José Andrés is the Magic Chef
Spanish-born José Andrés is one of those chefs who seem to be something more.
Andrés is renowned for conjuring mesmerizing dishes that artfully merge science and cuisine, while simultaneously bringing Spanish food into the mainstream. Andrés has also helped turn the District of Columbia, where he is based, into a bona fide food destination. His 12 D.C.-area restaurants, including Jaleo and Zaytinya, are popular hangouts for the Capitol Hill set. Minibar, his 12-seat avant-garde laboratory/restaurant in the Penn Quarter, last year earned two Michelin stars for its tasting menu. Andrés now has a group of 27 restaurants (and counting), including locations in Miami, Puerto Rico, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Mexico City. Famously, he achieved all this having moved to the United States, in 1991, with 50 bucks in his pocket.
A James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef who has been named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People, Andrés' public profile is boosted further by his status as a best-selling author and frequent guest on television programs such as The Ellen DeGeneres Show, where this affable booster of jamón ibérico is more than happy to ham it up. “Don’t forget that I made Hannibal into a foodie,” Andrés quips, referring to his former consulting gig on the NBC show based on the serial-killing gourmet of the same name. “Seriously, I am not a guy who wakes up and doesn’t have anything to do.”
Today, wearing a plaid shirt with a North Face puffer vest, Andrés is busy finessing Bazaar Mar at Miami’s new SLS Brickell Hotel. As the fourth iteration of the Bazaar concept in partnership with SLS (there are also locations in Beverly Hills, Las Vegas and South Beach), Bazaar Mar marks Andrés’ first full-fledged foray into seafood. The move, he says, was a no-brainer.
“It made perfect sense because of the geography and the culture of Miami, a city that I love and know very well,” Andrés says, sipping from a bottomless cup of coffee. “It was a late night,” he says with a rueful smile. He goes on to say that Bazaar Mar draws inspiration from local waters, but also from those of his homeland, which are “far away and close to my heart.”
The restaurant's décor, by his friend and frequent collaborator Philippe Starck, is a sea of blue and white that brings to mind the hand-painted pottery from Delft and the deep-azure waters of Mykonos. In addition to Starck’s characteristically playful furniture and lighting, quirky tile work by the Barcelona-based artist Sergio Mora adds to the knockabout seafaring allure with inky imagery that recalls vintage sailor tattoos. On a tile, near a live aquarium adjacent to the raw bar, is a portrait of the chef as a strapping young sailor.
At 47, Andrés, who grew up in Asturias in northwest Spain and spent two compulsory years in the Spanish navy after culinary school (including a stint as an admiral’s chef), looks a little more portly than in the tiled rendering of him. But the dad bod—Andrés and wife Patricia have three daughters—is deceptive.
“José still has the freedom, fight and curiosity of a sailor,” says Starck, who has known Andrés for 15-odd years. “I have never seen so much energy in one person—he is like five nuclear reactors. He is so strong—he will break three of your ribs with a hug—and the ideas never stop coming.”
At Bazaar Mar the chef again defies expectations with a menu that celebrates the bounty of the sea, with a seasonal emphasis on Miami and the Caribbean. He hopes to lure less adventurous diners with relatively safe offerings, including satisfying little snacks such as tiraditos (raw fish cut in the shape of sashimi) and ceviches; gambas al ajillo (sautéed shrimp); and inspired reworkings of bagels and lox and mar y montaña (a Catalan variation of surf and turf). The endgame, he says, is always to get people to live a little and try something new.
“What’s the point of serving what every other restaurant has?” Andrés asks. “I know that a lot of people probably want oysters on the half shell, but the idea is to guide them to new experiences. We know that over time things like the seafood offal section”—ankimo (seared monkfish liver), Spanish butifarra sausage made with seafood—“might fall away, but we like to start big.” This translates to an equal-opportunity menu that includes Foie + Uni, a sublime dish of foie gras and sea urchin, txipirones en su tinta (seared baby squid in squid ink sauce) and, in a move that may be considered odd by some, the often neglected lionfish.
The coffee appears to be working, because Andrés is on a roll. “It’s the vermin of the sea, the rats of the Caribbean,” he says, ringing out the second phrase for dramatic effect. “Lionfish are outliving many species and really hurting the ecosystem. We serve it whole, fried and with tartar sauce. It’s not only a great dish but you are also helping to save our oceans one bite at a time.”
Though he is best known for his experiments with molecular gastronomy (a subject that the high-school dropout now teaches at Harvard with his friend and mentor, Ferran Adrià of the erstwhile elBulli restaurant outside of Barcelona), he also works in less rarefied surroundings. “Through my experiences in Haiti after the earthquake,” he says, “I’ve seen firsthand how using solar-powered cookstoves instead of toxic wood fire makes a huge impact in people’s lives.”
The recipient of a National Humanities Medal from former President Barack Obama, Andrés never descends into sanctimony. “Man, let me tell you about canning!” he says, rubbing his hands. “It is one of the great revolutions in history.” But before he can go chapter and verse into his admiration for Nicolas Appert, a 19th-century inventor who came up with the canning method as a way to preserve food for Napoleon’s bitter marches across Europe, he is called away to address a pressing issue in the kitchen. When he returns, Andrés picks up an earlier thread: “Ah, lionfish and playing Robin Hood! You can’t save every species, but it matters that you try. The big question we asked ourselves before we started was, ‘Are we going to be able to do this in a way that is responsible, in a way that we will be happy with ourselves?’”
In 2010, Andrés founded the World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that uses the power of food to strengthen communities around the world through health and education. Such work, in his view, is a responsibility rather than a virtue. “Restaurants feed a very small part of the population, but all of us combined have an enormous influence. When you dine at one of my restaurants, I have you captive, so I may as well use the time to do good in the world.”
This is why, in addition to opening a to-be-named restaurant at the Hudson Yards and a new Bazaar in New York’s SLS, one of his most important initiatives will be the ongoing expansion of Beefsteak, his oddly named collection of five mostly vegetarian restaurants on the East Coast. “I’m telling you, vegetables are the future,” he says. “It’s simple—I love meat so much but every time we eat a steak acres of trees are cut down in Brazil. Veggies have the power to change the world.”
Ultimately, Andrés says, eradicating hunger and poverty is a question of math. “The poor have a negative calorie equation. They spend more energy trying to feed themselves than the actual energy produced by the food they eat. It’s a simple algorithm, but if we are able to change this calorie equation, we will be able to change the lives of many.”