats Tavern

On July 4, 2011, renowned chef José Andrés unveiled his latest culinary venture, a collaboration with the Foundation for the National Archives that would explore the history of American cuisine. The restaurant, called America Eats Tavern, would stay open for exactly one year in the space previously held by his restaurant, Café Atlántico in Washington, D.C. — which means it closes in two days.

In celebration of the project's completion, the restaurant will offer a special menu July 2 through 4 that highlights the best dishes featured throughout the year, including Chesapeake crabcakes with pickled watermelon salad and bison tomahawk steak with Cheddar mashed potatoes, ketchup, and pickles.

The Daily Meal caught up with chef Andrés to discuss his inspiration for America Eats Tavern, what he's learned from this experience, and whether he has any similar projects on the horizon.

The Daily Meal: As someone who was not born in this country, but came here as an adult, what have you learned about the history and landscape of American cuisine through this project?

José Andrés: I arrived in America more than 20 years ago now. But even before that, I first landed on American shores as a Spanish sailor in the Navy [in Pensacola, Fla.]. I would get off the boat and find my way to all the little mom-and-pop places to eat, as I wanted to learn the foods of this country — I was fascinated.

Then, returning as a chef in 1990 in New York City, I was like a kid in a candy store; I went everywhere, ate everything. So, I have been learning and researching the foods of this land from the very beginning, all the influences of immigrants, like myself, and the histories of different regions and dishes. I have been collecting, books, recipes, dishes, and photographs, for many years, storing them away in my brain. So when the National Archives came to me about this amazing exhibition they were doing, I was overwhelmed with the idea that here, finally, we could do something I have always wanted to do — a culinary celebration of my new home.

I have long said that I know where I am from, but I also know where I belong, and that is here in America. What I have found most fascinating since we poured all of our team into researching recipes, ingredients, drinks, wines, and cocktails from America's earliest days, is that we have these great stories, and we have amazing native ingredients that somehow we have lost along the way. Take paw paw, for example — my daughter taught me about them, and we climbed around the Potomac River here in D.C. and found many growing. Then, the archivist of the U.S., and now my friend, David Ferriero, came to me one day and showed me a an early Indian Treaty that exchanged paw paw trees as part of the deal. We found a man in North Carolina making paw paw beer, so we had to have it on the menu. Amazing.

TDM: You are known as being an ambassador of Spanish cuisine to the U.S. and for creating foods that utilize innovative and modern techniques — so what inspired you to explore the foundations of American food?

JA: Yes, many people know me for the avant-garde style of cuisine that has come out of Spain that we do at minibar and at é by José Andrés, but really, all of our restaurants are about telling a story. They are about looking at the foods of a place, whether it's Greek and Turkish, like we do at Zaytinya, or the foods of Spain at Jaleo, and we find dishes that tell a story of the place and region they come from, and then try to bring a new modern experience to a traditional dish. And as I said, I have always been fascinated with American food. I am a great defender of our cuisine here to some in Europe who don't feel it's as varied and elegant as those in France or Italy or Spain. But I know that from coast to coast there are wonderful things happening.

I was really inspired looking into Works Progress Administration (WPA) writers' projects of the 1930s, and the America Eats series that was documenting regional foods. We also poured through Mary Randolph's Virginia Housewife and Amelia Simmons' American Cookery to see these early recipes. We found pages and pages of ketchup recipes, and even a gazpacho recipe from the early 1800s. All the stories that we found told of ingredients, of the people who made the food, harvested the foods, and shared the recipes — like Ben Franklin writing to his friend with a recipe for milk punch, and the story of Thomas Downing, who owned the most famous oyster cellar in New York (he was a free African-American and he stored his oysters in a basement, where escaping slaves would hide as they made their way to freedom) — and there are so many more just like this.

TDM: Do you have plans for any other temporary or exploratory food projects in the works, now that America Eats Tavern is closing? If not, what is your next step?

JA: For me, America Eats is not really closing. It's a concept and experience that I know will live on, somewhere, someday. And you know, we are always looking at new and exciting projects. We have many amazing things happening right now. We have just opened The Bazaar and the SLS Hotel South Beach. I love being in Miami, and we are going to create some wonderful things there. We have a new project with Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve in Puerto Rico, to come at the end of the year. And now, we are looking at great new space for minibar for this fall. Plus other projects that you will learn about soon enough.