By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
José Andrés is in his Bethesda kitchen whipping up a batch of patatas fritas con chistorra, a Rioja dish of spicy sausage wrapped in paper-thin, deep-fried potatoes. All the ingredients are neatly set out in front of him in swooping, modern prep dishes -- just the way you imagine a star chef would cook when he's at home.
Andrés picks up a potato and his mandoline, then stops, looks up and says, "How is my camera-to-camera move?"
A voice booms out of nowhere. It's deep, calm, seemingly all-knowing. It sounds like the voice of God, or maybe Christof, the steely director Ed Harris played in "The Truman Show."
"It's perfect," God says.
"Perfect?" Andrés scoffs. "I want to be astonishing!"
"Perfect is better than astonishing."
"I don't care. I want to be astonishing."
"Okay, José," God replies in a patient monotone. "You're astonishing."
It's mid-July, the final day of U.S. shooting for Andrés's new cooking show, "José Made in Spain," and the crew -- including more than a dozen producers, cameramen, writers and director Bruce Franchini (a.k.a. God) -- is exhausted. The 26-episode series, which debuts locally next month on public television station WETA, will take viewers on a whirlwind tour of 17 Spanish regions, showing them how to make traditional plus a few avant-garde dishes at home. The mission: to make areas such as Andalusia as familiar and beloved to American cooks as Italy's Tuscany.
Andrés, however, isn't tired at all. He jokes and teases as if it's the first day, just as if, after a 14-hour day of shooting in Spain, he's ready to party when everyone else wants to go to bed. It's that kind of energy that has propelled the 38-year-old chef to the top of the Washington culinary establishment and to media stardom in his native country. "José Made in Spain," and its companion cookbook due out in the fall, could elevate him to national prominence, making his face, and his style, as familiar as that of Rachael Ray, Emeril Lagasse and Anthony Bourdain.
At least that's the plan.
That Andrés possesses star power, and a pinch of prima donna, is obvious. He can be boyish and mischievous, kindly and avuncular or sometimes all of those at once. But whichever Andrés is on display, he radiates a passion and an energy that beckons acolytes to give whatever he's doing a try.
"José connects. He dazzles and yet he's very accessible," says Susie Heller, the show's executive producer, who has worked with Julia Child, Jacques Pepin and Thomas Keller, among others. "People come back for the personality, not the food."
That personality has made Andrés a mega-celebrity in Spain. His TV show, "Vamos a Cocinar" ("Let's Cook"), debuted in prime time five nights a week in 2005 and quickly became the top-rated Spanish cooking show. He's also a face of Kellogg's, a spokesman for a government campaign to promote bluefish and a recognizable star on Spanish streets from Seville to Barcelona. "You walk into a restaurant with him and 80 heads will turn," says Richard Wolffe, a Newsweek writer, longtime friend and Andrés's co-author on his first and the upcoming "José Made in Spain" cookbook. "You hear people whisper, 'Cocinero, cocinero' -- the chef. Then, finally, someone will pluck up the courage to talk to him, and soon it's one photo after another."
Andrés easily could have continued to work in Spain -- "That pays," he says as he watches a YouTube video of one of his cereal commercials. But since he arrived in the United States 17 years ago, his goal has always been to be a culinary ambassador for Spain, rather than an interpreter and sometime apologist for America back home. "It would make more sense for me to pick Spain because I could work two months and have 10 months off and make 10 times more money. But that kind of stardom is temporary. One day you are on top, and one day you are no one," Andrés says. "I want to bring the real Spain here, to America. And I want to have control of my own destiny."
Andrés arrived in Washington in 1993, a talented and ambitious 23-year-old. He had begun cooking at 15 after talking his way into a Barcelona culinary school that took only students 16 and older. After school, Andrés trained at several Michelin-starred restaurants including El Bulli, the temple of molecular gastronomy outside Barcelona that brought the world foams and "airs" and inspired such dishes as flexible foie gras, on the menu at New York's WD-50.
In Washington, Andrés immediately impressed Rob Wilder, co-owner of Jaleo, which had opened earlier that year. "He spent the weekend with us and that Sunday cooked a tapas party for 30 people" as part of an audition, Wilder remembers. "At the end of the party, we made him a job offer."
Andrés made a splash at Jaleo and, as executive chef, helped the restaurant group, Proximo, open Cafe Atlantico, Zaytinya and Oyamel, along with two more Jaleo outposts. The restaurants brought Washington -- known for its fussy, formal dining rooms -- stylish food in casual settings and helped launch Penn Quarter as a culinary destination. But Andrés's crowning achievement, by his judgment, is Minibar. The six-seat restaurant-within-a-restaurant -- it's inside Cafe Atlantico -- serves cutting-edge creations, such as the "lobster injection" where guests squirt hot stock into their mouths as they eat a morsel of lobster meat. Four and a half years after opening, Minibar still books up the day reservations are made available, one month to the day in advance. (Andrés plans to expand Minibar late this year in its current space.)
Until recently, however, Andrés had surprisingly little control over his future, in particular the very restaurants he helped put on the map. Unlike many celebrity chefs, his stake did not grow in tandem with the restaurants' success. "The restaurants weren't really working for him," one friend notes. "He was working for them."
In 2004, Andrés asked several friends, including Wolffe, lawyer Scott Sinder and Seth Hurwitz, the owner of the 9:30 club, to join him for a series of strategy sessions. Wolffe encouraged him to do a book -- "something more permanent, a building block to popularize his vision of Spain and Spanish food" -- and agreed to co-author it. "Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America" was released in 2005 and later translated into Spanish. In total, it sold more than 100,000 copies.
Andrés also agreed to gradually cut back his appearances on Spanish TV so he could spend more time here. Most important, he wanted a larger stake in the Washington restaurants. The idea was "to get control of everything I do," Andrés says.
The timing was fortuitous. Andrés's rising profile in Spain and here -- the James Beard Foundation named him Best Chef Mid-Atlantic in 2003 -- coincided with changes at Proximo. Roberto Alvarez, one of two major stakeholders, had decided to step back from the everyday management to become the Dominican Republic's ambassador to the Organization of American States.
"We didn't want to lose him to media stardom in Spain," Wilder says. "After many discussions we decided that rather than have him do his own projects in media and us having the restaurants, we should manage it as a coherent whole."
The result: Proximo was rebranded as ThinkFoodGroup, and Andrés now has "significant" ownership of the restaurants and is a principal owner in projects including a restaurant in a new SLS hotel in Beverly Hills, slated to open in mid-2008.
Andrés also can rely on ThinkFood's staff of 15 to help him manage his frenetic schedule, which has included six appearances on the "Today" show, one on "Late Show With David Letterman" and a new food-importing business that brings the famous Iberico ham and Spanish cheeses to his restaurants and retailers such as Dean & DeLuca.
Such moves have put Andrés on a straight path to the culinary major leagues. But the old, incorrigible Andrés remains. "I've had calls from him at 10 o'clock at night," says Hurwitz, who lives near Andrés in Bethesda. "And he says, 'Seth, you gotta come over and taste this right now.' And I look at my wife, who just shrugs and says, 'If José calls, you gotta go.'
"He's all over the place, but creatively. . . . That's the difference between José and other people that have that kind of energy. With José, it ends in a result, not some pipe dream."
"People will tell you I'm sometimes too uncontrollable," Andrés admits. "I like to direct. I don't know everything about anything, but I know enough to know what I like and what I don't like. I like participating at every level." That means choosing shot locations, selecting music for the series, even flying to California to sit in the editing booth.
Will Andrés become the Mario Batali of Spain and end up with a line of tapas-ware at Target? (If so, he had better act fast: Batali, coincidentally, is launching his own food tour of Spain on PBS in the fall.) He'd never say never, but insists, "You can't have that as your goal, or it doesn't work."
Indeed, if Andrés had his way he would have more time in the kitchen, not in front of a camera. And not, he's quick to point out, because of criticism that, like many celebrity chefs, he's not minding the stove.
"My restaurants are taken care of -- even probably better than with me there," he says. "It's the high-end creative stuff that excites me. I'd love to do Minibar and that's it. I'd rather do a book like the French Laundry cookbook than an 'Intro to Spain.' But I've got time."