José Andrés was 23 when he came here from Spain, and he quickly became the area’s celebrity chef—changing the way we dine. As his empire expands, why doesn’t he get the respect he thinks he deserves?
To say José Andrés has an ego is like saying Bill Gates has money. Andrés’s ego is boundless in its depths, staggering in its intensity, a relentless motor of me, me, me.
Great chefs are egotists, but in most cases a vulnerability creeps up along the edges of that self-regard, a hesitation about one’s standing in the world, a sense of being at the mercy of a cruel and unforgiving system along with an abiding gratitude for being able to do something that makes people happy. At bottom, most chefs know they’re just very lucky artisans.
This is not what Andrés projects. He has a gastronomic arrogance, a certainty in his own highly developed vision. More than a restaurateur or chef, he considers himself an artist, a spinner of grand gastronomic fantasies, and he converts those dreams to reality with the driving authority of a field marshal. He’s sustained by a belief that giving wide berth to his deepest creative impulses is what got him where he is. And by a belief that, although he may not always succeed, he’s never wrong.
I first met Andrés six years ago, not long after he opened his high-concept Minibar in downtown DC, the restaurant within a restaurant that endeavors to show diners the possibilities that can be wrought from his clever culinary manipulations. He was enjoying the attention. But as I would learn that day and over the next six years, no amount of attention was enough to satisfy him. He invited me to lunch to explain the restaurant in the hope that a heightened understanding of what he was doing would lead to a more precise view of who and what he was.
Sitting across from me in a coffee shop, he skimmed the foam of his latte and held it out for me to taste. “Essence of coffee,” he said.
To get at the meaning of a cup of coffee, he was saying, you don’t need an entire cup—only this taste of coffee-flavored foam. Just as a good novelist brings a character to life with a few well-chosen details, he was cutting to the quick of his cuisine with small, intensely flavored tastes.
The point of his cuisine was to isolate the essence of a dish, he said. It wasn’t just about serving something delicious. At his level, it was about communicating something new and different.
“I want you please to consider, for just a moment, my New England clam chowder,” he said.
He was serving this chowder in a wholly untraditional way. It wasn’t a soup. It was an assemblage of ingredients that would go into a soup: a warmed shucked clam, rendered bits of bacon, tiny cubes of soft potato, a squirt of rich, creamy foam. He called it a deconstruction.
It could be argued that this deconstruction was about novelty, about putting his stamp on a classic.
“I take it apart,” he explained, “in order to understand it. What is a clam chowder? What are its parts? What does a clam chowder mean?”
Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post had previously reviewed Minibar, which Andrés had conceived as his most personal statement, and found it wanting—a clever exercise not worthy of serious consideration.
Andrés was apoplectic. “Are you kidding me?” he asked, leaning across the table and fixing me with dark, flaring eyes. Heads turned nearby. “We have people taking the train down from New York just to eat at Minibar. To eat dinner! When has this happened before, ever? Usually it happens the other way around, we go up there and come back.”
This wasn’t about the Post. There was something hungry and unappeasable in him, something that all my years spent interviewing chefs—by nature highly competitive, driven, and egotistical people—hadn’t quite prepared me for. Andrés was different.
“I am not saying like. I am not saying anyone has to like. But to understand.”
It was maniacal; it was fascinating.
José Andrés was born in 1969 in the town of Mieres, in the Asturias region of northern Spain, an area celebrated for its bounties, including great seafood, cider, and cheeses (among them the revered Cabrales blue). Good food wasn’t a luxury—it was at the center of domestic life. Both of Andrés’s parents cooked. As a preteen, he was often in the kitchen helping his mother bake; as a teenager, he indulged his passion by making paella and other dishes for the family meal. At 15, he opted out of a college-track course of study to attend a new cooking school in Barcelona. The age of admission was 18, but his father prevailed on the headmaster.
While still in school, Andrés apprenticed at El Bulli, the famed restaurant in Roses, Spain, where he came under the spell of Ferran Adrià and his bewitching experiments in “molecular gastronomy.” It was a formative experience, changing the way Andrés thought about food and about himself.
After graduation and a 2½-year stint cooking in New York, California, and Puerto Rico, Andrés arrived in DC in 1993, assuming control of the kitchen of the recently opened Jaleo. He was 23. In little more than a decade, he had opened two more Jaleos, taken over operations at Café Atlántico, expanded his small-plates concept to include the Greek/Lebanese/Turkish Zaytinya and the Mexican Oyamel, and launched Minibar—a stunning string of successes, especially for an immigrant with no prior reputation. Abe Pollin has been hailed as the patron of Penn Quarter, having built the house—now the Verizon Center—that galvanized development, but Andrés’s empire of small-plates restaurants, all within six blocks of one another, were also vital to the transformation of the neighborhood.
His sphere of influence today extends far beyond Washington. The PBS cooking show Made in Spain, the Los Angeles restaurant called the Bazaar, and a collaboration with architect Philippe Starck catapulted him into the first rank of celebrity chefs. On TV, he has been an inimitable presence on the Today show and on Conan O’Brien’s former NBC talk show, appearances so frenetic and funny—imagine a blend of Mr. Wizard, Billy Mays, and Salvador Dalí—that energy drains from the tube the moment he vacates the screen.
Next year brings a slate of new projects: a renovation of Café Atlántico, with Minibar expanding from 6 to 18 seats and taking over the entire building, as well as the opening of two restaurants in Las Vegas, one of them a Jaleo. There are plans for a hotel restaurant in Miami. There’s talk of a restaurant in Paris. Talk of Mexico City. Of London. “Goodness, before you know it,” he says, “I’m going to be in the five top capitals of the Occident.”
Yet for all of that, he has remained something of a mystery. What is behind that ego?
To understand a man of many parts, it occurred to me, maybe you have to do what he does. You have to take him apart. You have to seek his essence.
In a segment on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations TV show last year, explaining why he prizes the seeds and pulp of the tomato more than the fruit itself, Andrés said: “The tomato is telling me, ‘José, why you don’t open a door into my heart, and I will share with you my biggest secret?’ When you talk to the tomato, we are able to find the most amazing gelatin in the history of mankind, which we have to do nothing, only listening.”
I was eager to listen, to open a door into his heart.
Of course, if seeking were easy, as Andrés told me six years ago, then everybody would be a seeker. It’s a process. It takes patience, study, persistence, a willingness to wait for a thing to yield its hidden history.
And so before I could begin my inquiry, I was made to answer a why of my own: Why now?
This wasn’t one question, I knew, but many questions in one.
Why now, after GQ had proclaimed his greatness? Why now, after he had opened the Bazaar in Los Angeles and been acclaimed a genius? Why now, with a lengthy 60 Minutes interview on the way?
The Washingtonian has long been a source of exasperation for Andrés. Food critic Robert Shoffner once described the paella at Jaleo as a “gloppy mess.” That was 17 years ago.
Andrés has never forgotten it.
Nor has he forgotten that Shoffner singled out DC’s Taberna del Alabardero as “one of the finest Spanish restaurants in the country.”
The latest perceived snub was the magazine’s selection this year of the owners of Cava as Restaurateurs of the Year, an honor Andrés has never received. Not unnoticed is the fact that Cava is a Mediterranean small-plates restaurant and appears not just to have been inspired by the model of Jaleo and Zaytinya but to have copied it: a fun, clamorous spot that collapses the wall between fine dining and casual dining, an engaging mix of the traditional and the trendy.
I learn all of this not from Andrés but from a member of his staff, Ann McCarthy. Andrés brought McCarthy aboard three years ago. Previously, she edited DC Magazine, and her fast-talking manner is more that of a harried editor than an ingratiating PR flack. Her hiring provided Andrés with a media insider who could try to spin those who would challenge him and work the angles that otherwise might elude him.
I’m introduced to McCarthy only after talking with Laura Trevino, Andrés’s first line of defense. Trevino used to work in health administration and has a gift for delaying without being off-putting. For three weeks, she manages to keep me both interested and at a distance by saying that she and McCarthy are trying to persuade their boss to sit down and talk. “We’re working on it!” Trevino assures me cheerily several times.
The meeting takes place five weeks from the time I first ask to sit down with him. In the meantime, there’s a sit-down with his affable business partner Rob Wilder, a light lunch at Jaleo downtown in which Wilder explains Andrés’s evolution from the eager 23-year-old who arrived in town in 1993. “I hired José to work for us,” Wilder says. He pauses, smiles. “Now I work for José.”
The afternoon of the night Andrés and I are to meet for our interview, Trevino sends me an e-mail: Would I care to be the chef’s guest for dinner at his house?
I reply yes, hop in my car, and hit the Beltway for Bethesda. It’s four hours before I’ve been asked to arrive, but having waited so long to talk with him, I don’t want to risk being late.
I’m halfway there when I get another e-mail from Trevino. Something’s come up—Andrés won’t be back at his house in time. Can we meet at Café Atlántico for a drink?
I exit the Beltway and head downtown to a coffee shop to wait.
My phone rings a couple of hours later. On the other end is a man who identifies himself as Russell Bermel.
“We haven’t met yet,” says Bermel. “I’m José’s assistant.”
This feels like some kind of joke. “I thought Laura was José’s assistant,” I say.
“Laura handles his work with the company,” Bermel explains. “I work with him directly.”
“Anyway, José wanted me to call and tell you that he’s not going to be able to make that drink after all. He wanted me to tell you he’s really, really sorry.”
He wanted to tell you he’s sorry without telling you he’s sorry.
He wanted to tell you how big and important he’s become without telling you how big and important he’s become.
Lunch, finally. Apologies are made in the form of copious food and drink at the downtown Jaleo. Also in the confidential tone with which he greets me, not just extending a hand but giving me a hug and declaring that what matters is now, not then. He bids me follow him and—clapping my back heartily—live in the present, not the past.
His life these days, like that of many CEOs, is parceled out in half-hour increments. He has a staff to tell him what’s next, where he’s going, what’s most pressing. He has two cell phones that are never far from reach, a company of 700-plus employees to instruct and oversee, and many ideas, big and small, that circulate in his teeming imagination. Even when he’s there, he’s not necessarily there.
As we settle into our meal, what strikes me is how different this Andrés is, how much less agitated and agitating than the last time we talked. The intensity is still there. And the self-absorption. And the egotism. What’s missing is the need to press his case constantly, to impose his will on a conversation, to settle every score.
He doesn’t have to declare that he’s winning; the evidence is everywhere around him. His restaurants have had a leveling effect in Washington, changing the way restaurants conceive of themselves and, in many ways, changing dining itself.
I tell him this.
I mention the influence he has had, the legions of imitators.
He nods again. He’s neither flattered nor surprised. He listens with the air of a teacher who has waited so long for his pupil to grasp the concept that he’s not about to exult now.
Consider, I say, the long roll call of your spiritual descendants.
He has already considered.
Komi, the Mediterranean restaurant east of DC’s Dupont Circle, is the first name on my list, and he responds with a kind of paternal pride. The implication is clear: Johnny Monis’s 46-seater would have been unthinkable without Andrés’s restaurants as models. Its sensuality and playfulness, its presentation of tiny portions of big, vibrant flavors, its disregard for business-class dining—these are the hallmarks of an Andrés enterprise.
Frank Ruta was widely credited with bringing upstairs/downstairs dining to DC by dividing Palena into two restaurants, a formal destination and a casual cafe. In fact, Ruta was responding to a shift in the dining culture that Andrés was largely responsible for, a blurring of the line between fine and informal.
The restaurants of the District’s 14th Street, Northwest—Masa 14, Birch & Barley, Cork—the restaurants of U Street, the restaurants of Penn Quarter all have a reference point in Andrés.
Phyllis Richman, the retired restaurant critic at the Washington Post, professes astonishment at his impulses, which are simultaneously aristocratic and democratic. “It’s hard to believe,” she says, “that food could be this delicious, this fresh, this exciting, this traditional, this forward-thinking, and also be this affordable and accessible.”
Andrés’s influence is as wide as it is deep. A new restaurant in Annandale’s Koreatown, called DaMoim—with its modish casual setting, long list of small plates, and emphasis on precision and detail—proves that his reach extends even to ethnic enclaves. One could easily mistake it for the effort of one of his old employees.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate Andrés’s accomplishment is to revisit the area’s dining scene just before he arrived.
At the high end were French restaurants, Italian restaurants, and continental restaurants, which offered a wan synthesis of European styles. And there were steakhouses—lots of steakhouses.
The best restaurants were largely formal—white tablecloths, maître d’s, crisp-jacketed waiters—and largely reserved for special occasions, unless you were armed with an expense account. Washington was a company town, and the dining scene reflected the needs and tastes of the company. Jean-Louis Palladin, the freewheeling French chef at the Watergate, was a dazzling anomaly.
Andrés’s arrival was akin to that of a gunslinger blowing into town. Without appearing to—because the package was so fun and lively that you could be deceived into thinking nothing important was going on—he took aim at everything the scene had been. Here was the sort of precise, passionate cooking that typically went by the term “fine dining,” but it didn’t cater to the expense-account diner. Tapas, the small plates of Spain, eaten casually at a bar while nursing a sherry or glass of wine, made up the bulk of Jaleo’s sprawling menu. Those small bites would constitute dinner, smudging the line between appetizer and entrée.
This wasn’t statement dining. You couldn’t try to impress someone with a tapa the way you could with a porterhouse. Eating tapas is a sensual experience, designed for sharing. It encourages experimentation. You could order two items or ten, spend a lot or a little. You could eat before a game or a play or after. All sorts of people flocked to Jaleo, in all sorts of dress. There were no tablecloths. No maitre d’s. None of the trappings of serious dining.
Some were slow to grasp its importance—things that effect change in the culture often are initially dismissed as lacking seriousness.
Even today, Jaleo isn’t universally embraced.
Don Rockwell, who owns and moderates a Web site for Washington’s gastronomic community, refers to Andrés as a “culinary director”—a subtle swipe calling attention to the fact that Chef Andrés is seldom in the kitchen. When I ask Rockwell to elaborate, he declines, saying he has no interest in “celebrity chef” culture.
The Rockwell site skews young, but some of the same indifference toward Andrés and his restaurants is found among older foodies. Except that there the prevailing sentiment is that the scene has changed too much, too fast.
My in box is filled with complaints about the new breed of restaurant, about a landscape filled with “clattering, noisy” spaces and “unrecognizable dishes full of clever ingredients no one’s ever heard of.” Many of these diners romanticize the days when dining out was “special”—when people thought enough of their fellow diners to dress up.
Some months back, a man e-mailed asking me to recommend a great place to eat in downtown DC. My list included Jaleo and Zaytinya. His reply was almost mocking—those were restaurants for the hockey rowdies or young fashionistas: “I should have been clearer. I’m looking for a serious, great restaurant.”
I tell this to Andrés as we tear into slices of tomato-smeared bread that a waiter has set down before us.
“So you’re saying it doesn’t bother you?”
“I mean, what can you do?” He shrugs again.
It’s an impressive display of discipline. The old Andrés would have talked my ear off for 20 minutes.
The big difference between the new and the old Andrés is that this Andrés is flush with options. He has LA. Very soon, he’ll also have Vegas, Miami, Paris … the world.
Does it matter what any one person thinks? Or any one city?
He could have left. And might have, if not for a conversation he had with a friend five years ago.
His TV show had made him a star. As big as chefs have become in America, they’re bigger in Spain, on a par with movie actors and sports heroes. He could walk down the streets of Barcelona and be adored. But in the end, he said no to Spain.
It would have been hard to pull up his entire operation and transplant it to Barcelona. Even harder would have been to start over. Here he had a structure, a team. It was the foundation of everything he’d accomplished.
Spain wasn’t the only option.
New York was the culinary capital of America, and if any place would understand the direction he was going, it was New York—which understood Minibar before Washington understood Minibar. Other chefs were expanding like crazy, spinning off restaurants in every corner of the country, turning their names into brands. Why not him?
But in the end he said no to that, too.
A conversation one day in the Park Avenue offices of Food Arts magazine with its late founder, Michael Batterberry, convinced him to stay:
Washington already is part of you, José, and you are part of Washington. You should not go anywhere else. Washington is your home—everyone needs a home. And from your home, you can do whatever you want. But you have such an anchor, such a base, such a stronghold. Why give it up when it took you 12 years of your life to build it?
So he stayed. Washington would be his anchor. With that anchor, he had the freedom and confidence to roam and explore, to try new things.
For years, he had been a backer of DC Central Kitchen—a local nonprofit that recycles and distributes food to the homeless—but now he vowed to do more. He created Capital Food Fight, an annual event that has raised more than $1 million over the past five years; enlisted other area chefs to become involved in DC Central Kitchen; and sent staffers every month to help prepare meals there.
No area chef has been more engaged. From the informal roundtables he’s hosted at Oyamel—among the frequent guests has been Zeke Emanuel, the NIH bioethicist whose brother is White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel—to his membership on the US Travel and Tourism Advisory Board (the only chef appointed by the Secretary of Commerce), he has immersed himself in the business of Washington.
Child nutrition has been a recent pet issue—he has met with educators, activists, and politicians, including New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Massachusetts congressman Jim McGovern, cochair of the House Hunger Caucus.
“The guy’s a force of nature,” says McGovern. “He makes the rounds up here. He worked with the First Lady on trying to raise the issue of good nutrition nationally. He’s just a guy that’s hard to say no to. He’s also gotten a lot of chefs around the country involved in this. He’s just a huge bundle of energy that’s directed at trying to end hunger and obesity in the United States. He walks the walk.”
Yet for all his engagement, Washington has less of a hold on him than it did six years ago. The more Andrés has become a Washington insider, the more Andrés the restaurateur has looked outside the capital to try to slake his unquenchable thirst.
Until his conversation with Michael Batterberry, Andrés had been a partner in Proximo, a company that included Rob Wilder and a third partner and operated the three Jaleos, Café Atlántico, Minibar, Zaytinya, and Oyamel. Andrés thought his growing fame called for the creation of a new company that would put greater emphasis on research and development. The new company still would be based in Washington even as he and his team divided their attention among his restaurants here and elsewhere.
So Proximo was rechristened Think Food Group, a nod to his cerebral approach to cooking. Andrés spoke of Think Food as his laboratory, a place where ideas are germinated and nurtured—I imagined white-coated chefs experimenting with beakers and saucepans, testing recipes. At lunch, I mention to Andrés my desire to have a look inside. After all, to understand the dishes, I need to understand the mind behind the dishes, and what is Think Food Group if not the mind made manifest?
“Process is very important,” Andrés says, neither answering my request nor changing the subject.
“Very,” I say.
“Very, very important.” He seems to be testing my seriousness, seeing how committed I am to truly learning.
A week later, Laura Trevino greets me outside the Lansburgh, the landmark building adjacent to Jaleo downtown, and ushers me upstairs to Think Food’s offices. Forget beakers and white coats. Think Food consists of two small apartments that have been converted into offices. The lower level is accounting and payroll. Strategy is plotted on the upper level. Copies of the New York Times are piled on the floor. Chalkboards and whiteboards are scrawled with directives (“More thorough fundamentals”). The lab, such as it is, is an efficiency kitchen. All of Andrés’s many expansions are being drawn up and carried out in this cramped, uninspired setting?
“A laboratory of the mind,” he explains, touching his finger to his temple.
Andrés has gathered members of his team to talk about the two Las Vegas restaurants on the drawing board. Among them is Rubén García, formerly a pastry chef at El Bulli, the avant-garde restaurant in Spain where Andrés got his start. García’s title is director of research and development, but that doesn’t convey the extent of his involvement. He has authority over every chef at every restaurant in Andrés’s empire; many of his days consist of going from place to place to monitor the kitchens. When Andrés hosts a dinner or appears on TV, García does the cooking. He’s Andrés’s double, his shadow chef. “Wherever José goes,” he says, “I go.”
García’s hiring six years ago was an important step in Andrés’s evolution. Blessed with a chef he trusts implicitly—a chef who thinks the way he thinks and can execute his ideas—Andrés is free to pursue outside opportunities, cut deals, and run his operation. In the inner circle, García is sometimes referred to as Andrés’s “Mini-Me.”
Their bond is strong. Beyond the fact that both apprenticed at El Bulli, they’re both strong-willed and intense and believe that cooking is a calling. Sometimes their communication seems almost telepathic—a nod conveying an entire conversation.
Because he has so many obligations, Andrés is seldom at any restaurant more than an hour or two a day—if that. It rankles him that this leads some to believe he isn’t involved.
There’s more to being a chef than being in the kitchen, Andrés says. The word chef in French, he points out, isn’t equivalent to “cook”; it’s equivalent to “chief.” It irks him that “the average check at Jaleo is $30” and yet he’s expected to meet and greet.
“Thirty dollars! What else do you want me to do? Fan you?”
Phyllis Richman believes Andrés has done plenty by establishing a system that runs so proficiently. Indeed, of all Andrés’s accomplishments, she believes his greatest is the almost uniform consistency of his restaurants. “You go to Citronelle, and if Michel Richard is not there, you know it,” she says. “But you can go to Jaleo or Zaytinya and it doesn’t matter. That’s remarkable.”
I get a glimpse of how the system works when I sit in on a discussion of the china and flatware that will be used at Jaleo in Vegas. Samples and catalogs are spread across a table where staffers and chefs sit. Unshaven, Andrés looks to have arrived just hours ago on a redeye. Beneath his white chef’s jacket he wears a shirt from the Greene Turtle in Ocean City. The mood in the room is serious, focused—the alertness that comes of the boss’s being on-site.
As Andrés flips through catalogs, two staffers pile a tall stack of his cookbooks to take over to the restaurants. In the next room, Ann McCarthy works a new media contact: “Did you see José with Ferran on Charlie Rose? Okay, great. Well, we look forward to the next steps.”
Someone begins by making a brief presentation about a stylish-looking set of forks and knives. “It’s a Spanish designer,” she says, “but they’re made in Italy.”
“They’re from Spain?” Andrés asks.
She looks sheepish. “No.”
Someone presents a different brand.
He holds it up to the light. It only somewhat resembles a spoon. “This is nonsense. I mean, look at it.”
Another brand. A fork.
“I don’t want big forks. You get these dishes, these tasting-menu courses, and the dish is tiny. But the fork is huge! No big forks.”
As the staff pores through the catalogs hoping to find something that will please him, he picks up a plate and hammers it against his palm. “Está bien.” (“It’s good.”)
The mood brightens.
He picks up another, hammers it against his palm—and it breaks in half.
More catalog skimming.
“I want to have tables with a lot of shapes and textures on them,” he says. He produces a silver-colored sandal—a woman’s shoe.
“For our croquetas,” he explains.
The furrows deepen.
It’s not an expensive shoe, nor particularly stylish. The question that must be asked, he says, is whether it suits their purpose. Expression must flow from intention. Price is immaterial. “When we first opened Minibar,” he says, “75 percent of our stuff came from Bed Bath & Beyond.”
What began as a series of presentations by them for him has evolved into a presentation by him for them. It’s a reminder that study and persistent application are important but not ends in themselves. Everything is a process. And sometimes the answer is where you least expect it.
Creativity isn’t dependent on labs or beakers. It happens with or without spacious, well-appointed offices. The essence is inside. A laboratory of the mind.
One day not long after that meeting, I’m invited to his Bethesda home to sit in on a working breakfast. I find Andrés in his kitchen with Rob Wilder and a woman named Hollis Silverman, Think Food’s chief of operations, who manages what’s called “front of the house” business in all of his restaurants—everything that doesn’t pertain to the kitchen. Ann McCarthy is also on hand. They’ve gathered at a long table that looks out onto a grove of trees through the picture window in the back wall of the kitchen.
On a countertop is a leg of jamón—Spanish ham—with a long knife below it for shaving off slices. Pastries are piled on a plate next to it along with containers of olives, a variety of wrapped cheeses, and jars of imported delicacies.
In the adjacent dining room, Andrés has installed a crew of chefs. The cooks from his restaurants gather four times a year at his house to discuss ideas for new dishes and to plan menus. Today it’s the crew behind the three Jaleos plus García. The round table is covered with several dozen cookbooks, some dating to the 19th century. Books by Thomas Keller, Alain Ducasse, Charlie Trotter. The chefs flip pages, looking for inspiration. They record recipes in their notebooks, jot down combinations of ingredients that intrigue them or spark an idea. The mood is studious. Nobody talks. It looks like a college library on the eve of finals.
Andrés is on an overseas call, his voice echoing in the high-ceilinged house. Everybody on the business side also has a cell phone out as Andrés, barefoot and speaking animatedly in Spanish, consults with the architect designing the Vegas restaurants. He gazes at a laptop in front of him and types as he talks. He doodles on a pad of paper. His leg goes up and down. He gesticulates.
Off the phone, Andrés returns to the conversation, declaring that he doesn’t want Jaleo Las Vegas to be a high-priced place: “I want to make things cheap, and everybody wants to spend more!”
“Right,” I say. “So after people lose their shirts, they can still afford dinner.”
“After eating so affordably in our restaurant,” he says, “they’ll have money to go and gamble.” He taps a finger to his temple and winks at me.
Binders are produced. There are design matters to go over. No detail is too small. Examining a binder of fonts, squinting at the type, he gives feedback worthy of a printer: “This J is not as good as this J. This E is a lot more fun than this E.” He claps his hands. “What’s next?”
The other Vegas restaurant is a Chinese-Mexican place called China Poblano. Under the picture window is a shelf of Chinese cookbooks. He’s been doing his homework. His chefs have been studying for months, too. He examines more logos: “Next.”
Silverman turns a laptop toward him. Andrés peers into it, then says: “There’s no warmth anywhere.”
“What are we looking at?” I ask.
“Paris,” Andrés replies.
A flutter of mild terror passes between Silverman and McCarthy. I’m not supposed to know about Paris. McCarthy plays down the remark: “We’re in the dating stage now.”
To the dining room. Andrés stomps in, and it’s as though the teacher has returned to the classroom. “Okay, guys, let’s go—what do we have?”
Andrés only half listens as his chefs present their recipes. He appears disengaged, like a man who doesn’t know what he wants until he hears it. He flips through a small black cooking manual from 1835, La Cuynera Catelana. The oldest book here, it’s a compendium of recipes from his native region, a classic. He regards it as a kind of touchstone, the foundation for much of what he does. Innovation doesn’t spring from a void; it emerges out of deep engagement with tradition.
The chefs continue to share their findings while Andrés makes jottings in a small red notebook. He has the focused concentration of a jeweler. He seems lost in a trance when a cook mentions a garlic-and-thyme soup. Andrés’s head pops up.
“What month are we?”
He glances out the window. “Look like March,” he says, going back to the notebook and the cooking manual.
One of the chefs suggests a variation on croquetas, with chicken and eggplant.
Again Andrés’s head pops up. “We do chicken or ham now?”
He nods and returns to his books.
When the last of the chefs has made his presentation, Andrés sets aside his books, claps his hands—“Okay!”—and takes over. Gone is the dreamy, ruminative quality of the last 15 minutes.
Over the next ten minutes he announces a series of new dishes, taking his recent reading, the ideas he appeared to have not quite been listening to, and some of his own and braiding them into something new.
The meeting breaks up. The chefs drift into the kitchen. A couple of architects who have been meeting in another part of the house come in. The kitchen is alive with talk and laughter. The jamón is sliced, cheeses are opened. A party has started. One of Andrés’s young daughters sits cross-legged on the countertop reading El Mundo, the Spanish newspaper, online.
Her obliviousness to the activity around her suggests this is nothing new. She is accustomed to the creative chaos of her daddy’s world, to all the aspects of his life colliding like this. No divisions, no boundaries. Business matters, cooking matters. Work life, home life. Spain, America. The restaurants are the manifestation of all of this.
On the counter beside the jamón is a glass vase filled with stones. I take a closer look at the stones. It’s a tiny model brain.
Having been granted this glimpse into his process, I had an understanding of how. What I lacked was an understanding of why. I knew he was brilliant, I knew he was egotistical, and after weeks in his presence, I was only more convinced of these qualities, not less. His brilliance and his egotism could be distracting, and I saw, too, how it was possible to lose the man in all that the man created.
Who was he? What drove him? If anything, his hunger had grown stronger and more urgent even as his fame and influence multiplied. Why?
“So, I wanted to talk to you about something,” Laura Trevino says one day.
We’ve been on the phone finalizing my plans to fly out to Los Angeles, where Andrés will be spending a few days at the Bazaar. Trevino’s tone is tentative.
“We feel,” she says, “José should be the cover.”
“Of the magazine.”
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. After GQ and 60 Minutes, why should he care whether he graces the cover of a magazine? Haven’t there been enough honors of late?
I’m not seeing things Andrés’s way. It galls him that the magazine in the city where he lives—the city he could have left but chose to anchor his empire in—has never recognized him, not as Restaurateur of the Year, not with a cover.
But why, why?
The search comes to an end 2,600 miles from home.
Trevino suggested that Andrés would be less distracted in Los Angeles than in Washington because there would be only the one restaurant to focus on. I doubted that fewer distractions would lead to greater reflection, but I wanted to see if our growing trust might open the door.
When I meet up with him in the glittering bar at the Bazaar, inside the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, the breakthrough feels like a distant proposition. Jet-lagged, he battles fatigue with a couple of stiff drinks, then disappears into the kitchen to help chef Josh Whigham, an alum of Minibar, prepare my meal. “No talking tonight!” he says, cutting off my attempts at discussion. “Tonight is eating and drinking and having a great time.”
Even more than his restaurants in Washington, the Bazaar mocks the idea that anyone would come to conduct business. Pleasure is the only principle. If it’s not the best restaurant in the country, it’s one of the most interesting and unusual. It summons the spirit—and frequently the dishes—of Jaleo and Zaytinya and Oyamel and Minibar, but it goes beyond that, too. It’s more energetic, more circus-like, more sensual, more cerebral, more intense, more intimate, more dramatic. More more.
The meal is dazzling. It’s a prodigious demonstration of the foundations of his cuisine: the lightness, the exactitude, the ingenious packaging of flavors so vibrant they might be mistaken for extracts or liqueurs. It’s also a demonstration of what the Bazaar was meant to be—the most expressive statement yet of who and what he is as a chef.
It feels like the culmination of the conversation we began five years ago, the final lesson. I understand more than I ever have about how he sees food and restaurants. I understand more about how he sees himself.
But I have yet to open a door to his heart.
The next day, we meet in the bar at the Bazaar. Coming from a slate of meetings, he’s edgy, unresponsive. We sit on either end of a leather couch and talk. Or try to. Rob Wilder swings by to ask a question. Customers wander in to chat. Andrés’s two cell phones are on the table, and he fiddles with them.
Eventually the coffee kicks in, and when asked a question about Bazaar and what it means, he talks.
“What it means to me?” he asks.
I shake my head. What it means—period.
The idea of thinking in the abstract seems to appeal to him and prompts a long reflection. The Bazaar is special to him. It’s more than a restaurant. It’s a direction, he says.
“A restaurant is a business. But to me is not business. To me is a cultural expression, is an artistic expression. To me a restaurant is not any different from a museum, but with not the respect of a museum. A museum is a still life, and a restaurant is far away from a still life. It’s a piece of art that has—that breathes, that’s organic. And it’s far away from perfect—but you live for that perfection.”
Is that what drives him: a desire to create the perfect restaurant, the perfect experience?
He shakes his head. To seek perfection is foolish. It is not the goal of a creative mind; it is the goal of a controlling mind.
What then? Money?
“Believe it or not sometimes, though it may seem logical, it doesn’t mean that you do it for money. God knows, money is not what moves me. If it was that, Minibar wouldn’t exist.”
We started out at the ends of the couch, half turned toward each other, but now Andrés turns toward me in full. His voice is less declamatory, less bombastic. He hasn’t touched either of his cell phones in 30 minutes.
“I guess I am in the extreme of what being human means,” he says. “The difference between an animal and us is like an animal can be eating grass all day and not caring about anything else, having a relaxed life. But man, we are always looking for the more.”
“You in particular—you’re always looking for the more.”
“Me in particular, yes.”
He shrugs. “I have always been this way, ever since I can remember.”
“You like challenges.”
“I love challenges. I need challenges. I need to push myself. Constantly to push myself.”
“What’s your greatest fear in life? What’s the one thing that you fear?”
Andrés says nothing.
His nostrils flare, taking in more air, which he expels in a long breath.
“Mmm.” He stares straight ahead, beyond the bar, beyond everything. “I fear,” he begins, then pauses. “Not being loved, probably, is the thing I fear the most.”
I’m as unprepared for the nakedness of this statement as I was the first time I tried his New England clam chowder.
“I need to feel loved. ’Cause I give—I give myself. A lot. And with that, it goes that I feel I want to be able to receive it the same. But I fear that.”
“But love is such a hard thing to control.”
“Yes. That’s—that’s why I fear it.”
“Are we talking about admiration? Attention? Understanding?”
“No,” he says. “Love.” Not admiration, not attention, not even understanding. He has sunk into the couch. It seems to be swallowing him up. He repeats himself: “We are talking about love.”
Hours later, we’re at a sushi bar two blocks from the hotel. To the confusion of his handlers, Andrés has invited me to join him for raw fish and sake at the legendary Matsuhisa. Meals are many things, and one of them is ratification, a means of cementing a bond.
We sit at the sushi bar, eating in silence, in appreciation of the exquisite quality of the fish and the craftsmanship of the chef.
A fellow stool sitter pipes up: “Excuse me, I’m sorry. But didn’t I see you on 60 Minutes a couple of weeks ago?”
“Hi,” Andrés says, extending his hand. “I am José Andrés.”
“Man, that was wild,” the man says, regaling the chef with details from the program: the foams and airs, the cotton-candy-wrapped foie gras, the little spherical capsules of olive oil that appear to be solid but dissolve on contact. The essence of a dazzling cuisine built on essences—by a man whose own essence is dazzlingly human.
“You know, for three or four hours after that show,” Andrés says to the man, “I was the number-one search name on Google!”
This article first appeared in the October 2010 issue of The Washingtonian.