When TIME named chef José Andrés one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2012, that distinction wasn’t just a tribute to his work inside the kitchen.
His brand of excitable charisma—wrapped up in politics, technology, and education—was recently on grand display once again when the native Spaniard announced his plans to sever ties with Donald Trump following the mogul’s anti-immigrant remarks. After 23 years of living in this country, Andres became a legal citizen in 2013. It was an important stepping stone in the chef’s storied career that symbolized something much greater than his James Beard Awards—that immigrants, he says, can become legal residents who pay taxes, start business, and create more jobs. The #DumpTrump campaign was far from a PR stunt; it was a testament to writing his own story here in America.
“I arrived in New York City in 1991 with little more than $50 and a set of cooking knives to my name,” says Andrés. “I remember being on Fifth Avenue in New York City, watching this guy sell hot dogs from his dirty, smelly cart and thinking to myself, ‘If this guy can stand here, with his own business and be in his own kingdom, I belong here.'”
Twenty-one restaurants later, Andrés has made the dream a reality at every level of the food-world chain, from his molecular tasting menus at minibar or The Bazaar, to branded jamon Ibérico products, to his most recent veggie-centric fast casual concept, Beefsteak, intended for the masses.
In many ways, Andrés’ ambitious pursuits mirror those of world-renowned chef Ferran Adría, who mentored him during a stint at elBulli in the late ’80s. “[Ferran said] you have to understand tradition, the story. You cannot innovate and be creative unless you have mastered these.”
While Adría’s mythology is tied deeply to his tormented, mad-scientist persona, Andrés has a mainstream, jocular appeal about him, tweeting just as feverishly about NBA player Paul Pierce (whom he promised free meals if he stayed with the Wizards) as he does about the latest Supreme Court ruling.
Andrés contains multitudes, and many have fallen into his generous orbit. In an e-mail, Michael Voltaggio, who worked under Andrés as chef de cuisine at The Bazaar, called him “a dreamer.” Same with longtime cohort Anthony Bourdain, who said that the D.C. pioneer is “a creative force, an activist—a big-hearted, sincere guy who really truly wants to make the world a better place.”
From epiphanies at elBulli, to life lessons doled out by his father during a paella-making session, take a look at the 10 food moments that launched José Andrés dynamic career.
Making this dish is one of my earliest childhood memories. I was probably no more than seven or eight when my father took me to the town where he grew up, Ribas, which is located in the Aragón region of Spain, about two hours from Barcelona. We had a second uncle who lived there in this very old house. It was very cold that day, because it was early spring during Lent, and it was already getting dark when we arrived. There was a big, metal cauldron over an open fire in his chimney in the kitchen, and he was cutting bread. I watched as he sprinkled the bread with water, massaging it with his fingers, and then letting it rest. He let me pour some water over the bread, too. He then took some pork fat, melted it in the pot, and threw in the bread. As he cooked it, he seasoned it with more pork fat and garlic cloves. The smell was intoxicating, and it took practically an hour of cooking to be ready. Experiencing this dish of sautéed bread that’s perfectly crispy and at the same time perfectly soft, is something I’ll never forget. Simple yet unbelievably delicious, its inspiration has rarely left my side since that day. (Photo: Flickr/Jonathan Pincas)
Growing up, we would always have Sunday cookouts at my house in Mieres, Spain, and my father would do all of the cooking. They were a lot like the barbecues we know of today in America—men out in the backyard, drinking beers and gathering around the grill. My father would make a giant paella that could feed the large crowds that would come over. I always wanted to help him cook, but all he would let me do was collect firewood and tend the fire. I thought it was the most boring job in the world, but I did as he asked. Only for so long, though, because one day, I reached my boiling point and blew up at my father in front of all of our friends and relatives. My father ignored me and let me stew in my anger off in the woods by myself. At the end of the day, when everyone had gone home, he came and found me, and taught me one of the greatest lessons of my life: He told me that the most important part of making the paella was not the chopping, the sautéing or the stirring—it was the fire. The cooking was the easy part, because without the fire, there wouldn’t even be a paella. It took me a while to appreciate what he was trying to tell me, but now more than 20 years later, I understand. In order to be successful in life, you’ve got to build the fire. You have to learn the basics in order to excel and move on to anything else in your life. (Photo: Flickr/Matt Westgate)
Ferran Adriá’s Liquid Croquetas
Working under Ferran Adrià at elBulli was one of the most influential experiences of my life. I’ll never forget the day when he first tried to make his famous liquid croquetas. It was 1988, my first year working with him, and I was working the fry station, making beet, sweet potato, and artichoke chips. On a station nearby, somebody was making a gelatin of almond milk. Ferran came into the kitchen, walked over to the gelatin station, and started tasting it, staring at the spoon of gelatin so intently. Then he turned towards my station, observed the pot of oil, and looked back at the gelatin. Back and forth his eyes went, with a look that could reach deep into the heart of the earth. I knew what he was thinking—we all did. He grabbed the spoon of gelatin and threw it into the oil. You can probably guess what happened next, because cold water doesn’t usually do well when thrown into a vat of oil. He tempted the fate of science that day, and even though his experiment didn’t work out, the experience became a huge stepping stone for me in my career. “If I don’t test it, I won’t know,” he had said to me before he put the gelatin in the oil, and that was one of the most important “aha” moments of my career. I fell in love with cooking that day, because I saw that it’s so much more than just cooking: it’s about learning while you cook, and pushing the boundaries of what you know so that you can grow and move forward. (Photo: Nextaphile.com)
Jamón Ibérico (comes to America)
If there was one food from Spain that I had to choose as its culinary ambassador, jamón ibérico de bellota would be it. It is the heart of the nation! The ibérico breed, known as the “plata negra,” are legendary in Spain. They’re the descendants of wild boars who used to roam throughout the Mediterranean, and today they are one of the most prized animals in Spain for the jamón they produce. The pigs are raised free-range and are given a rich diet of acorn and grass, and the jamón is cured for four years before it goes to market. It is one of Spain’s most luxurious delicacies, and the burgundy-colored, marbled meat practically melts in your mouth. Today I can proudly say that it is one of Spain’s finest exports, which was not always the case. For ten years, beginning in 1995, my friend Santiago Martin and his company Embutidos Fermín and I struggled with importation regulations in order to bring this prized possession to America. In 2008, we succeeded. As someone who is often referred to as an “exporter of Spain,” I am so happy to have been a part of this achievement. (Photo: Flickr/Yosoynuts)
Hunting for Gooseneck Barnacles
The northern coast of Spain is often referred to la Costa de La Muerte—the Coast of Death—because of its jagged, steep cliffs, strong currents, and unpredictable weather patterns. For the many people who reside in the small towns that line its shores, it’s also the place where they make their living, diving deep to where the sea meets the mountains to hunt down gooseneck clams. These clams, known as percebes in Spain, are a true delicacy of the sea. Their shells almost resemble something that came from prehistoric times, but the meat inside is tender, sweet, and savory all at once. When you taste them, it’s like tasting the ocean. It’s truly astonishing, but it comes at a dangerous price. A couple of years ago when I was filming an episode for my show, Made in Spain, I joined some of these gooseneck divers on the coastline of Cabo de Peñas. As we geared up in our wet suits and goggles, I looked out into the angry surf and for one of the few times in my existence, I feared for my life. Someone stayed back as we dove into the waters, perched on top of the cliffs with a whistle in hand. I was given very clear instructions that day: Get out of the water when you hear that whistle. I have a new appreciation for the clams, now. How few fishermen there were, how hard their work was, and how dangerous it could be shed a new light on the people who put their lives at risk every day all in the name of providing food. (Photo: Flickr/Paul Cooper)
When I opened Jaleo in 1993 in Washington, D.C., my mission was clear: to share the cooking of my home country, Spain, with America. And that was mainly through tapas, which, to Americans, are basically small plates. The idea of sharing a bunch of dishes amongst the table seemed like a new concept at the time, but in fact, tapas were already here long before I arrived—it was just that nobody was paying attention to them. Everyone in America liked to order huge meals and eat them all by themselves, and although tapas restaurants already existed, nobody was able to transform them the way Jaleo did. Tapas are more than just small plates, they are a way of life, and Jaleo taught people that. There is an intimacy that goes along with them. It’s an experience of trying a few different things together that creates conversation and brings the table together. The portions aren’t horrible for our health, either. I believe this is the way we should all be eating, whether its tapas or mezzes or sushi pieces, or your general small plates. (Photo: Flickr/Jan Mark Holzer)
Michel Bras’ Gargouillou
Michel Bras brought new light to vegetables when he created his Gargouillo dish at his Michelin-starred restaurant in Laguiole, France. This beautiful salad of individually prepared vegetables, which vary each day depending on what’s available, is his tribute to the town he grew up in, Aubrac, as a reinvention of its classic dish of ham and potatoes. This dish has influenced chefs around the world. It reflects the land of the restaurant and is one of the earlier movements in culinary history that pays respect to the ingredients and products we use. Its preparation is at once simple but incredibly meticulous, beautifully showcasing the main star of the dish: vegetables. I may not have known it back then when Bras first created this dish, but it is in some ways a huge inspiration for me as I continue to develop my concept for Beefsteak. Simple, beautiful, vegetables—it’s all there. (Photo: Tomostyle.wordpress.com)
Philly Cheese Steak
A lot of what my team and I create might seem whimsical at first glance, but they’re really just familiar dishes that are interpreted in a different way. The Philly Cheesesteak that we created at minibar, and later brought to larger audience at The Bazaar in the SLS Beverly Hills Hotel, is a great example of that. Its presentation slightly elevates the Philadelphia classic, its taste nearly mimics it, but the experience is what is so transcendent. The meat is a premium-quality Kobe beef. The bread is a thinly rolled piece of pita dough that puffs up when it’s baked, giving an airy effect to the sandwich. And when you bite into the cheese-filled center, the experience is a journey unlike any you’ve been on before. The innovation that we do, the “molecular gastronomy” as some might call it, is not meant to be pretentious. It’s meant to offer a new experience to eating, oftentimes to dishes you’ve tasted before. (Photo courtesy The Bazaar by José Andrés)
A great deal of what inspires me is from things that you’d least expect. I am always trying to be impacted by something new and unfamiliar. Something that will help me push my boundaries when creating, almost to the point where I am uncomfortable. In the case of the Chihuly salad, that meant traveling to Seattle one day and knocking on the door of one of my favorite artists, Dale Chihuly. His blown glass sculptures are some of the most beautiful pieces of art I’ve ever seen. I wanted to translate that beauty and create something with it with food. What resulted was this salad, with delicate garden vegetables, caramel glass olive oil, and tiger-nut horchata. It was, quite literally, one of my first pieces of art. (Photo: Youtube/Think Food Group)
Salt Air Margarita
Back in 1995, when we were reopening Café Atlantico in the Penn Quarter, my team and I started using cutting-edge techniques in the world of cocktails. We were giving birth to a new kind of mixologist, the “chef bartender,” who believed that cocktails are just as instrumental to the meal in creating experiences as the food is. I remember my boy Todd Thrasher and I were always experimenting with how to bring a new layer of sophistication to cocktails—adding sweet and savory elements, or playing around with foams and airs and other techniques that were inspired by my friend Ferran at elBulli. Our passion-fruit margarita was a balance of spicy and sweet, and it showcased the passion fruit in two different textures, as the purée in the cocktail and as foam on top. I always hated the salt rim on a margarita; too many times it was too harsh or too overdone. I thought about sitting on a beach, watching the ocean’s foamy waves crash into the shore, and how light and salty they taste on your lips. Salt on the rim, no more! It’s sea foam that hits your lip with my margarita. (Photo courtesy The Bazaar by José Andrés)