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.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. — Chef José Andrés

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.