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Thinking Big
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? By Todd Kliman
Comments () | Published October 8, 2010

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.

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Food & Drink
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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 10/08/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles