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Jose Andres: From chef to food ambassador

WASHINGTON: Jose Andres is moving from small plates to big ideas.

The Washington chef best known for popularizing tapas, the Spanish custom of dining on small, shared dishes, has been not so quietly refocusing, keeping one eye on the kitchens of his growing restaurant empire, and the other on the policies and politics that underpin so much of what and how Americans eat.

It is a duality he hopes more chefs will embrace. “When we are trying to come up with new health laws, you bring doctors, you bring experts in medicine. In urban planning, you bring the best architects,” Andres said in a recent interview. “How it is possible that when we are talking about the way we are going to feed America, no chef shows up in the room?”

Increasingly, he does. Working political connections he has cultivated for nearly 20 years as a Washington restaurateur, Andres regularly lobbies friends in Congress and members of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, visiting their offices or chatting while they dine in his restaurants. Sometimes he sits in on congressional hearings just to listen. “To me, what I’m interested in, in the end, is the meaning of food in our lives,” he said.

Andres arrived from Spain 20 years ago. He grew up near Barcelona and trained under renowned chef Ferran Adria at the famous restaurant El Bulli, but he never finished formal schooling. He worked random jobs at first, but in 1993 was hired at age 23 by two Washington restaurateurs who wanted to create something new in a city long dismissed from the ranks of fine dining.

“We want to open the best tapas restaurant, not in D.C., not in the U.S., but how about the world?” he told his bosses of the idea for Jaleo, a Spanish restaurant offering a broad menu of small dishes with moderate prices.

So Andres concocted a menu to tell stories from his childhood and from old-world Spain. He rejected notions that Americans would not like small plates. Now the eatery that began on an abandoned downtown block has multiplied.

His company, Think Food Group, has opened nine restaurants, employs 800 people and anticipates revenue this year of more than $70 million as it serves 1.5 million meals. And there are plans for future creations in Washington; Miami, Florida; Puerto Rico; and possibly Paris.

“We hired Jose when he was a kid, then made him a partner in the business … and now I work for him,” said Rob Wilder, Think Food’s CEO. “Now we talk about changing the world through the power of food.”

Friends say Andres is a whirlwind of activity, juggling restaurants and politicking with managing book projects and his PBS show, “Made in Spain.”

On a recent visit to Jaleo, Andres met with makers of a pressure cooker that could be used in solar-powered kitchens during a humanitarian crisis. After visiting earthquake-ravaged Haiti last year, he created a nonprofit called World Central to help feed people in countries suffering a crisis or food shortage.

In Washington, Andres volunteers with D.C. Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that recycles unused restaurant food into meals for shelters and provides culinary job training for homeless people and ex-convicts.

“Jose talks a lot about opportunity, giving people opportunity,” said the charity’s CEO, Mike Curtin.

For a new Jaleo spot in Las Vegas, Andres chose as his head chef Rodolfo Guzman, a former construction worker who laid tile for the original Jaleo kitchen 18 years ago, after teaching him for more than a decade.

He taught a popular course last year on culinary physics at Harvard University and now is talking with George Washington University about creating a food institute with a curriculum spanning science, business and international relations. A research center for food policy, he said, could level the playing field with lobbyists from agribusiness.

“I cannot wait to see the day that one day we will have a chef that will become the secretary of food of the United States of America,” he said. “With all due respect to [U.S. Agriculture Secretary] Tom Vilsack, food is so much more important than farming itself.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 20, 2011, on page 12.

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