José Andrés Teaches History with Food
Chef José Andrés, the Washington, D.C.-based celebrity chef who helped popularize both tapas and molecular gastronomy, had an ulterior motive when he developed America Eats Tavern, a pop-up restaurant in Washington, D.C.
The temporary restaurant, which offers historically significant cuisine originating as far back as the 1600s, opened July 4 and is scheduled to close on Jan. 3 2012. It occupies the space of a former Andrés restaurant, Café Atlantico, and was conceived in conjunction with a nearby exhibit at the National Archives, “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” which documents the government’s effect on the American diet.
“The underlying message to congressman, Hill staffers and all the people who make the net of the politics of this nation is food is very important,” Andrés said. “And that every decision they make will have a big impact in the years to come.”
Food is the solution to some serious problems the government is grappling with, Andrés said, including important pending farm bills and food-focused legislation intended to combat obesity and domestic hunger. “That’s the hidden message about why I wanted to do this restaurant in the first place.”
To open the restaurant Andrés secured corporate sponsorship from American Express and Dole Food Company and worked with the National Archives and a culinary advisory council of chefs and scholars to develop the menu.
The historical menu includes items such as pickled oysters — a dish dating back to 18th Century New York City — shrimp and grits, which researchers traced back to the first U.S. colony of Jamestown, Va., and Buffalo wings, invented in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1964. Eight different “catsups” also are available, including the tomato version that eventually supplanted all of the others.
Andrés named the restaurant after a government program. In the 1930s the Work Progress Administration, or WPA, commissioned writers to document the roots of the country’s regional cuisines and people’s relationship with food from a cultural prospective. It was called America Eats, and the collection of unpublished writings that resulted were kept in the Archives.
Andrés and his team and consultants researched the documents, along with old cookbooks, to develop the menu and unearth authentic recipes, such as a peanut soup made from cold pureed nuts and mace. The menu notes explain that the peanut soup dates back to 1914 and was the product of George Washington Carver’s attempt to popularize the protein-packed legume.
But people told Andrés that he was nuts to offer food history on a menu to diners who wouldn’t care. The opposite happened, he said.
“I never opened a restaurant that has had the sense of love like this one,” Andrés said. “A lot of people are very into it.”
“We’ve already had a lot of people tell us that we should continue it,” said the restaurant’s general manager, Brian Zaslavsky. “But we have plans to expand Mini Bar,” he said, referring to the experimental six-seat restaurant within a restaurant that was on the second floor of Café Atlantico. A larger version of that concept is planned for the space after the National Archives exhibit ends.
— Pamela Parseghian