The Leaders of Enogastronomy

José Andrés, From a Humble Family to a 40-Restaurant Empire: The Story of a Great Chef

Francesca Feresin
copertina jose andres

José Andrés, From Spain to Conquering America: All About the Spanish Chef, a Student of Ferran Adrià, Who Helps the World Through His Non-Profit Organization, World Central Kitchen.

The story 

"I remember this Spanish guy who was shouting," says Chef Karla Hoyos, describing the first time she met José Andrés at the BBC. "He had just come back from a meeting with FEMA (the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency), and he was furious. And I thought, 'Oh, no. I don't want to deal with this person. I don't care who he is.'" It was September 2017, shortly after Hoyos arrived in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, the storm that devastated the island, claiming nearly 3,000 lives, rendering most roads impassable, and knocking out 80% of the power grid. Several days earlier, Andrés had landed with a team from his non-profit organization, World Central Kitchen (WCK), founded in 2010 after his return from Haiti, where he had provided meals to survivors of a catastrophic earthquake. Initially, the organization focused on long-term aid programs, such as nutritional support for young mothers, but after Maria, its efforts shifted to deploying an army of "culinary first responders" to feed people affected by the world's worst disasters, both natural and man-made.

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As Andrés grasped the enormity of the challenge Puerto Rico faced, he began calling in the troops, asking chef friends and others to join. At that time, Puerto Rico was still under curfew, so the WCK team worked from around 4:00 AM to 8:00 PM, and each day ended with a debriefing led by Andrés at a hotel. Hoyos remembers the questions he posed. "How can we do this? How can we feed more people?" A few days later, Andrés was set to deliver 5,000 meals in a city an hour away, but he told Hoyos to prepare an extra 1,000 sandwiches. When she pointed out that there were only 5,000 people in the entire city, making the extra food unnecessary, he replied, "What about the people we encounter along the way?" Her initial apprehension quickly dissipated. "He thinks of everything and truly cares."

jose andres Xaume Olleros
@Xaume Olleros

For Andrés, "chefs have one of the greatest responsibilities of all. Our industry touches everything: agriculture, labor, immigration, the environment, diplomacy, national security. If we don't use our voices to say something, to help make the world a better place, why are we here?" Before becoming famous for feeding an island, the chef had already reached the heights of his profession, building a culinary empire in Washington and beyond: nearly 40 restaurants to date, including The Bazaar, Zaytinya, and his cutting-edge 12-seat minibar. And let's not forget to add to his resume roles as a bestselling author, television host, podcast producer, educator, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee. His latest endeavor is a new cookbook, released on September 12, focused on recipes associated with WCK's global relief efforts.

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Born in Asturias, Spain, and raised in Barcelona, Andrés was shaped by his country's gastronomic culture. "We weren't wealthy when I was a child, and my mom and dad had four boys to feed, so it was usually about fresh, simply cooked food." Yet, slowly but surely, the chef began working in the kitchens of Barcelona and the Spanish Costa Brava, where he met Chef Ferran Adrià, his future boss and mentor. It was 1988, four years after Adrià had taken the helm of elBulli, a humble seaside restaurant in the Catalan town of Roses where every culinary norm imaginable was shattered. After lunch service, Adrià stayed in the kitchen to experiment, and Andrés was always right there with him. One day, they attempted to fry jelly and make it explode in oil. "Our reaction was surprise, like 'we're crazy!'" says Adrià, "but at the same time, we felt like anything was possible."

jose andres Scott Suchman
@Scott Suchman

Eventually, Andrés left Spain for the United States, doing stints in New York and California before taking the reins of a new Washington DC restaurant called Jaleo. It didn't take long before he attracted customers, media attention, and the respect of his peers. Adrià extols the formidable skills of his protégé – "José has a special talent for everything related to gastronomy" – and that sentiment is echoed by Andrés' good friend Eric Ripert, the chef of Le Bernardin in New York, the only restaurant to maintain its four-star rating from The New York Times for three decades. "José is, in my opinion, if not the most creative, one of the most creative chefs in the world today."

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When asked to describe Andrés, Dominique Crenn said she wouldn't even emphasize the fact that he's a chef. "This guy is an incredible human being, and I've experienced it personally." Not long after becoming the first female chef in the United States to earn three Michelin stars with her Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Andrés was a constant source of support. "He helped me without hesitation, and he's a great listener." Listening is a skill Andrés acquired early in his career, as demonstrated by a recipe in the new World Central Kitchen Cookbook, a beautiful compendium of dishes created or adapted for the organization's activities in distressed places around the world. It features recipes from Michelle Obama, Meghan Markle, Guy Fieri, Ayesha Curry, Tyler Florence, Emeril Lagasse, and other chefs who have served on the front lines, including some mentioned in this piece.

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During his early days in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, Andrés was cooking with a group of local women. "I made them black beans, and they looked at me strangely." In the recipe they later taught him, the beans are mashed into a creamy puree, served with white rice. "If I had listened instead of starting to cook, I would have understood what they really wanted." That takeaway became an integral part of WCK's modus operandi. When the team arrives in a new location, it's essential to collaborate with local chefs and community members to better understand the culinary culture of a place. "José would say, 'Yes, I love paella, but I'm not going to Ukraine to give them paella,'' notes Hoyos. "You have to know their comfort food."

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WCK's effectiveness relies on its ability to react swiftly, a trait its founder seems to possess in abundance. The more you read about WCK, the more you realize that filling people's stomachs isn't the only purpose. It's important, of course, and the food must be delicious, but it's also about nourishing their souls. There's a famous photo in the cookbook taken in Puerto Rico shortly after Maria. Andrés and local chef José Enrique are caught serving a stew called sancocho in front of a cheerful pink building. If you didn't know better, their facial expressions and body language might lead you to think it was a friendly barbecue rather than a rescue mission. "We have to fill people with hope, especially when they've just gone through some of the most traumatic moments of their lives. That's empathy."

Cover photos: @Our Local Commons

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