The Daily Meal Council is an assembly of respected chefs, restaurateurs, writers, purveyors, food historians, and others who play key roles in the food world. They have agreed to share their opinions and their expertise with us from time to time, answering occasional queries, responding to surveys, advising us on matters of importance to us all.
José Andrés was born in Mieres, in the Spanish region of Asturias and started cooking professionally in Spain as a teenager before coming to the United States at the age of 21 in 1990 to cook at Eldorado Petit, a short-lived Manhattan outpost of a well-known Barcelona restaurant. He subsequently moved to Washington D.C., and began opening restaurants of his own. Named to Time’s “100” Most Influential list and awarded “Outstanding Chef” by the James Beard Foundation, Andrés is today 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. He is Dean of Spanish Studies at the International Culinary Center and has recently launched his own line of artisanal products, José Andrés Foods. He is host and executive producer of the culinary series Made in Spain and author of a number of cookbooks; including, Made in Spain: Spanish Dishes for the American Kitchen and Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America. His native Spain awarded him the prestigious Order of Arts and Letters medallion, making him the first chef to receive this recognition. He is the founder of World Central Kitchen and culinary ambassador to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Andres is chairman of LA Kitchen and chairman emeritus of DC Central Kitchen and also teaches at Harvard and George Washington University. Andrés became an American citizen in 2013 and lives in a Washington suburb with his wife and three daughters.
What's your earliest food memory?
I was 7 when my father took me to go see a relative in a small town called Rivas in Aragon. It was a cold day and my uncle was making us dinner. He started cutting up day old bread and in a big iron pot he started cooking it with some vegetables and pork fat and made one of the most astonishing dishes of my life called migas. I will never forget how amazed I was that he could turn something so simple into this amazing dish.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be a chef?
The decision to become a chef didn’t happen overnight. I was very young when I started to help out in the kitchen at home. In Spain we cooked at home because we couldn’t afford to go to restaurants, but it’s what made me really appreciate the possibilities of every ingredient we used. I was never really that good at school and I didn’t like sitting in a classroom. I knew I wanted to do something different. I wanted to be a student of life and I wanted to create. I’ve been a chef all my life and I’ve never even imagined doing anything else.
What was your first cooking job?
I remember watching my father make paella on Sundays for our family and friends. I was amazed by the planning, the ingredients that went into this dish. I wanted to be a part of that; I wanted to do it myself, but my father never let me do the cooking. Instead my father would always send me out to gather the branches and put me in charge of the fire but he never let me touch the paella. One day I got really angry, and I finally said, "Why won’t you let me cook?" And he told me, "But don’t you see, you have the most important job, you are controlling the fire, the heat." That’s when I realized that all this time my father had given me the most important task and I have never forgotten that lesson.
Who was your most important culinary influence and why?
I started my culinary career in the 1980’s at a time when Spanish cuisine was booming. It was like watching the big bang happening and it was an astonishing time. We had creative chefs that were beginning to transform Spanish cuisine. In the Basque region we had men like Juan Mari Arzak and of course in Catalonia we had Ferran Adrià doing amazing things at elBulli that nobody had ever dreamed of. I was 19 when I went to go work with Ferran, before elBulli became what it was. It was a fascinating time of learning of experimenting and learning to look at food in a completely different way.
What's the most important lesson that culinary influence taught you?
My time at elBulli quite frankly changed my life. We learned how to think beyond the ingredients in front of you. But what we were doing was experimenting, and questioning everything — why do we only have to be feeding our stomach, and our brain, within the parameters we know? Why can't eating also be feeding our brain, our senses, beyond what we feel comfortable with?
What advice would you give to a young, would-be chef just starting out?
Learn the basics and learn them well. You have to understand tradition, the story. You cannot innovate and be creative unless you have mastered these.
Why do you think Spain has become such an important country in international gastronomy?
Spain has a long history of amazing culinary tradition, but it never gained the same recognition as the other European countries like France and Italy, which I think did a better job of exporting their traditions and recipes. For a long time Spanish cuisine was misunderstood outside of Spain. People thought we were just bad paella, bad gazpacho and bad sangria, which done right can be very good but nobody knew that. Then in the 1980’s, Spain underwent an evolution where people felt freer and they wanted to express themselves and so you started to see this in art, music, and of course in cooking. We had chefs innovating and experimenting with modern techniques and pushing the boundaries of what we thought was possible. In Catalonia we could easily look over the border to France and see what they were doing with nouvelle cuisine, but then we started to notice that France and Europe was starting to look to us and replicate and learn from the modern techniques coming out of Spain. It took a little longer for America and the rest of the world to see us as a culinary destination but I think it was Spain’s creative boom that made people pay attention to us and learn more about our traditions. Now we see that the top restaurants in the world are in Spain and some of the most respected chefs in the world are Spanish like Ferran Adrià, Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena, Martín Berasategui, Hilario Arbelaitz, Andoni Luis Aduriz, Quique Dacosta, and so many more. And now only at this moment are we able to create a culinary program dedicated to the cuisine of Spain. The program I am a Dean of at the ICC is like nothing else in the world. I see it becoming a very important program in the culinary world.
Do chefs have social responsibility beyond simply feeding people honestly in their restaurants?
As chefs, we are the experts on food so when people come to the table to talk about food policy, farm bills, international aid, 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. Food is our most important resource so the food people of the world should work towards making it safe, secure and sustainable for everyone and I think in the years to come chefs will continue to play a bigger role in becoming part of the solution.
How did you get involved with Haiti, and what are you doing there?
I was in the Cayman Islands with my family when the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010. I was astonished at how two islands so close to one another could feel like worlds apart. When I heard what was going on I knew that as a chef I could be doing more to help. I went to Haiti with a few solar cookers and some friends and we traveled to different villages and cooked meals for people to show them how to use this technology. It was then that I fell in love with the country, the people, the cuisine, and its spirit. I created World Central Kitchen in 2010 and now we have a few projects in Haiti including one with which we are building a sustainable bakery at the Zanmi Beni orphanage, and we are launching a cooking program at the Elie DuBois school to empower young women of Haiti. Right now, I am working on a TV project where we will travel throughout the country showcasing the astonishing gastronomy and beauty of the country. To me this is a fascinating country so full of possibilities, so I want to show Haiti under a new light. I want people to see how rich the culture is. I think in the years to come Haiti has the potential to become a great travel destination. And it's only a two-hour flight from Miami.
What future project, real or imagined, excites you most?
What if we are able to do a fast food restaurant that doesn't have meat or fries? Imagine that one day that would be the most successful restaurant….