The woman standing beside a broken street on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince is talking about food. Mirege Kercy cooks fresh fish and creole stews in this one-room roadside cafe. When a U.N. truck rumbles by the open window, another puff of white dust settles on her portable gas burner. Four years after the earthquake, relief vehicles still make up much of the traffic.
The man she is talking to also cooks for a living. He takes notes on a small pad as she ticks off her weekly menu: chicken bouillon Mondays, fish and rice Fridays, pwa congo whenever the pigeon peas are harvested. José Andrés, who has no habit of stillness, bounces on his feet even as he writes. “Pwa congo. Oh, my God, when the peas are fresh, it is super!” he says. After more than a dozen trips to Haiti, he knows most of the food and a lot of the language. Translating her Creole through his native Spanish into accented English, it comes out “It is ES-super!”
The accent is familiar. Andrés is one of Washington’s most renowned restaurateurs, a celebrity chef on two continents and head of a $125-million-a-year food empire that has spread from Washington to Beverly Hills, Miami Beach and beyond. Two decades after he was hired at 23 to cook at a D.C. startup called Jaleo, where his exquisite saucers of croquetas and sea urchin helped spark the tapas craze and a resurgent interest in Spanish cooking, he is a food phenom.
Now the chef who cooks for — and consorts with — presidents is taking notes from a Haitian shanty cook because he is going to design a new kitchen for her. She needs, he thinks out loud, a deep fryer. At least six burners, oven, steel prep table, walk-in refrigeration.
“You’re going to have a model kitchen on a small budget,” he says to Kercy. His black hair, rimmed in gray, is cropped close around youthful blue eyes and a Roman nose. A general merry-monk roundness bespeaks an eternal struggle between perpetual motion and insatiable appetites.
Kercy looks on, grateful and a little baffled, as the figure known to his friends as “Hurricane José” banters specs and dimensions with two of the people with him: the head of World Central Kitchen, the humanitarian nonprofit Andrés launched in 2012, and a Port-au-Prince contractor who — catching the spirit of the moment — has just offered to rebuild the entire cafe free of charge.
“Whenever José is in town, I know I’m going to do two things: drink too much and spend a lot of money,” says the contractor, Jean Marc DeMatteis. After the earthquake, he hauled amputated limbs from makeshift surgical tents for days, then spent three months working for no pay to aid the recovery. He still devotes a day a week to his country’s slow return from ruin, and when Andrés blows in — sometimes calling from the airport to say, “I’m here!” — he’s all in as liaison, driver, rum-sour Sherpa.
Andrés is on a four-day blitz to monitor projects his nonprofit has recently launched. The trip is part of the constant hop-scotching he does between business and charity, and Kercy’s is at least the fifth kitchen he has helped design in recent months. Others include gleaming new ones at restaurants Andrés is about to open at Tysons Corner and Penn Quarter, the 11th and 12th outlets of his Washington stable. But judging by his rolling boil of ideas, the one that will put out $2 plates of riz national is no less thrilling to him than the ones that will soon be profitable hives of sous-chefs, servers and straining platinum cards.
What matters to Andrés is food. Food fills his days, defines his dreams and has provided him a career and a fortune. In his cosmology, food is the sun, the gravitational core of family, friendship and community.
Now he wants food to fix the world.
At the peak of his powers, the champion of small plates is launching a culinary assault on big issues: poverty, poor health and underemployment. He envisions food-based humanitarian schemes in which good follows good the way courses build at a four-star meal: In a country recently racked by cholera, a better kitchen for a tiny cafe will mean better food cooked in more sanitary conditions, which will mean more money for the cafe, owned by the adjacent Zanmi Beni orphanage, home to 64 kids who lost their families in the 2010 earthquake; opening a culinary academy will mean jobs for the students of a Port-au-Prince girls’ school, which will help staff a tourism economy; a sustainable vegetable farm and clean cooking pavilion will boost nutrition in a tiny village school.
And Haiti, Andrés believes, is only the appetizer.
José Andrés walks into a bar. Not one of his own, but Joe’s Stone Crab, a new competitor in downtown Washington.
“Research,” Andrés says complacently as he settles on a leather stool. He scans the menu expertly, wonders why the restaurant serves the stone crab claws five to an order — harder to share evenly — and asks for six.
“And bring us some oysters. A dozen Island Creek, I think,” he adds, consulting only himself (it is understood as natural law that when you eat with Andrés, he orders for you). “Can you bring also some of the king crabs? And the yellow tail crudo or the tuna [tartare], whichever is better.”
His guest at the bar reaches for the Tabasco and the horseradish. Andrés shakes his head. “To eat a good, fresh oyster like this — with hot sauce — is like listening to Mozart with the lawnmower running,” he says.
Saying he’s “not a beer guy,” Andrés orders two kinds of IPA. And a glass of white wine. Then he takes one of the several “Where are you?” calls he gets a day from his assistant Daniel Serrano: Andrés is expected — pretty much right now — to ring the opening bell at the Penn Quarter farmers market. “I’m gonna be late,” he says.
Spending time with Andrés is to fall in with an ongoing business bacchanal. He seldom puts down the iPhone, but neither is he often without a fork, a cup or a sample from his kitchens or someone else’s. Meetings at his Penn Quarter office come with espresso or maybe a promising vintage, or maybe a hot dog topped with bacon and crispy potatoes — a candidate for the menu of America Eats, the food
-history concept he’s opening this summer in the Tysons Ritz-Carlton.
It’s not just that he needs constantly to stay up on his and his competitors’ product. It’s that eating and drinking is how he conducts business — and life.
“It’s his existence,” says longtime friend Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of the 9:30 Club. “He’ll call me up every now and then and just come over and cook. He might have some rare goose or these amazing chickens from Amish country, or he might just pull out the same eggs and cheese and butter that I have and do something no one else could ever do.”
Food has been a salvation from the beginning. It was a restaurant job that offered Andrés an escape from a childhood he doesn’t like to talk about much. He loved cooking paella with his parents, both nurses, in the suburbs of Barcelona. He won’t say it was a “bad childhood,” but he moved out at 15, taking a kitchen job to pay for his own apartment. “Sometimes confrontation is not the best way to move forward,” he finally says, looking out a window at Jaleo, a small plate of sea cucumber in front of him. “What do you do when the broom breaks on your head day in, day out, and you have to go to the hospital?”
He enrolled in a Barcelona culinary academy and worked summers in a Costa Brava resort town, catching the eye of the now legendary Ferran Adrià, one of Europe’s leading chefs, who became his mentor. At 18, Andrés joined the Spanish navy, cooked for an admiral and grew his ambitions. “I wanted to be a big chef; I wanted to have an amazing family; I wanted to help the world,” he says. “In the navy, you have a lot of time to look at the stars.”
By 21, he was in New York, scratching a living from Spanish restaurants, sleeping at one point in an apartment filled with pot plants. He was on the verge of taking a job in Tokyo two years later when Rob Wilder, founder of Washington’s Austin Grill, called to offer him the kitchen at Jaleo.
The tapas flagship was an instant hit, the company grew and Andrés’s reputation exploded. In 2005, he made a hit series exploring food and culture for Spanish television. It made him a huge celebrity in his home country and put him at a painful crossroad: ride super-stardom there or stay in his adopted city.
“My wife said, ‘If you want to be a TV boy, okay, we can do that,’ ” he says. But she loved their life in Washington, and so did he: the seasons, the gravitas, the wide-open restaurant scene.
They stayed. Renegotiating with Wilder, Andrés emerged as president of the company and opened restaurants on both coasts. In 2003 in Washington, he started Minibar, a haute-cuisine boutique with just six seats. In 2011, he was named the James Beard Outstanding Chef. In 2012, he started Pepe the food truck.
Last November, at 44, he tweeted: “People of America! 4 hours ago my wife and I became AMERICAN CITIZENS.”
Now this was home.
Andrés lives in Bethesda, with Patricia, the former Spanish exchange student at the University of Maryland he married in 1996. Their three daughters are 15, 13 and 10. But the center of his Washington life is Penn Quarter, where within a few blocks he pinballs around his culinary United Nations, the Spanish Jaleo, the Mexican Oyamel, the Mediterranean Zaytinya. Andrés practices a lot of managing by simply walking around.
Pushing through the glass doors of Oyamel on a recent midday circuit, he holds up two fingers. The woman behind the bar nods and begins mixing a pair of his signature margaritas, which feature whipped lectin to create a froth. “She knows my signals,” he says with a laugh, and holds up his flat palm. “She knows this doesn’t mean ‘stop.’ It means ‘five.’ ”
Many of those who say “Hello, Chef” are wearing the same white tunic he is, “Think Food Group” embroidered across the chest. The company employs almost a thousand workers in its 16 outlets around the country and is poised for even more dramatic growth. He and Wilder are on track to open five properties this year. Several more are in development, including some whiteboard musings for a vegetable-centered fast-food concept. “Fast good,” Andrés calls the idea.
The investors are there to go even bigger, he says, opening Jaleos — the original concept that now has branches in Bethesda, Crystal City and Las Vegas — all around the country. He has queries from as far as Marrakesh and Doha. But he and Wilder are wary of diluting the quality that saw three of their restaurants ranked in the country’s top 15 in a recent poll of food bloggers.
“We don’t want to get big just to get big,” Wilder says. “We’re still very much about quality over quantity. But if you can figure out a way to do José-quality food for under $10, that’s something you want to replicate. That can have an impact on the way people eat.”
Both say growth is inevitable. Early this year, they hired Kimberly Grant, former president of the Ruby Tuesday chain, as chief operating officer.
“Do we open 25, 30, 40 Jaleos?” ponders Andrés, nibbling off-menu roast lamb at Zaytinya. “Or maybe in the end, we stay who we are, we stay mostly in this city, which I love, and we’re happy. This is a very important moment for us.”
Definitely coming this summer is China Chilcano, opening across the street from Oyamel. The concept: Chinese/Peruvian, a fusion as perplexing as it is intriguing. The idea is a twist on China Poblano, his successful Chinese-Mexican mash-up in Las Vegas.
“I’m worried about every single one of his new ideas, and I’ve been proven wrong every time,” says friend Richard Wolffe, the Washington journalist who has been the co-author of two cookbooks with Andrés. “He knows D.C. is the perfect town for him. This is an ideas town, and he’s an ideas person.”
Andrés is locating the new place on Seventh Street, where he is probably already overexposed. A noodle restaurant recently pulled out of the space, and Andrés claimed it, not wanting to risk a national chain besmirching the block. He’s protective of the once-moribund area where he is treated by many as an unofficial mayor.
“We love José; he pioneered this district,” says Amy Henderson, a historian at the nearby National Portrait Gallery who is browsing the farmers market on Eighth Street. She says the exquisite food and happy bustle of Andrés’s restaurants acted like chicken soup for a soulless neighborhood of parking lots and low-end retail.
Andrés, arriving too late to ring the market’s opening bell, is content to hold court and hug admirers. At one table, he tosses back a raw Cubalaya egg like a protein shooter. He remembers trying to persuade store owners on the block to make space for the weekly market.
“I had to go to them and say, ‘What the f--k? You’re complaining about parking?’ ” he recalls. He gestures at all the citizens drawn together by fresh tomatoes and artisanal goat cheese. “This is what makes a neighborhood, which is what makes a city, which is what makes a country.”
And this is what Andrés hopes to spark on a wider scale: food creating good.
“I cannot be a cook, I cannot be a chef, I cannot be in the business of feeding people and still have people in my city and people around the world that don’t have access to food, who don’t have jobs,” he says. “I see food as empowerment.”
Almost as soon as he landed in Washington, he appeared at the door of D.C. Central Kitchen, the innovative charity that gathers uncooked leftovers from restaurants to provide thousands of meals to the homeless shelters and school cafeterias in the city. In the process, they teach culinary job skills to hard-luck adults. Andrés quickly became a constant presence, says founder Robert Egger. Andrés taught cooking, led fundraisers, bulldozed his way from volunteer to board chairman.
“It was classic José,” Egger says. “He just muscled his way into the discussion about charity. There are no boundaries with him. It’s a wonder he bothers to have a passport.”
More and more, Andrés delves into the wonkier side of food. He teaches a yearly class in the science, culture and politics of food and hunger at George Washington University, and he hopes to found a food policy institute there. In 2011 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton enlisted him in her efforts to replace the wood-burning stoves that inflict millions of poor families with respiratory disease with cleaner alternatives, including folding solar ovens.
“I am a chef and feed the few,” Andrés said last month in accepting an achievement award from Refugees International in Washington. “But since I arrived in America, and especially in Washington, I realize that I have this interest in also feeding the many. I’m a cook, I’m a chef. I control the power of fire.”
He believes the principles he learned from Egger and other urban activists can work on an international scale.
He just needed a test kitchen.
The evening Haitian sun is casting long shadows from the breadfruit tree where Andrés is scouting potential outdoor seating for the renewed fish cafe outside the orphanage. DeMatteis says he will have construction complete by fall.
This isn’t Andrés’s first test of food power in Haiti. Last year, he sent down two pastry chefs to train five orphanage staffers to bake bread. World Central Kitchen donated the Hobart mixers and the Blodgett ovens, and now the bakery produces 400 fresh loaves a night for the orphans and for sale to shops. The bakery is about to ramp up production and market to downtown hotels.
Loune Viaud, who runs the orphanage and is renowned for rescuing kids after the earthquake, says Andrés never mentioned he was a famous chef when he came by last year. Just that he knew a lot about restaurants.
“We had no idea someone like José would be here to help us,” Viaud says. “We’ve had a lot of visitors, but he keeps coming back.”
Manolo Vilchez, a solar-oven activist from Spain, brought him the first time. Andrés was taken aback by the devastation but taken in by the warm sociability of the Haitians. “I thought, Maybe this is my call,” he says. A few months later he went to D.C. Central Kitchen and asked Egger for his blessing to start World Central Kitchen.
“I laughed,” recalls Egger, who has joined the new group’s board. “ ‘Okay, I’ll take D.C., you take the world.’ It was one of those cases of the student becoming the teacher.”
Andrés hired Brian MacNair, a former chef turned nonprofit fundraiser, to run it. They hope to create a global network of activists from the culinary world: celebrities who can raise money; accomplished cooks who can think of ways to make food more abundant, safe and more fairly distributed in the hard places of the world.
They have three full-time employees in Washington and Port-au-Prince and four initial projects: the Zanmi Beni Bakery; the $400,000 culinary school in the historic Elie Dubois girls’ academy to train hospitality workers; a model community kitchen in the remote village of Foret des Pins; and a role in converting almost 100 urban schools from charcoal cooking to gas.
On his third day in Haiti, Andrés and team make the trip out to Foret des Pins, a bone-shaking three-hour drive on roads that are rocky where they’re not pitted. Andrés, in the passenger seat of a grinding Land Cruiser, swears in Spanglish whenever the wheels veer too close to the fatal drop-off. He goes back to texting his office at each smooth stretch, constantly aware that he’s spending more and more time in nonprofit backwaters even as his day job is more demanding than ever.
The owner of the Land Cruiser is Jordi Bach, Haiti director of the Spanish charity Cesal, Andrés’s partner in the Foret des Pins project. Like his vehicle, Bach is a hardened development veteran, and although he welcomes the money of fly-in celebrities, he doesn’t expect much durability from them. He sensed Andrés might be different the first time he met him wandering at night alone in the refugee tent city at the Place St. Pierre.
“He would go wherever he saw someone cooking,” Bach recalls. “He was very idealistic, but now he is really starting to understand how to get things done here.”
Bach looks on as Andrés and crew teach a food safety seminar in the sustainable kitchen they built last year next to the Palmiste Tampe school. The tidy open-air pavilion with cleaner cookstoves is already doing duty as school cafeteria and village hall. A new farm plot provides vegetables.
Andrés’s days in Haiti, as in Washington, toggle constantly between focus and festive. As the schoolchildren eat their hot lunch on long benches, Andrés runs to the Land Cruiser for his Bluetooth speaker, and the noon meal turns into a flamenco dance jam.
“Rum sour!” he hollers after the long drive back to Port-au-Prince, although he’s about to be late for a dinner with U.S. Ambassador Pamela White.
“You don’t have time,” MacNair says feebly as they pull up at the Kinam Hotel. Andrés orders two rounds of the local cocktail, along with chicken jon jon, chutney, pikliz cabbage. For the development professionals, it’s a rare treat.
“I never eat out, never,” says Egido Sanz, a Spanish relief worker who has been wrestling the steering wheel of the Land Cruiser all day. She lives in a house without running water, and now she clings to her icy tumbler with sunbaked fingers. “I like it!”
DeMatteis, who was one of the original major donors to World Central Kitchen, looks back on some of Andrés’s visits as epic benders, 12-hour workdays followed by four-hour dinners. On a bright Port-au-Prince morning, he recalls one of those adventures as they pull into the parking lot of the Ministry of Tourism.
“Remember the last time we were here to meet the minister of tourism?” DeMatteis asks Andrés as they park.
“Oh, my God,” Andrés says with a don’t-remind-me laugh.
DeMatteis tells of a long day full of site visits and rum sours. “We were loaded. I said, ‘José, there’s no way you can take this meeting.’ But he insisted. And as soon as he sat down, Bam. ‘Minister, this, this, this and this.’ A full-on flawless presentation. It was astonishing.”
This time, the meeting is sober but effusive. The minister, Stephanie Villedrouin, greets Andrés like a welcomed collaborator. She is leading one of Haiti’s core strategies for progress, attracting some of the billions in tourist traffic flowing to the Caribbean each year. Andrés’s vision of culinary training, and his obvious love of the place, is a good fit.
In her crowded office, Andrés provides an update: The drawings for the girls’ culinary academy are finished; if the bureaucracy can cough up the remaining grants, the school could be running in time to staff a new Marriott. Even better, National Geographic is interested in co-producing a documentary he has filmed over recent visits, a José-filled Haitian food-and-travel series much like his programs in Spain.
Villedrouin is thrilled. “That could be such a strong promotional tool for us in the American market,” she says. And she offers to cut through the red tape for the school funding with money she has at her own disposal. Finally, she asks if Andrés will take on another assignment: teaching food safety and sanitation in a series of new markets the ministry is building to house some of the ramshackle cook stalls around Port-au-Prince.
“I know you’re doing so many things, but I need your brain here,” she says.
Andrés and MacNair look at each other. It’s a significant new project.
“We can do it,” Andrés says.
Outside, they walk around one of those new markets, a string of neat concrete stalls across from the ministry that will soon boast proper plumbing and electricity. Andrés wants to turn one of them into a permanent training room, a place for cooks from around the city to get certified in food safety.
“Wow,” Andrés says. “It’s really coming together here.”
And not just in Haiti. In its second full year, World Central Kitchen has started a women’s cooperative honey enterprise next door in the Dominican Republic. Zambia wants Andrés to build a school kitchen. In the distance, Andrés can see this latest fusion — food and development — coming into focus.
“I left school when I was 14,” he says. “For me, learning is looking beyond the horizon.”
In his final morning in Haiti, he has 90 minutes until his flight and an hour’s drive to the airport. He’s staying with the DeMatteis family and the car is waiting, but he’s nowhere to be found. “Oh, my gosh, he’s going to miss his plane,” says Verena DeMatteis, Jean Marc’s wife. She had already apologized for there not being enough time for a full breakfast. Soon after, Andrés had disappeared. They finally find him by following howls of laughter in the kitchen.
With the family’s astonished cook looking on, Andrés has taken over. Grabbing eggplant, leftover griot, peanut butter, he bends over the counter, his knife hand a blur. A bit of culinary alchemy over the skillet causes a pan of whipped eggs to foam dramatically.
“There isn’t time,” Verena nearly wails. “You have to go!”
“Mamba!” Andrés shouts in reply, using the Creole word for peanut butter.
And, four minutes later, he spins around with two heaping plates in hand, a pair of just-invented Creole omelets, one vegetable, one sweetly nutty. “No time for breakfast, are you kidding me?” he sniffs. “There is always time.”
The food is sublime, succulent and utterly delicious, as his hosts reluctantly admit, scarfing the meal even as they nudge him to the driveway. He will make the flight by minutes and, as usual, be the last to board.
In the coming months, this man of many appetites may have to start choosing among them. He will have to decide how much of the food wizardry he has perfected in Washington can grow. And whether this experiment will succeed in Haiti, if not around the world.
Still, for now, there is always time to do — and devour — it all.
Steve Hendrix is a Washington Post staff writer.
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