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Chef José Andrés on Mastering Your Craft

A long lunch with the influential chef on cooking, politics, and learning as you get older.

José Andrés slides into a corner booth in midtown Manhattan’s Landmarc restaurant, glances down at the menu, and announces: “I am going to be very disappointing.”

Andrés, you see, is currently on a diet, trying to combat one of the foremost perils of being a world famous chef: having incredible food around all the time. And so instead of the high-wire molecular gastronomy he pioneered, or the Spanish tapas small plates he helped popularize in the United States, Andrés settles for French onion soup (no bread, no cheese) and a chopped salad. And while he could probably pass on the bottle of cider, he allows an indulgence because it reminds him of time spent with friends and family on a recent trip to his hometown in Northern Spain.

Andrés has won pretty much every award there is for a chef to win, as well as some most chefs don’t win—in 2011, Time magazine named Andrés one of the world’s most influential people. At this point in his career, the 46-year-old isn’t sure exactly how many restaurants he currently owns. (I tell Andrés that my rudimentary research puts the number at 17. “Maybe more?” Andrés suggests with a shrug. “I’m not sure how it happened.”) From his home base in Washington, D.C., Andrés serves everything from tapas in Vegas to veggies in Philly. The next venture for Andrés will be the seafood-driven Bazaar Mar, opening in November in Miami’s new SLS Brickell hotel.

After becoming an American citizen in 2013, Andrés looks forward to voting in his first presidential election this year. There is not, however, much question about his vote: Andrés is currently embroiled in a legal battle against Donald Trump. Over a long (and light!) lunch with Chef Andrés, we went deep on politics, cooking at home, molecular gastronomy (a term he despises, by the way), and mastering your craft.

GQ: Last night I watched the episode of Emeril’s new show on Amazon where you guys visit [Ferran] Adrià’s workshop. It was remarkable to see Emeril reduced to tears and basically saying, “I know nothing.”
José Andrés: I think as you grow older and wiser you realize the more you know, you know nothing. Especially in the culinary world. The same thing is happening to me now with Spanish food, which many people would say I’m an expert…

You are.
I spend my whole life traveling, eating, milking cows, making cheese, fishing, learning every aspect, and I still [know nothing]! The list of places and things I need to visit and do, I mean… how do you catch a squid under the full moon? Because they say those are better than the others. And I’m like, really? Who says that? But you have to check. You have to find out. It never ends! So finally you move from where you’re from, and then you’re are like, shit, Italians cook too? Even the British [have] cooking? Now the vikings cook, too? Oh and there’s Asia? It’s impossible.

So what do you do? Instead of trying to master everything, do you just focus on the thing you know best?
As different as everything is, everything is super equal. For instance [he picks up a bottle of water on the table], we can do a master class with the things we can do with a bottle of water. That puts you in place. You can steam it, or you can boil it, or you can freeze it, and you can do different forms of ices, and forms of frozen, and you can make croquettes and you can make puff pastry. Water allows us to do anything. You can make different gelatins—gelatins that are hot, gelatins that are soft, gelatins that are hard. So, I think understanding certain basics allows you to be a good cook.

To me, I‘ve been fascinated with tomatoes and eggs. As I’m traveling around the world I see there’s a lot of different versions of tomatoes and eggs in unique ways. You go to Greece or Turkey, they have their eggs. You go China, they have a tomato sauce. You keep traveling, and there’s eggs and tomatoes everywhere. In Peru, in Spain—different versions, different spices, the same ingredients. So in the end you realize there are differences between a phyllo and a puff pastry, between a ravioli and a dumpling. But then we talk pure physics…

"I think as you grow older and wiser you realize the more you know, you know nothing."

It’s pretty much the same.
Same molecules, same forms. It takes that time of understanding. It’s super complicated, but it’s almost like trying to become a Jedi and saying, “Let’s try to control it, because it could be controlled.”

But for that you have to have understanding, good knowledge, and then you feel more at peace with yourself. You still know that you nothing, but it helps you unite your thoughts.

Do you have specific ingredients that have stuck with you over the last twenty years?
Things come and go, but in life we all need anchors, anchors that keep us on solid ground, whether it’s family and friends, maybe a place of happiness. Culinary ingredients, for a cook or chef, are our anchors.

So what are your anchors?
I’m still in discovery mode. I consider myself still young—I’m a 47 year old walking millennial [laughs].

How often do you get to eat dinner at home?
Yesterday I arrived home at 1:00 A.M., and I am in Washington only one day this week. I was supposed to get home earlier and have dinner, but everybody showed up at my restaurant, and when I say everybody, I mean everybody: Laurene Jobs; the Secretary of Education; Alice Waters showed up, all on a normal day. I don’t complain because I manage my life, I create a life for me and some days I have family time, some days I do not. But I cook for my family every second I have.

I’m guessing you don’t do molecular gastronomy for dinner on a Tuesday night?
Well, we have totally confused this thing, molecular gastronomy. When we put a stick in orange juice and we freeze it, I’m sorry, but that’s molecular gastronomy. When we open a bottle of beer and serve it and the foam comes, that’s molecular gastronomy. When we take butter out of the refrigerator and leave it out and the butter becomes softer, that’s molecular gastronomy. So to a degree, we all do molecular gastronomy. That’s not a name I like to use because it makes cooking seem very scientific.

It sounds clinical.
For people of the world, cooking is about molecules, and so is life, and so is moods. Some people have good molecules, and some people know what to do with those molecules, and some people don’t know. Not every croissant you eat is good and not every coffee you drink is good. But no, I cook. My wife cooks with the help we have at home, and sometimes I intervene and try to push the envelope forward.

What kind of stuff do you eat at home?
So, the lentils, the chickpeas with spinach, the chicken soups, the roasted chicken, the mac and cheese we do here and there. And then sometimes I open my grills or… for me, I always say that I’ve really have never worked in my entire life. Because I believe work is something you don’t like but you are meant to do. In my case, I like cooking. Doesn’t mean I want to cook every day, but in the end, kind of, I do. When it’s pure cooking, I never have any issues. It’s more the other things—meetings…

Interviews?
[laughs] Yeah, but when you find a guy who likes soccer, well… For me, time is probably the most unique ingredient, the most expensive ingredient. The thing I can not buy is time.

More expensive than saffron?
Far and away more expensive than saffron. So, I’ve never worked in my life. I’m doing something as an enjoyment. I don’t know if that is called a hobby? Is that your passion? Even under hardships, it’s always good to smile at the end of the road. I wish everybody would find exactly the same.

Considering I can see the Trump Hotel through the window just over your shoulder, I feel like I should ask you about the presidential election. Your Twitter feed makes it pretty clear which candidate you are supporting.
Long story short, this is very important for me. I still remember when I came with the Spanish Navy for the first time to America, and I was super proud to see the American flag. I came to Pensacola, which was initially a Spanish city, founded by Spaniards. I was like, “Shit. This is easy, I belong here.” I’ve been very proud to be here the last 24, 25 years, becoming a bridge between the country I come from, which I love. I’m very proud of having three American daughters, super proud of who they are, where they come from, their legacy. And I always loved the eternal learning curve of what America and the American spirit represents.

Even with the understanding that we have a lot of issues to resolve at home, I believe in an America that respects each other, that not only works to make America better but has always vested interested and time in the betterment of lives of people around the world, because when you are the super power it’s your obligation, period. If you don’t believe in God, it’s the right thing to do. If you believe in God, it’s what God meant for us to do.

And here we are in a moment centuries in the making, with hardships by many, death of millions vying for freedom, all of a sudden you have an individual that behaves in a way that my daughters would be expelled from school. If he will behave that way in a soccer game, he will be thrown out by the referee. But nonetheless we are allowing that behavior to happen, and there are probably many fathers like me who are having conversations with our daughters and sons, who are asking, Why is this person behaving like this? And it’s not a simple answer.

"And here we are in a moment centuries in the making, with hardships by many, death of millions vying for freedom, all of a sudden you have an individual that behaves in a way that my daughters would be expelled from school."

So for me, in some things I’m Republican, in other things you could argue I’m more Democrat, at the end I am an American citizen that tries to make my family good, make my neighborhood good, my community good and my country good. And the only way to do this is understanding that not everybody is always going to think like you. Not everybody is going to have the same interest in you, not everybody is going to have the same priorities as you, but this is a very basic human respect for each other where we could agree to disagree, but always thinking of how we can keep moving this forward.

So, for me, this election is about the forces of inclusion versus the forces of exclusion. You can be anything you want, on any side of the aisle, but I do believe if people on both sides of the aisle believe in inclusion, would create a better America. You can’t have on both sides of the aisle, people who believe in exclusion. We don’t want any of those people. And we have them on both sides too. But they don’t believe people who believe in exclusion are the only ones who have space in this world. To me, it’s clear in this space I will support Hillary, but beyond Democrat or Republican, it’s about the person who has shown true leadership, a couple that they could be taking it very easy, having the best retirement in the history of mankind—wealthy, with a good name—but they decided to go and create a foundation that is improving the life of millions of people around the world. I’ve been there, I’ve watched it. I’ve been in Haiti, I’ve been in Kenya, I’ve been in Cambodia. I’ve been around the world and have seen what the Clinton Foundation has done.

We can get into this and that, but please spare me. Don’t compare the Trump Foundation with the Clinton Foundation, for God’s sake. The Clinton Foundation has improved the lives of many millions of Americans, and the Clinton Foundation has improved the lives of many millions around the world. So yes, my mind in this election has been made a long time ago, and has nothing to do with my case against him.

The hard reality is we want to believe that this country, Republican or Democrat, that it’s not about making everybody wrong, it’s about working with me. And I think politics is forgetting about that. It’s not about putting on boxing gloves, it’s about shaking hands. This is not boxing game, this is about giving your hand to the one that doesn’t like you, and having a meaningful shake.

So, that’s where we are.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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