At 46, José Andrés has achieved more than most people accomplish in a lifetime. The owner and driving force behind the D.C.-based ThinkFoodGroup, Andrés is at once an award-winning chef and restaurateur as well as a TV personality, author, professor, philanthropist and public policy influencer.
His empire of 25 restaurants includes locations from Washington D.C. to Las Vegas, and he recently expanded to Mexico with the opening of J by José Andrés at the W Mexico City. Three more restaurant projects — Bazaar Mar at the SLS Hotel Brickell in Miami, Fish at the MGM National Harbor in Maryland, and The Bazaar by José Andrés at the SLS Park Avenue — are currently underway.
What sets Andrés apart — and what has undoubtedly contributed to his success — is his audacity to dream the impossible. Because even while he is busy creating the next perfect dish or revolutionary restaurant concept, he challenges himself, his students, his peers and his colleagues to think of a bigger picture beyond good food: ending world hunger and poverty.
In this candid interview, we get a glimpse into the fascinating mind of the deeply intelligent, extraordinary Forbes Travel Guide Tastemaker, José Andrés.
These days, what turns you on? What inspires your passions when it comes to cuisine and what you do?
There are a lot of things that turn me on. To jump off a cliff, sometimes not having wings, in the sense of taking risks. Like scuba diving with 600 sharks in the middle of the ocean. That excites me. [It] excites me trying to bring more Spanish food to the world. [It] excites me trying to do a fast-food restaurant [and] that one day I can dream of having hundreds and bringing vegetables to many people in really poor communities across America with Beefsteak [my fast-casual restaurant].
[It] excites me, the crazy idea that I am going to do a movie one day before I die, and I am writing the script for the movie. Even if it’s a dream, I’m not gonna stop for not trying. It excites me that I was able to help on the script of “Hannibal” that I was the culinary producer of the NBC series.
[It] excites me that I can try to influence the meeting between the White House and the Indian government to make sure that they talk about clean-cook stoves. The only way to end hunger in this century is if the governments around the world invest in clean cooking. Over a billion and a half people in the world still cook with charcoal. And until we change that, we’ll never end poverty. Because families spend 20 to 60 percent of their salaries on charcoal to feed themselves, how is it possible that they’re not going to be poor and hungry?
Speaking of bringing Spanish food to the world, let’s say someone has never tried Spanish food. What should they try first? What’s at the heart of Spanish food?
I think at the heart of Spanish food, we’ll be having a glass of gazpacho, right? To think that a popular culture could develop a salad that is liquid is brilliant. If that was invented by a chef today, everybody would say that he is a genius, but this is something that’s been a dish for centuries.
How do you think about food? Let’s say you’re creating a dish. What’s the process?
Well, the process is not one way anymore. Very much in my world, everything is about Minibar, my 12-seat restaurant in D.C. It’s true that we have many other ethnic restaurants. For us, it’s only an excuse to learn more, to enrich my team and I with more knowledge. So we try to tell the story that we [have] learned. Sometimes it will be about Mexico [where] I’ve had many years traveling. Sometimes it will be Peruvian that is more recent.
I was traveling a lot in China, so we opened a Mexican-Chinese restaurant — very successful in Vegas — called China Poblano. And only in my lifetime, my best friend of early childhood in Washington becomes the Mexican ambassador in China, and there I am living in the Mexican ambassador’s home in Beijing, researching for my Chinese-Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas — if you built that story, you could not write a better story.
And I did it because of Mexicali, Mexico — that one town that was created by a lot of Chinese immigrants that lived in California after they built a railroad. There was one moment when they were thinking about sending them back to China, and many of them didn’t want to go. And in Mexicali today, you have these thousands of Mexican-Chinese people with a unique kind of cooking in town. What I did was a restaurant that is half Chinese and half Mexican. I didn’t mix it. I only have one taco that I mixed, and I only have one dim sum that I mixed. Everything else is very pure — the har gow, the shu mai. What is Chinese, what is Mexican is very pure. So there you can be having a very good wonton soup next to a taco al pastor. Somehow the flavors go so well. Then, finishing the story with Japan, I go and I open a Peruvian-Chinese-Japanese place [China Chilcano in D.C.].
Let’s get back to how you come up with something new.
Sometimes I go to work with artists [like glass sculptor] Dale Chihuly in Seattle or Gustavo Dudamel in L.A. [the director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic]. He challenged me with three symphonies. I answered him back with three dishes. You can find it on the internet. It was a very cool moment. I may go to M.I.T. or to Harvard. We teach there. We created a class at Harvard seven years ago — physics using food. It became one of the most popular undergrad classes at Harvard. It’s online. I also signed a paper with M.I.T. professors about water surface tension. So, inspiration, yes, I get it in normal ways — going to market, ingredients, a book — but then, we look a lot into history books. We are always inspired by history books that open the door into a past that sometimes we forget.
Speaking of history, there’s a movement in food right now where chefs are going back to their roots and reinventing it. Is that a trend that you’re seeing?
I don’t see trends anymore. I think the world is so big. So many billions of people living at once. I don’t see one trend that humanity is following. In certain levels, in certain groups that are fairly connected via social media, certain things seem to be happening. But I have a feeling that sometimes it’s happening because you’re reading more about it, more than me having a feeling like everybody’s going in one direction. Or, it’s some individuals that do a certain thing, and the press showcases that. But that doesn’t mean that everybody’s doing the same, or everything is going that way. It’s like the farm-to-table, or the local movement or the seasonal movement.
Why can I not be buying cherries in Chile if I’m helping a poor farmer in Chile? If you are in North America, tell me what you are eating in the middle of December or January or February. And what I’m only saying is: Why are we drinking Champagne in Mexico City from 1999 — Champagne ain’t local, Champagne from 1999 ain’t seasonal — and that’s okay. But then it’s not okay to bring cherries from, let’s say, Chile? Don’t we travel by plane to visit faraway countries? And that plane comes back to this city we belong? Why aren’t we using that plane to be bringing back something that ain’t seasonal where I live, but that’s seasonal where they live?
And what I mean is — it doesn’t mean that you have to be eating 100 percent of your food from 10,000 miles away — I’m not saying that. But I’m not saying that now we need to be monks either. More often people that are preaching are guilty like hell because their jeans are from Cambodia and they are coming from a factory that uses children as slaves.
So what I’m trying to say is that today what I like to see in terms of movements is more pragmatism from the top, because any extreme can be damaging. If Haiti has mangos, but we become totally local, and we don’t buy the mangos from Haiti, we’re going to have thousands of farmers going hungry in Haiti. So this is a good reason of why to import those mangos. A, I like mangos; B, they’re seasonal in Haiti and they’re one hour from a plane, so the mangos are actually closer than the clementines in Ojai.
For these kind of things, I try to be radical to prove a point, but then I try to be whatever is in the center. Obviously, if somebody opens a restaurant that is highly local and highly seasonal, I’m not going to criticize them. If anything, I’m going to applaud them and support them, because it’s great — so long as they don’t start blaming everybody else.
But if somebody’s telling me that now we’re going to be feeding humanity by going into the forest and feeding people with what we find, I would tell them, “Are you crazy? Are you nuts? This ain’t happening. Our forests cannot sustain humanity. Period.” Hunting in the middle of the forest to feed humanity, that’s not possible. So, if you give your speech and that’s what your restaurant does, great, don’t try to tell me that’s what we have to do, because if we did that, we’d kill the forest in five days.
You think about things on such a bigger scale than the average person. Are you always thinking to the future then?
You try, obviously. More than looking into the future, I try to connect the dots of the future with the past. That’s what I try to do. It’s easier to connect today with tomorrow;, it’s more difficult to connect tomorrow with the past.
In the immediate future, what are some things we can look forward to from you?
This summer, I will be in Spain working on R&D — you can follow along on Instagram and Twitter. We have three restaurants that are opening soon in Miami, New York and Maryland. If you haven’t seen it yet, my PBS show, which aired this past September, “Undiscovered Haiti with José Andrés,” is something you should see. I’m also going to be appearing with Emeril Lagasse on a new Amazon original series. It’s called “Eat the World with Emeril Lagasse.” In the show, I take Emeril to my hometown of Oviedo [Spain]. We will also visit Ferran Adria’s ElBulli Lab in Barcelona.