The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

José Andrés ‘learned English’ by watching Julia Child. Now he’s getting an award in her name.

Chef José Andrés. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

Long before José Andrés was the celebrity chef who fed the island of Puerto Rico, he was an immigrant who was flipping channels on TV, when he landed on a show that happened to catch his eye.

He had flipped the channel to PBS and began to watch a show starring “that woman with a very funny kind of tone of voice,” he said in a PBS interview. “I was fascinated by the way she would express herself. The way she will seem to enjoy life. The way she will make you feel like that one chicken she had in front of her was the most important thing in the history of mankind. And I guess, in part, I learned English watching that woman.”

The woman was Julia Child. And the younger chef who was so inspired by her sunny TV personality will soon receive an award in her honor. The Julia Child Foundation has announced that Andrés will be the 2019 recipient of the Julia Child Award, to be presented in November at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where Child’s kitchen is an attraction.

Each year, the award is given to a figure in the culinary world who best embodies Child’s legacy as a teacher, mentor and communicator. Andrés was selected because he exemplifies Child’s independence and public-spiritedness, said Eric Spivey, chairman of the foundation.

“He’s teaching us how to cook, but he’s teaching us how to be humanitarians,” Spivey said. “How to be involved in our public, in the community and … trying to help others before focusing on yourself.

Spanish-born Andrés came to the United States in 1991 and helped launch America’s tapas craze with Jaleo, the Washington restaurant he opened in 1993. Accolades and more than 30 restaurants followed, from the upscale Bazaar in Beverly Hills to the fast-casual Beefsteak chain. All the while, Andrés has racked up awards for his cooking, including an Outstanding Chef Award from the James Beard Foundation and two Michelin stars for Minibar, his molecular gastronomy restaurant, and for Somni, his modernist restaurant in Los Angeles.

Compost potatoes might be José Andrés’s ‘most insane recipe’ yet. Here’s what they taste like.

But Andrés’s public profile rose even more when Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign. The chef faced off against the future president, pulling out of a deal to open a restaurant in Trump’s D.C. hotel after the then-candidate denigrated Mexicans in now-infamous remarks about the country sending “rapists” to the United States. Trump sued the chef for $10 million for breach of contract, and Andrés countersued for $8 million; the suits were settled out of court.

Then in 2017, Andrés’s World Central Kitchen — a mobile food-relief operation that had been founded in 2010 after a devastating earthquake in Haiti — stepped up to feed the island of Puerto Rico when FEMA disaster relief was disorganized and slow after Hurricane Maria. World Central Kitchen served more meals than the Red Cross. The Beard foundation awarded Andrés its Humanitarian of the Year Award, and he wrote a book, “We Fed an Island.”

“Many chefs have focused a large part of their career on charitable efforts. José sort of upended the whole model,” said Spivey. “His humanitarian efforts are taking prominence over anything else, although he still amazingly continues to be able to create new businesses like Mercado Little Spain” in New York City’s Hudson Yards project.

Winners of the Julia Child Award are given $50,000 to donate to the food charity of their choice. Andrés will grant the money to his own charity, World Central Kitchen, which continues to provide food relief after disasters, including recent mobilizations in Venezuela and Mozambique. Winners also customarily donate culinary items from their personal archive to the Smithsonian; Spivey says Andrés has not yet indicated what he will give.

At the November ceremony, Spivey says, a previous Julia Child Award recipient, chef Jacques Pépin, will present Andrés’s award. Food Network star Andrew Zimmern will emcee, and restaurateur Ann Cashion and writer and Netflix star Samin Nosrat will speak. Andrés will be joined by previous winners, including chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, restaurateur Danny Meyer, chef Rick Bayless, and chef Pépin, Child’s collaborator.

Some of those presenters will inevitably speak to Andrés’s role not only as a humanitarian but also as an evangelist for Spanish food in the United States.

“The passion that Julia Child had with French food and sharing that, and wanting people to understand how to cook,” said chef Carla Hall, a juror for the prize, “José absolutely has that.”

More from Food:

Restaurants in stores are trendy again, but their goal is as old as ever

An art exhibit you can eat in. Actually, you eating is part of the art.

What’s the best hot dog in America? We tried 15 popular brands to find out.