José Andrés
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José Andrés

Jim Poris / December 2005

Food Arts presents the December 2005 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to the irrepressibly energetic chef José Andrés, the best thing to happen to Spain in North America since 1492. Practically glowing from the culinary force field he radiates 24/7, Andrés channels the playful curiosity that governs his native country's notoriety for iconoclastic cooking into his Washington, D.C., restaurants Jaleo (tapas), Café Atlántico (Latin American), Zaytinya (Greek), and Oyamel (Mexican), making him the lightning rod for all things Spanish in the Americas.

"He has certainly made Spanish ingredients more approachable for Americans," says José Guerra, associate director of Wines from Spain. "José is a charmer, in a good way. He's got the Spanish vibe."

What's more, Andrés recently wedged the six seat minibar by José Andrés into the second floor of Café Atlántico, where he composes lengthy tasting menus in the spirit of his mentor and friend, Ferran Adrià (El Bulli, Roses, Spain); actively serves as chairman of the board of directors for DC Central Kitchen, a large food recycling/meal distribution/job training/community outreach program; initiated THINKfoodTANK, an R&D project; penned Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America (see page 66); and shuttles to Madrid to host Vamos a Cocinar, Spain's most popular TV food show. And he has a wife and three young daughters to whom he's passing on his unquenchable adoration of Barcelona's pro soccer team. Andrés is 36, and he's already received a James Beard Award as the mid-Atlantic's top chef.

"If [the late] Jean-Louis Palladin was like a hyperactive child, then José is like a hyperactive kid on speed," says Phyllis Richman, the doyenne of D.C. food writers. "He exudes such energy the air vibrates around him. He's offered D.C. diners a new way of dining, new tastes and new ideas in dramatic settings. Jaleo, which has been open so many years, is still fresh."

A native of Asturias in northwestern Spain, Andrés defied the 18 year old admission age by three years at the esteemed Escuela de Restauracio I Hostalatge in Barcelona, then trained in Michelin-starred kitchens—including El Bulli—before landing in New York City in the early 1990s to cook at the Manhattan outpost of El Dorado Petit, one of Spain's top restaurants at the time. High-end Spanish hadn't yet struck Americans, who could only habla ersatz paella and garlicky lobster, so Andrés fled to D.C. in 1993 to open Jaleo with partners Rob Wilder and Roberto Alvarez. Now there are three Jaleos in the D.C. area, diners who can differentiate morcilla from espuma, and devotees who happily follow Andrés down roads never taken.

"As a chef and as a person, I think the notion of the American melting pot has worked very well for me," Andrés says. "Spain is Spain, Greece is Greece, creative is creative, and traditional is traditional, and I've sought to find the synergy between them while keeping each authentic. Everything lends itself to something else while maintaining its own identity."