In an interview with world-renowned Spanish chef José Andrés, we discussed creativity and inspiration, his open and collaborative style of leadership, the many secrets to his success, philanthropic efforts in the U.S. and around the world, and much more.
Named “Outstanding Chef” by the James Beard Foundation in 2011, José Andrés is an internationally-recognized culinary innovator, passionate advocate for food and hunger issues, author, educator, television personality and chef/owner of ThinkFoodGroup. TFG is the team responsible for renowned dining concepts in Washington, DC, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami and Puerto Rico including minibar by José Andrés, Jaleo at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, and The Bazaar by José Andrés at the SLS Hotel Beverly Hills and South Beach. Most recently, Andrés opened Mi Casa, his first dining destination outside the Continental US, in Puerto Rico at Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve. Additionally, Andrés was recognized by Time magazine on the “Time 100” list of most influential people in the world.
What do you do, or where do you go, to be radically inspired?
Minibar (By José Andrés), because creativity most often happens when you are working. Minibar is a story of working, of talking over ideas and refining, reimagining flavors and ingredients we are familiar with. Minibar is the nerve center of my company and the place where everything begins. From here we are able to create é by José Andrés in Las Vegas, Saam at the Bazaar in Los Angeles, and other very unique places that continue this conversation, and that bring excitement and new ways of looking at food.
Does the culinary creativity in your restaurants transfer to at-home meals, or do you prefer the simplest of dishes in your own kitchen?
My family and I cook at home almost every day together. The kitchen is the central and most important room in the house; it’s a great way for us to connect. We love going to the farmer’s market on Sundays as a family and choosing the ingredients together. Even though I am the chef of the house, my daughters and my wife always dictate the menu, and more than anything we love to make humble meals at home.
Why choose Washington, DC as a home for so many of your restaurants?
I am from Spain, but I have lived in DC for over 20 years. For me, this is home. I opened Jaleo in 1993 and I am very humbled that DC welcomed me with open arms. Everyone has always known Washington to be the political center of the US, but over the years, Washington has transformed into an amazing cultural and food center, and we are only getting better. Fate brought me to DC and very quickly it became home. I met my wife two months after I moved to the city, and our daughters were born here. After the initial success of Jaleo, we had amazing opportunities to expand. We opened several restaurants in the area that include Zaytinya, minibar, Oyamel and barmini by Jose Andres. and we are always looking to what's next. I have restaurants and projects all over the country but Washington, DC is my home base.
As a chef, it has been amazing to see how much has changed and how many top chefs and restaurants have opened up from the fine dining tasting menus, to burger joints and even the amazing food trucks. For a long time people looked to Los Angeles, New York and Miami for food, but the world is starting to pay attention to us and I am very humbled to have been part of this evolution.
How do you think your staff would define your style of leadership?
My company, ThinkFoodGroup, is a place of collaboration. I don’t believe in traditional company structures because the best ideas do not always come from the top. I always encourage my team to challenge me and I like that. My partner, Rob Wilder, and I, created the company in 2006 in order to let all of our efforts come together under one team. To do that, we designed a new office where we have been working for the past year. This is a place where PR, marketing, operations, research and development function together in the same room. We all work on the same floor with a kitchen, a cocktail bar, and a wine bar. Everything is integrated because I want my company to be a place of open communication and collaboration. These little changes will help us become a better team.
At the end of the day, my team is my biggest asset. I always try to make sure that they feel happy and motivated because we’re only as good as the people around us. I am a lucky boy because I have an amazing team that supports me in all that I do, and without them nothing would be possible.
Why do you think you've been so successful?
The biggest lesson I have learned in the kitchen and in life is to never be afraid of failure. It was Winston Churchill who said, “Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm” and these are words I live by. Some of my biggest discoveries have happened by accident.
Do you have a favorite dish?
My favorite dish depends on a lot of things. Sometimes I love the avant-garde dishes that we make at minibar and sometimes I really love a humble fried egg or a lentil stew. I have had the opportunity to travel to many different places around the world and to try many different kinds of astonishing foods; therefore, my favorite dish really depends on my mood and location.
When you think about how food is being prepared in the United States, where 1 in 3 adults are obese according to the CDC, what can we do as a nation to address this issue?
As a nation there is so much that we could be doing to improve the eating habits of America. Obviously there are many sides to the issue, but there are also steps we can start taking now. For one, it has to start at the school level by providing children with healthier meals and teaching them the right way to eat, especially in poorer areas where children eat their biggest meals at school. This is where we can start making a difference by feeding them and teaching them about healthy fruits and vegetables.
I also believe that subsidies are a huge issue here in America that prevent the food business from being on a level playing field. I am not for or against subsidies, but I am for a fair and level market. And with the way that food is subsidized now, we don’t have that. Our subsidies go to the corn industry, which encourages a certain diet. Our food industry should place a stronger emphasis on producing more fruits and vegetables. We need to be doing more to support our small local farmers too. People are becoming increasingly aware of this and are making a better effort to shop at their local farmer’s markets, but Congress also needs to act fast to sign the farm bill. We need to make food a priority, and we need it to be on the political agenda.
When did you first get involved with philanthropy, and what are some of the projects you're involved with here in DC and internationally?
When I first came to Washington, my partner Rob Wilder introduced me to Robert Egger and DC Central Kitchen. Right away I was amazed at the work that they were doing, distributing food and giving culinary training to help put people on a new path in life. I have worked with them for many years and have become Chairman Emeritus of the organization. Early this year, Robert Egger moved to Los Angeles to launch LA Central Kitchen and asked me to join him as Chairman, so of course I could not say no. Watching what Robert and DC Central Kitchen have been able to accomplish has always inspired me to be better.
I founded World Central Kitchen after traveling to Haiti in 2010 right after the big earthquake. I went with some solar cookers that friends of mine in Spain had been making and working with. We cooked meals for people, and showed them what could be done with the power of the sun. Through that I met some great people doing amazing work with the State Department and the UN Foundation. I was named Culinary Ambassador of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which brought me back to Haiti. The country is fascinating, I was amazed by the people, and I wanted to show Haiti under a new light. I wanted people to see how rich the culture is. Right now, I am working on a project with my boys at the What Took You So Long Foundation to create a program where we will travel throughout the country showcasing its astonishing gastronomy.
What are some of the leadership lessons you've learned along the way—both to build and maintain the network of restaurants and activities under your belt, and also from a philanthropic perspective?
I believe in creating synergies and building a vertical business model where everything is interconnected. I really believe in using the power of food to change the world, and we try to incorporate this idea into everything that we do – from operating our restaurants, to hotel partnerships, to our food products line, to our philanthropy and community relationships. Our driving motto is to embrace complexity, because in business and in life, you can never predict things. Thus, you have to be willing to accept and learn from experiences as they come.