Washington, D.C.-based chef José Andrés never runs out of energy, which is a good thing because he never runs out of things to do. He’s got restaurants all over the country, including three in Las Vegas (Jaleo, É by José Andrés and China Poblano, all at the Cosmopolitan); he’ll soon open one in Puerto Rico; and he’s constantly doing cooking demos, charity events, celebrity appearances and TV shows.
On a recent Sunday morning in the nation’s capital, Andrés has slowed down enough for me to trail him through the farmers market at Dupont Circle. He isn’t moving at his usual brisk pace, only because the well-known 42-year-old native of Spain is frequently stopped and greeted by shoppers and purveyors. Eventually, he makes it through the crowd then departs for a series of meetings, but not before directing me to two of his D.C.-based restaurants—Jaleo and Zaytinya, the latter a Mediteranean eatery where he does mostly Turkish and Greek cuisine—to sample some of his fare.
Several hours later, we rendezvous in Penn Quarter at America Eats Tavern, Andrés’ latest project and one that took him years to research. The restaurant’s name is an homage to America Eats, a book done in the early 1940s as part of the Roosevelt Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project. Here he riffs on dishes from all over the country, many of which come from recipes that date to the Revolutionary War.
Not long after Andrés walks in the door, it’s immediately clear that he’s distracted (as usual) and hungry. A Maryland blue crab arrives at the table, and he demonstrates the proper way to eat it, starting with drinking the liquid from the shell. “See how amazing these crabs are!” he says, beaming.
He’s definitely on to something, as I’ve never had crabmeat that tasted this good, with a texture that’s almost like that of a mousse. Makes you wonder what this culinary genius could do with a Thanksgiving turkey. At this moment, Andrés is consumed by this crab, but as I quickly learn, the man who apprenticed under Ferran Adrià—perhaps the world’s most famous chef—at the famed elBulli doesn’t stay focused on any one thing for very long.
When did you decide to seek your fortune in this country?
I was in the Spanish Navy in the late 1980s, and we called in Pensacola, Fla., City of Five Flags. Look at how perfect this crab is; that’s the way to steam a crab! Anyway, I got arrested for a petty crime, which I don’t even remember, and was released because the police realized I had been falsely accused. The next thing I knew I was in New York, admiring the Statue of Liberty.
So what were the first jobs you had here?
A fellow Catalan, Lluis Cruanyas, opened a restaurant in New York called Eldorado Petit, and I worked there as a chef for a while. Then I worked in places like Puerto Rico, La Jolla, Calif., and in Spain before permanently settling in Washington, at which time I did my first Jaleo, in 1993.
America Eats is some concept. When did you begin thinking about it?
The very first minute I landed in America. I love history, and my mind works at 150 miles an hour [he’s cracking yet another crab]. The idea developed over 20 years. It was all my idea—but I’ve had help.
What are your favorite American dishes?
I love jambalaya; it’s almost a perfect dish. I just bought pawpaw trees. Do you know what the pawpaw is? It’s the perfect fruit. During the 18th century, [Ben] Franklin and [Thomas] Jefferson had pawpaw trees. It’s the ultimate American fruit. [Editor’s note: the pawpaw has a sweet, yellow flesh and is sometimes referred to as mountain papaya.]
I also love maple syrup. My dessert, snow with maple syrup, is a higher celebration of American cooking. I love hush puppies. Have you tasted my hush puppies?
Why did you branch out to Las Vegas, and would you open an America Eats Tavern here?
When I cook, I only cook to please myself. If I cannot please myself, I cannot please the guest. I opened in Vegas because I wanted to have a little Spain in Vegas. Why did I open China Poblano there? Vegas is a true destination, as much as any city. [He cracks another crab.] Vegas can be the meeting point between China and Mexico. I don’t know if I’ll do an America Eats in Vegas. I’m already bored. We’ll see.
What’s your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge is working with the press [grinning]. I have to deal with the press. [Muttering something under his breath in Spanish.] Can we hurry up and finish this? You are really starting to bore me.
Well, OK, what cuisine or cuisines would you like to tackle next?
I really want to open a steak house that doesn’t serve meat in the same old way. Meat is really so much more than [voice trails off]. If I tell you, though, I’ll have to … [voice trails off once more, while he tackles one more crab]. I can’t tell you. I don’t want to tell you.