The Purpose Driven Chef
Complex and compassionate, Chef José Andrés is a brilliant chef, consummate food visionary, gifted entrepreneur, and leader of the impressive $120 million Think Food Group. From avant-garde Spanish cooking at Jaleo to the imaginative, artistic cuisine at Washington's elite minibar to the brilliantly successful restaurants inside SLS Hotels, Chef Andrés has dramatically impacted how America eats. But his iconic restaurant empire is just the first layer of accomplishments for a man whose life and passionate commitments span education, philosophy, politics, and—of course—feeding the hungry. He recently talked with FSR about the opportunities and responsibilities that can empower chefs to shape a better world.
You've led a lecture series at Harvard on science and cooking, and taught "The World on a Plate: How Food Shapes Civilization" at George Washington University. How does food shape civilization?
It's only two things we do from the day we are born till the day we die, which is breathing and eating. One we do unconsciously and the other we do very consciously. Eating is very much at the heart of who we are. So we need to understand [that] to feed every one of us—and in order to feed humanity—we have to understand that food is at the intersection of almost everything.
Food is at the heart of reshaping history and historic elements. And to a degree, food has always been at the heart of national security. Past civilizations have been doomed by not having control of food sources, or by losing farmland control. Today, we see entire regions and countries on the edge of war because of food shortages.
Food is at the heart of science. Everything can be explained through food; physics and chemistry can be explained through using food as an example of where things happen. That was the idea of the class that Harvard began on food and physics.
Talking about physics often brings up the trendy concept of molecular gastronomy, but how do you describe the relationship of food and science?
Molecular is not a term we use; we've been doing avant-garde Spanish cooking. In the end, we cook with avocados and carrots and bananas, and we don't cook with anything strange. The only different thing is that now, more often than not, we have bigger control and understanding of what is happening, and we use the opportunities and possibilities to do other things.
Physics are just a small part of the equation—sometimes we learn from farmers, sometimes we learn from scientists, sometimes we learn from artists. Sometimes we learn from anywhere that there is learning to do, so science is one more part of it.
You've talked about wishing you could do a restaurant and feed thousands, and certainly DC Central Kitchen and World Central Kitchen are making progress toward addressing hunger issues. How can chefs become involved and make a difference?
I've been only the cheerleader of DC Central Kitchen, but I've been involved with it for 20 years, and now I'm chairman emeritus and a spokesperson. But we don't call it hunger issues. We like to call it opportunity: how food can become a source of opportunity.
DC Kitchen is a great program [that] we don't only do in this city, but we have the training program that has been very successful. We decided not to open other kitchens around America but to share what we know with other people around America, so others could be successful in their own communities.
For example, L.A. Kitchen is a great thing, and chairman Robert Egger has moved to L.A., and will be opening L.A. Kitchen very soon. It will show how—using very little resources from government—we can have a huge impact to save the state money and generate income by providing training and jobs to those that need it.
DC Central Kitchen was very much the reason for World Central Kitchen, to put some of the teachings and learning to work in the third world. We cannot have a happy America or safe America if we only take care of what is happening in our neighborhood.
In capitalism, I think it is possible to soften the system. I'm pro-business and I'm pro making successful businesses—but making sure we don't do it at the expense of others or in a very extreme way. I believe that we could be all successful, by taking care of people around us in the process. Sometimes it is a difficult dream to achieve, but if it is difficult perhaps we should work more towards it.
And building successful businesses is one of your strengths: What are your plans for growth?
We realize that we will have many different concepts that go from Spain to Mexico to China to America—from big plates to small plates, high-end to food trucks. We are a small company, but a very creative one, and we've risked more than many. For me, it was very easy to stay in my area of expertise—to stay only in Spain—but we did not do that. We have ventured into other areas, for two reasons. One, for the personal need of learning. And then to transform that learning into restaurants and to tell my stories through restaurants.
And [two], to understand that there are huge opportunities and that restaurants are content—in the same way that movies are content for theatres. Restaurants are content for buildings, for hotels, for malls, and there is a very direct dialogue that has to be happening between the developers and us, the chefs, on helping to bring the right content to fill the buildings, the hotels, and offices. So I can go to any of these big developers and say, 'You don't have to partner with 10 different people; you can partner only with one,' because I can provide all these different concepts that are unique and distinctive. I do all F&B at the SLS in Beverly Hills, and all F&B at SLS in Miami.
I think my partner is one of the first hotels with more than 300 rooms to give all the F&B to one chef. We are showing that this works because the hotel is more functional. Many people are involved—but at the end, it all goes through me, and I try to be the right leader and make the right decisions based on a wealth of information and all the talent around me. So we are showing this is a way to grow.
What are your plans for Jaleo and minibar?
Now I am in a creative moment, and I have to start letting my babies go and create a team. But I put everything through the mothership, which is my office, and these concepts, they gain a life of their own. I have four Jaleo concepts right now…a fifth one on the way with two others in the works, so there will be seven or eight Jaleos within a year and a half.
Jaleo is a way of growth for me, and hopefully the growth can happen better and quicker. That does not mean I'm losing control—just that I am giving more freedom for the concept to grow and finding the right developers and investors to make growth.
You said that every restaurant tells a story: Are you telling the same story in every restaurant or is it different every time?
The people you meet, books you read, ingredients you discover, celebrations you become part of, cities you fall in love with—it's all part of your experiences and your story. Jaleo is my experiences from what I learned through the years—when I have my first memory of eating Spanish food, cooking with my parents, my first experiences with Mexican cooking in New York, and my trips across Mexico for many years.
How do you prioritize all of your passions?
I'm 44, and I could be better off if I do less, but it would not be so fun. You always have more time in the future to do less.
I have friends and partners that tell me if we concentrate on less things, we would do those less things better. And that is a good argument that I keep close to my brain and close to my heart. But I still believe I can handle it. I only make sure I launch restaurants in the right direction and give them the right tools to succeed on their own. Like, we have three restaurants coming to Las Vegas, including the one in SLS Hotel and Casino. [The Bazaar will open this year in the SLS Las Vegas.]
Vegas is becoming very big for me. It will become as big as DC has been for me—and I need it fairly quick and fairly fast. But I have a great team in that project alone, and I've given them the right tools to make sure they are successful.
Will you spend as much time in Las Vegas?
Well, I'm one person, with only so much time in life for everything, and Vegas is only one part of everything we are doing. I will [ultimately] open 10 or 20 more Jaleos, and that's why I have teams of people, who will run this on their own.
How do you find people to be on your team?
I think every restaurant becomes an ambassador of who you are, and when people have good experiences working with you, people attract other people.
The American economy is a very liberal one in the sense that people come and go far more than in Europe. We've been working hard on retaining employees as long as we can. If they have a good experience, they tell others—and others tell others.
Your American Eats Tavern will be opening in a new location this year, in the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, Virginia. What prompted you to do an American-themed restaurant?
I have many on my team who are American, and I've been traveling and eating across America for 23 years now. I've been to many regions; I've been in many states, wine regions, farms—and you never become an expert, but you can argue that after a long time you become familiar. Also, I have a small collection of early American historical books, and I've been falling in love with the early story of America.
I see opportunity not only in America but also overseas. I think from a culinary point of view, America has not sold itself well overseas in terms of restaurants that represent this country from the wine industry to the cheese industry to the bourbon industry. I view that with many ideas in mind, but one is that I want to do my part to show what American cooking is. Some of the biggest hotel chains in the world are American, and they have expansion around the world. The less sexy restaurants, like the fast-food industry, have come to the world. But the world is ready for this other America that shows cooking at the highest level. Some of the greatest chefs in the world are here in America. And one day I think we will see more high-end American restaurants around the world—because it should happen.
Will you bring more high-end restaurants with American cooking around the world?
If things go well, I will have many American Eats restaurants around the world. Maybe not me, maybe I show someone else how to do it…but it should be happening. Marriott should be having them, Hilton should be having them. And I think one day it will happen.
Do you ever think about doing something other than restaurants? Do you ever think about holding a political office?
No [laughing], for that you have to be very prepared. And I don't think I am. I left school very young. But I do believe what we have seen is that more and more food people—not only the chefs—are taking active democratic or political involvement by going to the Hill or talking to senators or congressmen. We're making our voices heard on things from [food] stamps to immigration. People may think: 'What do [food] stamps or immigration have to do with chefs?' It has everything to do with chefs.
If we have people who don't make it at the end of the month, because they don't have enough food to feed their families, then because we are chefs it has everything to do with us. We are the ones feeding people—directly or indirectly—so it has a lot to do with us.
With immigration, we have farmers selling us things, and maybe these farmers are illegal. But they provide fruits and vegetables when we need them—but when we don't need them, we kick them out.
Nothing is right or left, nothing is black or white, everything is something in between. I think by us bringing our voices, and our special involvement, we as chefs can bring another layer of understanding and sophistication to the conversation of what it means to feed America and to feed the world.
I'm very happy to see Michel Nischan of Wholesome Wave, or Tom Colicchio with his documentary (A Place at the Table), or Alice Waters with her role in bringing farming to schools. I believe what we have seen is only the beginning of something bigger; we will have a bigger voice in the years to come. One day, we will see chefs becoming senators and congressmen—that will bring more balanced opinion and ideas to try to help Congress help America through the food decisions they make.
What do you want to focus your energies on next?
My company and group of investors, they are friends, and as friends they only want to see me doing better. If I had my partners in front of me, I would say I'm only going to focus on growing the restaurants and one day selling them for a lot of money, and making a big business.
But because they really know me, they know me at heart. They know me personally.
Yes, I will be trying to focus on what can bring great financial reward, and also on things that are not financially rewarding but are more personally rewarding. This is the kind of company I try to run. Maybe I'm being a fool or idealistic. Maybe it is not possible, but I'm going to try to do both.
Time becomes the most valuable asset people have. Even more when you have a lot of things going on. Because there must be time to give love to your family, time to give attention to people where you work, time to give yourself. Time becomes time to create, time to visit partners, time to visit countries. Time is the essence.
So if I can do more, why would I do less? Because time is something I cannot shrink, I cannot last longer. Time is time, and the clock is ticking. Because it is ticking, maybe it is not the right philosophy, but it is the one I am applying: You have to do more, while you can listen to the clock.
And your business enterprise just keeps becoming more diverse and complex—you've recently added a farm to your portfolio.
Yes, it's a little farm in Virginia; we call it the Think Food Farm. I was looking to start a farm—not to buy less from farmers—but to do some of the things myself. If I'm looking for baby peas, maybe it is easier for me to plant baby peas—even if it is only for one dish at Jaleo. For us, the farm is a fun thing to have, where I can experience for myself what it takes to grow foods, and I hope it will become a place where we can take kids to learn.
Have you ever had a farm?
No, but I grew up with farmers. All my friends were sons of farmers, and I grew up surrounded by tractors and orchards—so farming was very much part of my culture.
Would you like to have your own winery?
Yes, eventually it will happen. There are a lot of opportunities now, especially in Spain. But sometimes you do not want to get in the business you are not in. But if you are selling wines by the glass, and you have 10 or 12, why not sell one that is yours? It makes economic sense—and even more [sense] when you have a lot of [restaurants] to put the wine. Again, we don't want to take anything from anybody else, but having a farm and a winery gives you a real understanding of the cost of running a farm and running a winery. It is good for everybody that you learn this. Eventually a winery will happen because it is a natural transition.
What do you do for fun, or to relax?
When you are in my world, everything is fun. But I am a guy who had a big opportunity to do only cooking shows and I decided that was not the way I wanted to run my life. I want to do TV, but I want to make sure that TV does not take over my life. I want to use TV for the things that I am interested in, and at the same time I want to be a chef. And I want to run my company, I want to create, and be a father and a husband and a friend. So that is why I make sure that I find synergies in all I do. I may be on vacation, but I use the time to be smart, maybe to bring new employees with me or spend time with key employees, maybe I design a new restaurant with a hotel chain in the middle of my vacation. But yes, I like to play golf and tennis, to scuba dive, to hike, to cook at home, to look for old books—I have many interests.
Do you like to visit other restaurants?
Yes, but I realize every day I have less and less time. The last three years have been tougher for me to go to new restaurants, because when I am in town I need to go to mine. Maybe the town I go out the least in is my own town, Washington. And I should go more because I'm very proud of what has happened in Washington. Many guys who used to work with me have opened their own places over the years. I'm proud to see that, and the Washington-Virginia-Maryland area has become a very interesting place, very powerful.
Your restaurants are in hotels, in major cities, in suburbs. Do you have a preference of business models?
The good thing is we have individually owned, company-owned, and management deals—so we have a good spectrum of different options.
We call it embracing complexity. Some businesses have been successful by minimizing their complexity. But for me, I would die in a simple model, with simple menus.
My big challenge is to survive that embracing-complexity idea of mine. So far you could say we've been okay. The challenge is [whether] I will be able to grow it without losing the essence of who we are. That is the million-dollar question.
You talked about falling in love with many cities; is there a city you love where you would like to open a restaurant?
The issue for me is—when you fall in love with a place—you don't want to go to work. By opening a restaurant in Puerto Rico, you get to know Puerto Rico. Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East should all be on our plans for growth. But did my last trip to Peru mean I will open a Peruvian restaurant? Maybe no. But then again, maybe yes.