Renée Comet
El energizer, Jose Andrés
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El Energizer

Jim Poris / September 1999

A charged-up storehouse of vitality and innovation, José Andrés bends the culinary cosmos into distinctive forms at two Washington, D.C. restaurants.

Be prepared to scribble on anything at hand—a gum wrapper, a taxi receipt, a dollar bill—when tagging along with José Andrés. His mind flows endlessly, a gentle Amazon draining a tide of food thoughts every day, every night round the clock. Andrés is a seeker, an adventurer, and he keeps up a running commentary about every twist and turn of his culinary quest.

"You don't know what's out there so you need to look beyond what you see," Andrés likes to say.

Armed with this credo, he orchestrates dishes that rearrange reality or startle with simplistic incongruity. A Spaniard from Asturias who grew up in Barcelona, the 30-year-old Andrés possesses the native disposition toward dream-state creativity—a tossing, turning drive to play in weird and ultimately unsatisfying ways. "Creativity," he wants all to know, "is the most fun part" about being a chef.

For instance, Andrés gathers everyday packaged staples and turns them inside out trying to discover ways he can mix them into dishes at Nuevo Latino Café Atlántico, one of two restaurants in the Pennsylvania Quarter of Washington, D.C., where he's the chef/partner. Pop Rocks candies, corn nuts, Chinese shrimp puffs, Rice Krispies, kids' after-school snacks—nothing's off-limits. Much to his wife's horror, he's crammed the kitchen cabinets at his home in suburban Maryland to capacity with candy, cereal, nuts, ethnic exotica, and anything else his curiosity scares up on his rambling market expeditions. All his hauls await culinary dissection, with the lab reports prescribing, perhaps, a fusillade of Pop Rocks to cap a dessert of creamless strawberry foam, or a coating of powdered, uncooked shrimp puffs to envelop crab cakes with a colorful pouffe.

"Candy is though of as junk food, but there's a lot you can learn from it," Andrés says. "These big food companies spend millions of dollars doing research on these products, so why not take advantage of that? For each 1,000 things I may try, I find one thing."

Then, to pacify more conventional minds likely to think he's off his rocker, he adds, "Cooking is about fun."

Fun has its limits, though. When it comes to keeping the volume high and food costs down at Café Atlántico—or Café as Andrés calls it—and Jaleo, the hoppin', hip tapas restaurant around the block that drew him to D.C. from New York City in 1993, Andrés can match line operations with any slick chain and balance sheets with the most eagle-eyed bean counter. Jaleo survives on volume, dishing out an extensive menu of tapas to as many as 1,200 diners a day at an average of $25 a pop.

"Who can get bored with Jaleo?" wonders Andrés. "We offer small portions that encourage sharing and ordering a whole range of dishes. People can create their own meals from our menu, and the check average is reasonable. We change things up, trying out new, seasonal tapas every other week [soft shell crabs with baby tomatoes, grilled asparagus with Catalan romesco sauce, and morels with Cabrales sauce highlighted a late spring menu], and if they're successful we move them onto the regular menu."

Oddly, Andrés finds some liberating slack in Jaleo's twin constraints of high volume and relatively low price point. Take his approach to garlic, the plasma of Spanish cooking. During the course of the day and night—and Jaleo operates continuously from 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. (except only 10 p.m. on Sunday and Monday)—the kitchen will get slammed for up to 250 orders of gambas al ajillo, the classic tapa of garlic shrimp. Andrés discovered that if garlic were twice blanched, the softened cloves would caramelize without being burned to bitterness during the whirl to fulfill orders. He forgoes the traditional bar-top tapas display because availability couldn't keep pace with the number of orders.

At any one time, Jaleo's menu boasts 60 tapa selections broken down into hot, cold, seasonal, salad, and soup categories, four dinner-only entrées, a paella made with the highly valued Calasparra rice from the province of Murcia, and seven desserts. This is Spanish food, a place where Andrés can relive memories of visiting family near Huesca in Aragon and watching an old uncle cubing bread in front of the fireplace for migas al pastor, a rustic meeting of garlic, cured ham, bread, shallots, and raisins.

There's nothing cute and cuddly about Andrés' tapas: beef tripe stew with chickpeas and sausage, blood sausage with garlic sauce, fried potatoes with spicy tomato sauce and aïoli, and chicken meatballs with squid and Sherry sauce don't speak to the easy-to-like catch-all concept tapas has become in the United States. But Jaleo pulsates, drawing in $4 million a year, twice as much business as the cramped kitchen was designed to handle. That's why plans are afoot to open another Jaleo later this year in Reston, Virginia.

Orchestrated desire keeps the tiny plates clanging at Jaleo. "A lot of tapas places shoot themselves in the foot with big portions," Andrés says. "The best part of tapas is the sharing, so we do smaller dishes to create the need to order more dishes, even if that means more work for the kitchen. It keeps the concept fun and ahead of the others in this country."

Taking the bull by the horns
Jaleo, Andrés says, "I owe to Clemente." Andrés was a 21-year-old pup when he was recruited in January 1991 to head the kitchen at the New York City outpost of Barcelona's famed El Dorado Petit. During the two years he spent in New York until just before El Dorado Petit closed, Clemente Boscos, chef/owner of the hole-in-the-wall El Cid buried in Chelsea, served as his touchstone. El Cid was his refuge, his hangout, and Clemente was "my support," Andrés acknowledges. "A lot of the tapas at Jaleo are from him. I learned from that place, the good things and the bad things."

Despite mounting acclaim and attention—including a James Beard Award nomination last year as a rising star chef, Andrés insists he's nothing more than a reflection of his mentors, none more so than Ferran Adrià, foam genius of El Bulli, the Michelin three-star in Roses on the Catalan coast. Andrés worked three years at El Bulli, from 1987 to 1989, and still returns every summer for a refresher course. He's taken Adrià's dictum of "no limits" to heart and applies Adriàism as the template for the liberally interpreted Nuevo Latino menu at Café, right down to the foams, gelées, puffed grains, and deconstructions of classic dishes.

"I always wanted to work with the best, so one day I just knocked on his door and said, 'I'm José, here I am,'" Andrés recollects. "He was doing the most interesting cooking by far. The things I saw—like, wow! I started in the salad station, not with Caesar salad but with truffle mousse and truffle gelatin. I got to work with foie gras before I ever peeled a potato."

It's at Café that Andrés gets to let loose his swirl of food fantasies. A block behind the Naval Memorial and the National Archives, in a building that saw use as an electric power plant and firehouse, Café was added to Jaleo co-owner Roberto Alvarez's portfolio in 1996 as much to allow his genie of a chef out of the tapas bottle as to give expression to emerging Latino culinary pride (Alvarez is a former Dominican diplomat).

As wonderful as it would be for him, Café doesn't give Andrés the license to print truffles. Café is a happening place, a mid-priced bar/restaurant for mostly young professionals who cram the four dining levels up to 150 strong at lunch, up to 300 at dinner, with a scattering of wanderers between hours. "Volume," Andrés says, "is not associated with top quality. I'd like to change that."

Though obsessive about food costs—29.6 percent at Jaleo, 30.5 percent at Café ("No restaurant makes money at 50 percent," he notes)—Andrés nonetheless revels in the organic produce Tuscarora Farms grows for him in south-central Pennsylvania, and he writes such uppity items as morels, huitlacoche, pheasant, and borage flowers onto his order sheet. In order to flash such sexy foods on the menu and still adhere to a strict budget, he harnesses Edison-like technical wizardry to build dishes containing an astonishing rainbow of colors, textures, and combinations.

Knowing that slabs of seared foie gras are beyond his means, Andrés works the unctuous duck liver into his daily repertoire by blending a small amount of it along with an anise hyssop leaf into a hot base of reduced cream/chicken stock and pouring it around three small mounds of corn foam topped with crushed corn nut that rise in the soup to form floating islands. "This way, I can have something that sells for only nine dollars and still get to work with foie gras," he says with kiddie glee.

His foams, like Adrià's, are created by loading gelatin-stabilized flavor bases into a dispenser and injecting them with pressurized nitrous oxide. The foamer, which its Austrian manufacturer is now marketing in Europe through an ad campaign employing Adrià, is an integral part of Andrés' arsenal. With it, he ejects an intense rat-a-tat of flavors: potato/vanilla, corn, anchovy, strawberry, and onion, as well as white almond gazpacho, which was served in a soup spoon and noted on the menu at a James Beard House dinner earlier this year as tribute to Adrià.

To the carping crowd, the foams can appear to be an affectation. Nothing of the sort. They are distortions, airy evocations of the main ingredients, and they startle with a force of flavors that smudges the line between the real and the ethereal. Andrés builds dishes on foams, taking apart the originals and reconstructing them to expose their essential elements. This shows up best when he breaks down the traditional Spanish tortilla—the flat potato/onion omelet—into one part potato foam, one part weightless onion puree, and one part sabayon, and layers them in a Sherry glass with a topping of deep-fried potato brunoise.

Like a surrealist deli man, he makes great use of the meat slicer, shaving transparent sheets of sweet potato, pineapple, and jicama to use as "ravioli" wrappers or roll-ups. Or he'll cut a shard of soft shell crab carpaccio from a frozen terrine of shelled, appendage-less crabs entombed in the gelled, crab-flavored water used to steam them. The carpaccio comes to a bouncy consistency as it unfreezes in a bowl in the walk-in for eight hours before being splashed with a soft shell crab soup tableside.

There are other revelations. Inspired by Rice Krispies, he makes his own crisped grains—boiling, air-drying for a week, and deep frying to puffiness rice, wild rice, and quinoa. In a Latin ode to sushi, he mixes crispy coconut/squid-ink sushi rice with minute filaments of frozen squid for use as a resting place for seared Ecuadorian scallops. Andrés sprinkles lime dust (syrup-poached, air-dried, finely ground, and sifted peel) over shrimp. "I wanted the taste of lime peel but not the whole peel," he says about this fine trick. He also garnishes dishes with germinated raw peanuts.

Looking ahead
These eccentricities would be nothing but culinary tantrums if they didn't perk the "mouth to never set on a flavor as in one-directional dishes"—the purpose of Andrés' pursuit. His flair, his uncommon generosity to the community—particularly his active participation in D.C. Central Kitchen, which collects and rechannels leftovers from local foodservice businesses into nearly 3,000 meals distributed daily to food programs—have gained him a dedicated following. He's admired to the point to where he can be the subject of a Washington Post feature and then sit outside Café in the evening and have Attorney General Janet Reno pause on her walk home to tell him how much she enjoyed the story.

And there will be more to Andrés' story. At times, he says, "the volume overwhelms me," and he's startled that he's running the kitchens of two restaurants that together gross $7 million. He's reaching his creative limits at Jaleo and Café, and "feels honored when people say they'd pay more" than they do at Café for his food. "Creativity is expensive," he notes.

Someday, he envisions a 70-seater and an "atelier to research dishes," such as his mentor Adrià has in Spain, to "professionalize the creative process."

His road is mapped. "I'd like to be a top chef, whatever that means. I'm maturing, getting there, moving forward, trying to find my style. This is like taking a trip around the world. You start out with a little empty bag. Then you find things that you like and you make the bag bigger and bigger. Someday I'll have a very big bag. That's the day I can say, 'Now. Let's move on.'"

Got my Mojito working

True to the specters of Dalí and Buñuel that peep through the walls of Café Atlántico, the answer to a nagging problem with his Mojito appeared to Todd Thrasher in a dream. "I know it sounds ridiculous, but honest to God," says Thrasher, the Café manager in charge of the bar and wine program. "I think I work too much; I dream about work all the time."

The revelation: foam. "A lot of people like the Mojito but they don't like all the pieces of mint they get in their mouths," Thrasher notes. So he came in the next day, hijacked José Andrés' foamer, and laid out his experiment. Cooking the mint in a bit of water didn't work because the leaves turned brown. Blending the leaves and simple syrup wasn't the answer either because that didn't solve the itsy-bits dilemma. "That's when I went downstairs and got the chinois," he says. "That worked; I got the green color and the mint flavor in the foam without the leaves."

The guinea pigs were three lawyers who come in three afternoons a week to belt down a few Mojitos. "They loved it more than the regular one," Thrasher recalls. A road test at a benefit at the National Zoo drew a queue that practically lapped the bamboo cages. "We started it here as a special, but now it's on the drinks list and it sells nearly as much as the regular Mojito," he says.

Next up to create a fuss with froth: a colada with mango/coconut foam.