y anybody's standards but his own, Jose Andres is at the top of his game.
Few chefs can match these achievements:
* Talented and exuberant, he is sought out for guest appearances at culinary festivals, conferences, cooking classes and demonstrations all over the country as well as in Spain.
* The restaurants where he reigns -- Jaleo in the Penn Quarter and its younger sibling, also called Jaleo, in Bethesda (Spanish tapas), Cafe Atlantico (Caribbean/nuevo Latino) and Zaytinya (Greek/Lebanese/Turkish meze), both downtown -- are thriving.
* This month Jaleo, whose small plates changed the way Washingtonians go out to dinner, is celebrating its 10th birthday.
* This year the James Beard Foundation nominated Andres for two awards: best chef in the mid-Atlantic region and best new restaurant (for Zaytinya).
But as the 33-year-old Spaniard contemplates success built on serving high-quality food to large numbers of people in an industry where success is never a given, he holds onto a dream of another kind of restaurant: A place where he could indulge his passion for cooking as an art form, a place where people would come and share a creative experience with him.
"Food is still not considered the art form that it is," says Andres. "A meal is probably the least well-paid work of art in the history of mankind because it's ethereal, lasts for minutes and is only done once."
His restaurant would, of course, be Spanish. He is very much a man of his country and wants to promote Spanish food and wine.
It would be small too. And it might be in a law firm or a museum or a winery. And it might not have regular hours.
The food there would be unique, nothing like the authentic regional dishes that are the specialties of Jaleo and Zaytinya: A clam chowder deconstructed into raw clams, a clam gelatin, a cold potato mousse, with a sorbet of onion and cream infused with bacon. Or a new kind of sushi, made with a light foam of vinegared rice with a soy gelatin, homemade "rice crispies," a touch of wasabi and a very, very thin slice of tuna.
In other words, beautiful, intellectual -- and he hopes delicious -- food that honors traditional ingredients.
"A chef has three different kinds of goals in his life," says Andres. "Reproducing authentic mainstream dishes. Taking those mainstream dishes to a higher plane. And creating new, even higher-plane dishes."
If all this makes him sound a little studied, well, it shouldn't. He is simply passionate and clearheaded about who he is and what he's trying to do. Besides, he's already accomplished his first two goals with Spanish tapas at Jaleo and authentic meze of the western Mediterranean at Zaytinya; and the second with a continually evolving menu at Cafe Atlantico.
For now, the third will have to wait.
Andres has been cooking as long as he can remember. Both his parents were good cooks, but, as the eldest of four boys with working parents (they were both nurses), he helped out in the kitchen early on, learning from them all the while. "My mother is a great cook," he says. "Her croquetas are the best ever, her roasted peppers with garlic and vinegar are so unique, so gelatinous, they're good cold or hot. She made the most amazing meals out of nothing -- like lentils with a little blood sausage or chorizo."
His father was the master of large Sunday family barbecues in the countryside with big paellas and roasted meats, and he encouraged his son to participate from the time he was 8 or 9. But Andres was frustrated that his father gave him responsibility for the wood-burning fire. Only later he realized his father had assigned him the most crucial -- and difficult -- task. "Learning to control the fire is the most basic knowledge a cook needs," he says.
If his joyous approach to his profession is any indication, he must have absorbed a lot more -- for one thing, the family's attitude toward food. "There was always an excuse to celebrate cooking," he remembers.
Santa Coloma de Cervello, where he grew up about 20 miles from Barcelona, was a farm town, and he was surrounded by cherry and peach trees. Every May there was a festival to honor the town cherries. So to him it seemed only natural that at age 14 or 15 -- as a contribution to the town and its festival -- he came up with a "mini-treatise" on cherries, with 25 to 30 recipes. "I was very proud of it, and some people still have copies," he says.
His father prodded him toward cooking as a profession. Not a good student, but very good at what he liked -- computers, science, the structure of grammar, three-point basketball shots -- Andres was already cooking seriously by the time he was 14. That's when his father heard about a new culinary school in Barcelona. "This can be a good future for you," he told his son, and somehow they skirted the entrance requirement that students be 18. Andres headed to Barcelona and soon he was skipping classes to volunteer in the top restaurant kitchens and culinary events in the city. "I was very pushy," he says, "but it fascinated me."
Teachers and chefs seemed to recognize what the tall, skinny teenager had to offer. One of them sent him off to work in the three-man kitchen of a friend's seafood restaurant on the Catalan coast the summer he was 15. "I grew 10 years that summer," he remembers. The next summer, the owners asked him to take over the three-man kitchen. Andres not only ran the place but also found time to devour cookbooks by the culinary masters, from the legendary Auguste Escoffier to the masterful Swiss chef Fredy Girardet.
It was a Spanish chef, however, who influenced him the most. Ferran Adria, then a young chef cooking at nearby El Bulli, occasionally came in and ate at the bar. Not yet the superstar he would become, he soon asked Andres to join him there. Known for the way he identifies, reassembles and transfigures the basic ingredients and flavors in a dish, Adria taught Andres and the other young cooks working there to master traditional foods but to think about them in totally new ways. "The past is there to be a challenge," was the message.
To do that, however, a chef has to be able to see things afresh or even see things other people don't -- like the part of the tomato Andres showed a tapas cooking class at the Mexican Cultural Institute recently. "We see things like this every day and give them no importance," he said as he carefully topped and tailed a tomato and then opened it to isolate a seed pillow he skewered atop a bite-size cube of watermelon with a little mint, cilantro, salt and pepper and vinaigrette. "It's a part of the tomato you've probably never seen before. But when you put it into your mouth you see how refreshing it is."
It was a quickly forgotten tiff with Adria that in 1991 propelled Andres to New York for a job with a Barcelona restaurant that was opening a New York branch. The restaurant didn't last, and neither did another Spanish import where he worked. "They tried to figure out what Americans like, as opposed to bringing their authentic traditions," says Andres. "It was a big lesson for me."
Unwilling to return home after only a year and a half, Andres stuck around, working for a couple of months in Puerto Rico and then at the 1980s New York hot spot The Quilted Giraffe. He was almost ready to go back to Spain when Washington chef Ann Cashion, who was working with restaurateurs Roberto Alvarez and Rob Wilder on a new Spanish tapas restaurant, tracked him down in La Jolla, Calif., where he'd gone to cook for a Cancer Society dinner.
"I came here," he says. "I liked Rob and Roberto, and I saw we could be useful to each other. They wanted to do something big."
That something was Jaleo and the beginning of his alliance with Alvarez and Wilder. "It was a good move," says Andres. "I've been able to keep growing as a chef, and today I'm very good on the business side too."
And that's no small feat. Both James Beard awards for which he's been nominated -- the winners will be announced May 5 -- demand top-of-the-line cooking and business savvy as well. Working with Alvarez and Wilder, he has learned the value of a financially smart business operation. "A restaurant is a living creature," says Andres. "It has to keep evolving, from the systems that produce the food to the food itself to the wine list to the kitchen. And the kitchen at Jaleo is producing 75 to 100 percent more than when it opened."
These days, according to Alvarez and Wilder, Jaleo downtown (with 140 seats and 35 more at the bar) draws between 5,000 and 6,000 guests per week, and in Bethesda (170 seats and 40 more at the bar) 4,000 to 5,000; only six months after its opening, Zaytinya (220 seats, 55 more at the bar) brings in an astonishing 6,000 to 7,000 per week; and Cafe Atlantico (112 seats, 22 more at the bar), which has fewer sittings, 2,000 to 2,500. And that's not including outside seating.
Alvarez and Wilder give Andres full marks as the executive chef at these restaurants. "The huge costs are employees and food," says Wilder. "In addition to a chef's cooking great-quality [food] and great skills, financial success is very related to controlling those costs."
"Beyond that, the way the chef relates to his staff is fundamental to controlling costs," says Alvarez. "How he relates to his own staff leads to employee retention over time and is fundamental to creating a team that knows what a chef's creative talents and expectations are."
Says Wilder, "In the 10 years that we've known him, Jose's thirst for knowledge has led him to understand the business and not just the cuisine."
A restaurant's financial success, however, is not the same as a chef's making a lot of money. Andres insists he personally is not driven by money, though as a part-owner of Jaleo and Zaytinya, he'll make more than many chefs -- "enough money," he says, "to put my dreams to work."
He travels a good bit -- he still spends a week or two cooking with Adria at El Bulli every year -- but also gives time to the D.C. Central Kitchen, the nonprofit organization that feeds the homeless while training individuals for food-service careers, where he is president of the board, and to the Office of Latino Affairs for the District. And he's not averse to doing the weekly food shopping for his wife, Patricia, and two daughters.
This month he's busy with events to celebrate Jaleo's 10th anniversary and with overseeing an expansion of the downtown kitchen. He's also working on the menu for a new kind of tapas bar at Cafe Atlantico and incorporating new mezes at Zaytinya. And then there's his Web site, joseandres.com, where dishes like the ones he envisions for his dream restaurant get their first public airing. "It's my window to the world, a place to show my creative process, a place to start giving shape to what the restaurant will be like," he says.
"New ideas flow very easily. Even putting them into place, as hard as that is, is simple. What's complicated is to keep them steady, well-executed, day in and day out. Every time you take a step forward, you need to make sure that step is a good, solid one -- secure."
Says Wilder, "We always say good ideas are cheap. It's the execution over time that really matters." For Andres, however, even new ideas for the existing restaurants are limitations, though necessary ones.
"I want a restaurant where I don't have these limitations -- a creative place where I can concentrate on every detail so it will be the best. A small place too -- in my wildest dreams, one table and eight people," he says, though more realistically, he envisions it as no larger than 24 seats, with two sittings.
The point, he says, is to complete that dream place and realize not only his first and second but also his third goal as a chef there. "It will be the culmination of everything I want it to be," he says. "I have to have it."