There is little more (OK, nothing more) exciting in a foodie’s life than receiving an invitation to meet José Andrés, the chef and owner behind Jaleo, Zaytinya, Oyamel, China Chilcano, BeefSteak, and numerous other amazing restaurants across the country.
The Bitches hit the culinary jackpot when we were invited by the man, the myth, the legend himself to brunch at one of his latest, China Chilcano. Andrés’ many restaurants span styles of cuisines and cities including Las Vegas, Miami, and Los Angeles, and he has a knack for nailing diverse styles of food, whether it be Spanish tapas, Mexican, or in this particular case, traditional Peruvian cuisine that highlights its Chinese and Japanese influences.
While brunching on the exquisite fare, we were lucky enough to soak in Chef José’s wisdom on life and food. We had the honor of talking with him (over many Pisco sours that went down all-too-easily) about his philosophy on brunching, his beloved daughters, and the D.C. dining scene. You can’t miss what he had to say, below.
You have created an empire in D.C. What drew you to this city?
Fate brought me to D.C. more than 20 years ago to open Jaleo, and very quickly the city became home. After the initial success of Jaleo, we had amazing opportunities to expand, and so we opened two additional Jaleo locations in the area, Zaytinya, minibar, Oyamel and minibar by José Andrés in a very short amount of time.
And just this past year, we welcomed two new restaurants to our family: China Chilcano and BeefSteak. I have restaurants and projects all over the country, but Washington, D.C., is and will always be my home base. It has become everything to me. This is where I’ve built my company, where I met my wife, and where our daughters were born. It’s home.
All of your restaurants span a range of cuisines and vibes. Can you walk us through how you come up with these diverse concepts?
For me, opening restaurants is telling a story. This is true of everything that I do, and when I’m traveling, I become inspired by different cultures and cuisines, and more often than not, I want to bring those stories back to America. What I look for is the story that inspires the menu, the place, and the experience. Through the food we learn about the history, culture, art, music, and cuisines of that particular place. That is what I need to begin my ideas. We root everything we do in story, in something authentic—whether its historical or personal—and then we have fun with it.
You have become something of an institution in this city. How have you seen the dining scene evolve? Where would you like to see it go next?
Everyone has always known Washington to be the political center of the U.S., but over the years Washington has transformed itself into an amazing cultural and food center, and we are only getting better. As a chef, it’s been amazing to see how much has changed and how many top chefs and restaurants have opened up from the fine dining tasting menus, to burgers joints and even the amazing food trucks.
For a long time, people looked to LA, New York, and Miami for the leading culinary trends, but the world is starting to pay attention to us and I’m so humbled to have been part of this evolution. What makes D.C. special is that at the end of the day, we have every embassy of the world here. We have an amazing diversity like no other city.
I hope that Washington will be a city where young chefs can open their first restaurant and find their first new job. My dream is that Washington will always be a city with a soul. And most importantly, I hope that all of the people in the culinary world here in D.C. will become the spokespeople of food issues that concern us today, from obesity to hunger.
And because we are in this city, I hope that we will use the power of feeding people to be agents of change, specifically on political issues. At the end of the day, eating is a political statement—so as chefs we can have a lot of power in the decisions the country makes about how it feeds its people, and we can influence how others eat.
As a European, what do you see as the biggest dining differences between Europe and the United States?
Well, first I would like to say that in 2013, my wife and I became citizens of the United States, so while Spain will always be my home, I consider this country my new home and I consider myself an American. But, I think food in America is truly unique because it’s such a vast country with such a variety of regional ingredients, traditions, and stories. Some of my European friends make assumptions about what they think is American food is and tell me that this country lacks food culture, and I always tell them they have no idea how rich and refined it really is.
The difference is that Spain and Europe have hundreds and hundreds of years of tradition, but America is still young, and while it has a rich food history, it is still building and creating its food culture, and that is exactly what makes it so open. When we opened Jaleo in 1993, it was risky because many people didn’t know about Spain.
People told me it wouldn’t work because this country is so used to big plates. But America really welcomed me with open arms, and what I discovered is that our tapas model worked because less is more. Americans want the flexibility to try more, because having an experience with a wide range of diverse flavors can be empowering.
As we know, you are always innovating. What can we expect next from José Andrés?
I think my team and I are at kilometer zero, and we are only at the beginning of our story. I think, really, the sky is the limit. I am always looking to the future to see how we can grow and learn. I think the most important lesson I’ve learned has been to not be afraid of failure and to experiment because inspiration most often happens when you work outside your comfort zone.
This past year, we opened our first-ever fast-casual concept, BeefSteak, and it is centered around an entirely new approach to this part of the culinary world—vegetables. It was pretty nerve-wracking, but right out of the gates we saw support from our community and are seeing many successes.
My hope is that one day we will have a BeefSteak in every state of this country. And that I will be able to feed one million people in one day. It is an ambitious goal but I believe that you have to constantly be challenging yourself in order to succeed.
We know you are staunchly committed to your charity work. How has your position as a chef helped you to do this?
It was the great philosopher Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin who said, “the future of nations will depend on how they feed themselves,” and I believe this is truer today than ever before. Food is at the heart of many issues we are facing today, like obesity and hunger, and while some may see it as the problem, I believe that it can be used as a solution. And because I am a chef, I am responsible for finding those solutions and demanding change.
Members of the food community, like myself, have the answers to the many problems that the world faces. From farmers and fisherman, to the truck drivers transporting the food and the chefs cooking it in our restaurants, we are all a part of this food chain that is dedicated to feeding our communities, our nations, and our world, and that is a great power.
My friend Robert Egger showed me how food can be used to create sustainable solutions with his organizations D.C. Central Kitchen and now, LA Kitchen, which was inspired by D.C. He taught me that how we use food with charity doesn’t have to stop with feeding the hungry in soup kitchens; it can be used to give people a new path in life, training them for jobs that will empower them and give them a brighter future.
And the work we are doing in Haiti is showing how improving something as simple as a cookstove can change the environment, our health and the economy for the better. Food can and will be the answer, and my role as a chef has helped me see that.
Where is your favorite place to brunch in town?
My favorite place to brunch is in my kitchen with my wife and daughters.There is nowhere I’d rather be than in my kitchen with my three daughters and my wife. If it’s the summer, we will cook fresh eggs that we collect from our own backyard, and we make tortillas with fresh vegetables grown in our garden. But if I’m dining out, I have to go with my home country cooking at Jaleo. One of my favorite dishes from Spain is Arroz a la Cubana, which is a comforting rice dish with tomatoes, ibérico pork belly, and a fried egg, and I just love Jaleo’s.
What is your favorite dish to cook for brunch?
Tortilla españolas. Or migas, which is fried leftover bread with onions and eggs. It’s great to feed a crowd. And if I’m cooking with my daughters, olive oil pancakes.
What brunch item do you have to order if it’s on the menu?
Quite frankly, if I could order everything on the menu, I would. When I eat out, I want to enjoy the dishes that the restaurant does best, so it’s always changing.
Do you prefer Bloody Marys or mimosas?
I’d take a Bloody Mary any day, as long as it’s made with Mezcal. My favorite is my friend Ron Cooper’s Del Maguey, especially the Iberico Mezcal, which was our creation and uses the iconic ibérico de Bellota ham. Ibérico in a Bloody, it’s the perfect match!
If you had to invite a group of local celebrities to brunch, who would they be?
I would invite all of the greats of Washington, D.C.’s culinary scene—the people who have made it the food city that it is today. People like Nora Pouillon, the first person in history who started serving organic, farm fresh food in her restaurant. I’d also invite all of the farmers and wine makers from the surrounding areas in Maryland and Virginia who make it possible for chefs and me to be doing what we’re doing in our restaurants.
I imagine us sitting around a table, talking about how unique and amazing our city is, and breaking bread with some of the best our city offer. We’d eat oysters from the Rappahannock River, we’d drink wines from Virginia, and we’d eat bread from Dog Tag Bakery in Georgetown. And a paella from Jaleo, of course!