Shortly before he is slated to board a flight to Miami, I give Jose Enrique a call. The Puerto Rican chef—whose eponymously named restaurant in San Juan has helped bring serious culinary cred to the city—has been making frequent airport appearances as of late. His latest venture, which will open sometime this winter in forthcoming El Blok boutique hotel, is a 20-minute puddle jumper away on the dreamy isle of Vieques.
“Sunlight streams through the windows. It will be an open, mellow space, serving dishes like grilled fish and roast chicken,” Enrique says. Guests will also find vending machines cleverly stocked with the chef’s specialties, such as Bloody Mary mix and octopus salad. And, he’s excited to make “little baskets all ready to go with a bottle of rosé you can bring to the beach, too.”
Puerto Rico’s idyllic tropical surroundings, as well as deep familial bonds forged around the dinner table, influenced the San Juan native for a young age. “My paternal grandparents, when they left Cuba, they opened a restaurant here,” he says. “When I picture food, I picture happy. The whole family is there eating and having fun.”
When I picture food, I picture happy.
In high school, Enrique thought he would be a lawyer, but he had an inkling those plans were shifting when he raced home from school every day to watch the show Great Chefs Great Cities at 3pm. “My mom said I was obsessed and that I needed to do my homework,” he laughs. Tinkering with recipes, he gradually realized it wasn’t the courtroom he craved but the kitchen. An education at the Culinary Institute of America followed, as did cooking experiences from France to Florida, most notably marked by Todd English’s Riche in New Orleans, Café Centro in New York, and the San Juan Water Beach Club.
“The CIA was the beginning of my professional cooking career,” Enrique says, “but it was actually working in New York where I learned the most. I go back four or five times a year—I can’t not go there.”
Missing his family, Enrique eventually returned to San Juan, opening Jose Enrique in 2007, followed by the brasserie Capital and the coffeehouse Miel. At his flagship restaurant, he does not attempt to alter traditional Puerto Rican cooking, but rather elevate it by using the freshest local ingredients. It’s not unusual for a purveyor to stroll in right before the kitchen opens with choice mangoes that will inspire a new dish on the fly. Night after night, the no-reservations restaurant finds guests eating the likes of crab stuffed in a casing of fried plantain mash, avocado and caimito fruit salads, and carne guisada stew strewn with chunks of filet mignon. This melding of indigenous flavors and quality ingredients scored Enrique the honor of becoming a James Beard Award semi-finalist in 2013—the first time for a Puerto Rico-based chef.
“I love living here,” he says. “I’m into spending time with all my family and friends, and I also love the beach and surfing. But I guess I can cook better.”
Here, Enrique walks us through the dishes that have inspired his greatest cooking and eating exploits, from spit-roasted pig to chicken soup in Bogota.