Interview with Jose Andres:
Jose Andres is one of the most highly acclaimed chefs in the country. If anybody still needed further proof, he was recently honored with the 2011 Outstanding Chef Award from the James Beard Foundation, although he’s quick to share the glory with his team and staff.
He has continued to unveil new restaurants and concepts while pushing the limits of what can be done, and he never strays from that most fundamental of missions, pleasing the palates of each and every one of his restaurants’ guests. He has an infectious, joyful personality which shines through on his many television appearances, he has legions of supporters, followers, imitators and fans, and his legend continues to grow.
While Andres has new ventures in Beverly Hills and Las Vegas, Washington D.C. is not only where he calls home, it’s the base of his expanding empire. It’s here in the District that you’ll find Zaytinya, Cafe Atlantico, minibar, Jaleo and Oyamel, essentially a list of the best tapas restaurants in the city.
It’s also the site of his newest project, the America Eats Tavern, which opened in July. In this interview with Chef Andres, he talks about America Eats, the future of Cafe Atlantico, staying busy with small projects like we all do, such as teaching a course at Harvard, and much more.
The America Eats Tavern opened on July 4th. It’s been a month now, so how has it been going, and what has the response been from guests and diners?
Jose Andres: It has been amazing. My team has worked very hard to bring this idea to life. In only about 120 days we created this very unique restaurant. And our friends at the National Archives have been so supportive. We have had so many guests come in and share their own stories on the many dishes we are offering. Seeing the research we have put together, it has people talking and they want to tell us about their own family recipes, or dishes they grew up on. That’s exactly what we hoped for. To celebrate the history of American cooking.
The restaurant was made in conjunction with the What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? exhibition at the National Archives, which spans from June 10 of this year until January 3, 2012. Profits will go to the Foundation for the National Archives during that time. Tell us a little bit about the goals you have for the restaurant and what it is designed to do.
Jose Andres: For me, it is important that look at the history of American food. To bring attention to the stories of the people and places that have inspired what we eat. People have heard me say that I don’t open restaurants, I tell stories. And this story is very important to me. I want to take these traditional dishes and elevate them to a modern style. You always have to stand on tradition to push to the next level and this is part of American cooking. And at a time when so much discussion is taking place on food issues. We wanted to create a place that looks at our history and can inspire people to think about the future of our food. We found partners in American Express and Dole who want to help us in that goal and to be able to allow us to donate the profits to the National Archives so they can continue to create amazing exhibits like What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?
What are the long-term plans for the America Eats Tavern?
Jose Andres: We will have to see. Right now we are focused on creating a truly unique experience. I do not see this place as a restaurant. It is a cultural experience. It is history, art, conversation. All of it happening around you. On the walls, on the menu, on the plate.
America Eats Tavern is named after the Works Progress Administration (WPA) writers project of the same name in the 1930s, but where did the whole concept for the restaurant come from, and how did you get involved at the start?
Jose Andres: I have always been fascinated with American cooking. From the time I first arrived in this country with the Spanish Navy. For more than 20 years now I have traveled this country, eating regional dishes and collecting old cookbooks. One book has really been an inspiration to me, it’s the first edition, Joy of Cooking, published by Irma Rombauer. I have a signed copy. There is a shrimp and grapefruit recipe that reached out to me, like Irma was talking to me. It seemed to have gotten lost along the way. And that is what pushes me with this restaurant. That there are dishes, ingredients, like the native Paw paw, that people have forgotten. We can’t forget, we must honor these dishes and remember the roots of American cooking. When the National Archives came to us about the exhibit, I thought how astonishing that where the Declaration of Independence lives, we will have an exhibit on the history of our food. I had to get involved. And I said, let’s do a restaurant to bring to life this same history of American food. There is no better time than now, with Farm Bill coming and food policy such a major issue. To take time to stop and bring attention to our food history and future.
Even as you’ve expanded with places in California and Las Vegas, DC has always been your base of operations. Was getting involved with the National Archives like this and the DC community in this way extra special for you?
Jose Andres: Washington is my home. My children and family are here. My heart is here. Washington is like no other city in the world. The National Archives is our neighbor, I had walked through that room many times over the years, looking at the papers that built this country. It has always inspired me and I am so proud to be a part of that. Even more, I loved learning that where the Archives stands now is where Washington’s Center Market stood for many, many years. It was the food center of the city. How funny now we celebrate again our food roots right in that same spot.
Closing the doors to Cafe Atlantico surely must have been a hard decision. How were you able to get yourself to do that?
Jose Andres: Cafe is very special place for me. I know that it is not gone, just taking a break. Cafe has been on a long journey. From the Dominican Republic, to Adams Morgan to Penn Quarter. This is just another chapter.
Has there been any progress there, and when would you hope to be able to reopen that?
Jose Andres: When we find the right place, we will reopen and I have ideas on how we will take the menu back to its original roots.
Your highly sought after minibar seemed like a natural fit inside the playful food arena and atmosphere of Cafe Atlantico, but perhaps to some it’s less of a natural inside America Eats Tavern. What do you think about that, and will minibar remain a permanent fixture there?
Jose Andres: Minibar is its own experience, and for me was always a very separate idea from Cafe Atlantico. I love that it is now surrounded with America Eats. And this spot is minibar’s home. As we have said before, we plan to create a new minibar and our ThinkFoodTank here in this building. So when America Eats closes we will start to work on the next phase.
Your restaurants always get involved in the local restaurant weeks in Maryland, DC and Virginia. Not all places do, and not all places offer as wide of a selection as you do. What do these events mean to you and your establishments, and what do you try to accomplish?
Jose Andres: It’s important to support our restaurant community. Washington is an amazing food city and one we should celebrate all the time. We like to participate in the restaurant weeks to inspire our own teams and the people of our city to go out, enjoy, maybe try something you had not before.
In May, you were named Outstanding Chef at the annual James Beard Foundation awards. It’s the highest award a chef in America can win. It’s an honor that would probably be hard to describe, but what is it like for you to win that, and where can you try to go from there?
Jose Andres: It is a great honor. Like nothing before. I am filled with pride for my team and share the honor with them. But we just continue to do what we have always done. To challenge ourselves, to create new stories. To learn, to teach, to have fun.
Talk for a bit about your professorial stint at Harvard University and what that was like for you.
Jose Andres: I am teaching again this fall. This course came together with Ferran (Adria), myself and our friends at Harvard to create a very unique opportunity. It is amazing to stand in the lecture halls and see the enthusiasm in the students.
You’ve achieved and done so much as of late. The Outstanding Chef Award, all of the television appearances, teaching a course at Harvard, opening your new restaurants, launching America Eats, and more. Where does everything rank for you in terms of what is the most exciting or special?
Jose Andres: It is all exciting, that is why we continue to push forward. Our mission at ThinkFoodGroup is to change the world through the power of food. That can mean so many things and that is what we strive to do. We have a responsibility to make how we feed ourselves, our families, our communities a priority.
How do you manage to juggle all of this?
Jose Andres: Very little sleep. Wifi on airplanes. An amazing wife and children. A dedicated team. Great friends and an awesome partner, Rob Wilder.
This article was first published by Jake Emen on Yahoo! News on August 11, 2011