BY TODD KLIMAN || PHOTOS BY SCOTT SUCHMAN
There are plenty of good cooks in this world. But to turn a pause for nourishment into a form of expression—on a level with the best art, theater, and books, one that leaves us shaking our heads in wonder—this takes more than just skill at combining flavors.
At the very highest level, cooking is about seeing. It is about seeing problems as challenges to be solved. Seeing adversity as an opportunity for innovation. Seeing traditions as means, not ends. And seeing the familiar, the conventional, even the tired in a fresh and maybe even magical way. José Andrés is one such seer.
It is the great and animating idea in his remarkable, shapeshifting career—to see anew, to alter the ordinary, to change the very way we think about food, from what and how we eat to how we think about its role in the world.
Those who have listened to him speak about a tomato’s gelatinous seed packet will never see those fruit guts in the same way again. For many home cooks, it’s the part to cut away and toss. For Andrés, it is the very essence of the tomato, a simple treasure.
Similarly, anyone who has dined at minibar, his experimental laboratory/kitchen in Washington, DC—just one of the 29 dining concepts in his portfolio, which extends to Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Mexico City, and encompasses every level from fine dining to plant-based fast food—is unlikely to walk out unchanged. When you pop a perfect spheroid of olive oil into your mouth, the resulting viscous rush made possible by liquid nitrogen, it is hard to remain blind: not just to the enormous potential of this one ingredient, but of all ingredients.
In recent years, this great chef has become a transformative figure far outside the bounds of the nation’s top kitchens. He’s hastened to disaster zones in Haiti, Puerto Rico, Houston, and California to help feed great masses of people stripped of their homes and possessions. He’s spoken out forcefully on immigration, even publicly battling with the president over a new hotel in which he once was set to debut a restaurant but pulled out upon learning of Trump’s views on immigrants.
At a glance, it might seem that this dynamo is spinning off into a new direction in his work—as many restless, high-profile, and highly creative people do when thirsting for new challenges. But in fact, the innovative chef is perfectly congruent with the humanitarian and thought leader. The first gave rise to the second. The two identities flow from the same source.
From seeing anew, from not accepting what is.
ART & SCIENCE
Some in the food world today have grown tired of molecular gastronomy. They see the devices and techniques as kitchen toys, inessential to the task at hand or even threatening to the established order.
Andrés has long resisted this mode of thinking. He is a believer, and a fervent and outspoken one. Why would a chef who yearns to be great, he often asks, look askance at any tool that might help him or her in that cause? And why would he or she not consider the tools and techniques as inspiration, a creative prompt to conceptualize new restaurants, organizations, or movements?
Technology and innovation have defined and shaped his career almost from the very start. It was during his mid-’80s apprenticeship at the Escola Superior d’Hostaleria de Barcelona that he got his first lesson in sous vide from Dr. Bruno Goussault, the man credited with bringing the cook-in-the-bag technology to the masses. Andrés was 17.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” says the chef, “an amazing opportunity for a young student.”
As the story goes, Andrés’ time under the legendary Spanish chef Ferran Adrià at El Bulli was his most formative experience. And to be sure, Adrià and El Bulli left a deep impression on everything from his philosophy of food to his methodologies. But it was thanks to Goussault that Andrés first linked cooking with science, and with innovation. And years later—again thanks to Goussault—Andrés was able to see that innovations in cuisine could have broad, real-world applications.
New to Washington and yearning to become involved in his new community, the young chef reached out to DC Central Kitchen (DCCK), a nonprofit organization that fights hunger and creates opportunity for poor, unskilled workers through culinary training. As it turns out, the nonprofit’s founder, Robert Egger, had recently connected with Goussault and his team at Cuisine Solutions.
SOMETIMES, IT IS NOT A NEW TECHNOLOGY AT ALL. SOMETIMES IT IS AN OLD TECHNOLOGY, REPURPOSED IN NEW WAYS.
Says Andrés, “Bruno and his team were working closely with Robert, donating a lot of their test products to DCCK and helping with their mission. I was impressed with the work they were doing, as well as their commitment to philanthropy. I had recently moved from Spain, where I had been working with Ferran and his team at El Bulli, pushing all of the boundaries of avant-garde cooking. And to see what these guys were doing in their labs in Virginia, pushing all of these advanced cooking techniques and exploring some of the technologies and techniques that I had only seen in Ferran’s kitchen—it was incredible to me.”
Two decades later, when Andrés hurled himself into the work of disaster relief, he might have been a novice—but he was not unequipped. Having seen firsthand how sous vide technology aided the effort at DC Central Kitchen, he knew that it could be of enormous benefit to him in feeding great numbers of displaced people through his nonprofit organization, World Central Kitchen.
After Hurricane Harvey last year, Cuisine Solutions made a massive investment in Andrés’ rescue operation, donating 40,000 pounds of sous vide food to the chef’s relief operation in Houston. Just as important as the sheer volume of food, says the chef, is the ease and adaptability of sous vide meals, the way they can be prepped so quickly to feed masses of people.
“It makes it much easier to prepare and serve meals that have been precooked and delivered in a bag,” Andrés says. “In disaster relief situations, it is important to serve food immediately, using whatever equipment and tools we have available—people are hungry now, and can’t always wait to eat until kitchens are set up. With sous vide proteins, it makes it so much easier to feed people, and to give them amazing meals— the dishes they make at Cuisine Solutions are really tasty— very quickly. I think this is the future of sous vide.”
It is often thought that a visionary is one who breaks new ground. But the reality is more complicated, and more interesting. The visionary is the one who connects unrelated and even disparate ideas—who finds links where others saw scattered dots.
It begins with asking questions, and with looking for ways to bring together elements in the world—from combining flavors or techniques for a dish to taking an organization for the hungry and scaling it to serve entire cities of displaced people. It begins, above all, with seeing.
A STUDENT OF THE WORLD
On TV, he is a charismatic showman, with the kind of exuberant, over-the-top personality that is irresistible to the viewer. In the culinary world, he is perhaps best known for popularizing small plates, a trend that has shifted the very nature of dining in this country, making it more accessible, fun, and inexpensive, and liberating it from old-fashioned hierarchies.
But Andrés is perhaps proudest of his work as an experimenter, intent on exploring and pushing the boundaries, and unlocking the potential of chefs and restaurants and food suppliers to benefit greater numbers of people around the world.
None of this would even be possible, he suggests, were it not for science
“I have always been fascinated by the science of cooking,” Andrés says. “To me, all cooking is science, so it makes sense for chefs to be interested in learning more about what we are actually doing in the kitchen.”
His deep regard for science means that though he draws upon the past, he refuses to be bound by it. He is determined to both find new and improved ways to use time-honored techniques, and to adapt the new techniques to create dishes laden with the character and soul of tradition. He is a progressive, and committed to fighting the complacency that overtakes many chefs and restaurant companies.
Sous vide has long been an integral piece of his kitchens. At Zaytinya, his mezze restaurants in Washington, DC, and Frisco, Texas, lamb shoulder is cooked sous vide for 12 hours at 70°C, resulting in tender, fall-off-the-bone meat. At Jaleo, with three locations in the Washington area and one in Las Vegas, the same approach is used for the bellota pork ribs, cooked for 12 hours at 72°C, until the meat is pink and luscious. His fast-casual restaurant, Beefsteak, with locations throughout the East Coast, employs the technology to cook a perfect egg, a mainstay for the chain’s vegetable and grain bowls. “It is so much easier in the fast service space to use a circulator,” says Andrés.
As more science seeps into cuisine, and as more technologies are introduced into the market, the chef’s need to push himself—and his cuisine—has manifested in constant and almost relentless study. He has made a point of setting aside time to learn, experiment, and grow, both as cook and as leader.
Not long ago, Andrés took his team to the Culinary Research & Education Academy (CREA), located in Sterling, Virginia. Among the trip’s discoveries was cryoconcentration, in which concentrates (a sauce, for instance) are created by freezing instead of reducing through heat.
A new dish for his restaurants has yet to emerge from that session, Andrés says, but he found the technique to be “brilliant,” and just as importantly, “it got the minibar team thinking a lot.” This, the chef seems to suggest, is the great beauty of allowing science into the kitchen—the way it stimulates thought and encourages experimentation. It matters much less to Andrés that a thought yields a specific idea than that it expands the culinary mind and encourages experimentation.
Ruben Garcia, creative director for Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup, has been with the chef since he was recruited from El Bulli in 2004. He spends his days, he says, “enhancing, improving, and rethinking” dishes and flavors. Andrés has urged him to think of technology not as gadgets to fall in love with, but as tools to create new sensations.
“In the end, we are cooks, not scientists,” Garcia says, echoing his boss. “We love science and depend on science, but we are cooks. If something is not delicious, it doesn’t matter if it’s different or a discovery.”
Freezing has long been among Andrés’ chief preoccupations. It is not hard to see why. Throughout history, culinary wisdom has dictated that to create flavor, one should apply heat—all the way back to a caveman’s roaring fire. Refrigeration and freezing are of relatively recent vintage, and, to Andrés’ free-wheeling mind, remain woefully under explored.
At minibar, where most of his bolder ideas are first hatched, the chef and his team have been experimenting with cryoblanching, first developed by the innovating chefs Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa.
What excites him is applying the new technique to make a simple, traditional dish more intensely delicious. “For ingredients like shellfish that have super intense flavors … blanching and shocking forces you to leave all the flavor in the pot,” says Andrés.
The same goes for compression, one of Andrés’ other recent preoccupations. Through the aid of a high-pressure vacuum sealer, air is removed from the cell walls of a fruit, vegetable, meat, or fish, and, sometimes, sealed with fruit juice or syrup. Andrés and his team are using it to produce a head-spinning new version of the watermelon margarita—in this case, sliced watermelon compressed with mezcal, finished with sour orange gel, and served ice cold on a block of Himalayan salt.
In some cases, the dishes born in the minibar lab come from exploring a new technology. But most dishes are born from asking questions that chefs have been pondering for centuries— How can I make this more delicious? How can I extract more flavor from this sauce?—then applying new technology to discover the answers.
Consider the freeze dry machine, often used for ice cream, but that Andrés uses to create a crunchy, dried texture from strawberries, similar to a meringue.
Or consider, yes, the lowly microwave. Andrés and his team use it to create a knock-off of socarrat, the crust of rice that develops at the bottom of a paella, cooking rice past the point of tender until left with a kind of cracker, dry and crunchy and reminiscent of Cheetos.
It only surprises the chef that anyone should be surprised. “To me,” he says—with characteristic ebullience, practically racing over himself to share words and ideas and theories— “a microwave oven is super high tech!”
To one who sees, truly sees, all things are possible.