The Washington chef best known for popularizing tapas — the Spanish custom of dining on small, shared dishes — has been not so quietly refocusing, keeping one eye on the kitchens of his growing restaurant empire, and the other on the policies and politics that underpin so much of what and how we eat.
It’s a duality he hopes more chefs will embrace.
“When we are trying to come up with new health laws, you bring doctors, you bring experts in medicine. In urban planning, you bring the best architects,” Andres said in a recent interview. “How it is possible that when we are talking about the way we are going to feed America, no chef shows up in the room?”
Increasingly, he does. Working political connections he has cultivated for nearly 20 years as a Washington restaurateur, Andres regularly lobbies friends in Congress and members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet, visiting their offices or chatting while they dine in his restaurants.
Sometimes he sits in on congressional hearings just to listen.
Andres has spoken up on school lunch standards, childhood obesity, hunger, subsidies for agribusiness and food marketing. He’s befuddled by NBA player endorsements for fast food while the league promotes nutrition. But he’s pragmatic: parents have a responsibility for kids’ diets, too.
Food issues are complex and connected, he said. Hunger and obesity go hand in hand with food costs and eating habits.
“To me, what I’m interested in, in the end, is the meaning of food in our lives,” he said.
But he doubts he’ll have an impact until more people join in.
Andres’ timing is good, though, because the White House has made food policy a hot topic. First lady Michelle Obama has been particularly focused on obesity, and even planted a garden at the White House to help promote healthy eating.
Sam Kass, a chef who came to the White House with the Obamas, says Andres is a friend who represents the changing role of chefs.
“Chefs have a critical role in guarding their customers’ health, both inside and outside the kitchen,” said Kass, who has worked with the first lady on her anti-obesity campaign. “There are a number of chefs who are doing that, but Jose is among the most passionate and vocal.”
Andres arrived from Spain 20 years ago. He grew up near Barcelona and trained under renowned chef Ferran Adria at the famous restaurant elBulli — but never finished his formal schooling. He worked random jobs at first, but in 1993 was hired at age 23 by two Washington restaurateurs who wanted to create something new in a city long dismissed from the ranks of fine dining.
“We want to open the best tapas restaurant, not in D.C., not in the U.S., but how about the world?” he told his bosses of the idea for Jaleo, a Spanish restaurant offering a broad menu of small dishes with moderate prices.
So Andres concocted a menu to tell stories from his childhood and from old-world Spain. He rejected notions that Americans wouldn’t like small plates. Now the eatery that began on an abandoned downtown block has multiplied. He replicated Jaleo’s model with Mexican, Turkish, Greek and Chinese flavors.
Diners in Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, Maryland and Virginia are familiar with Andres’ work. His company, Think Food Group, has opened nine restaurants, employs 800 people and anticipates revenue this year of more than $70 million as it serves 1.5 million meals. And there are plans for future creations in Washington, Miami, Puerto Rico, possibly Paris.
“We hired Jose when he was a kid, then made him a partner in the business … and now I work for him,” said Rob Wilder, Think Food’s CEO. “Now we talk about changing the world through the power of food.”
Friends say Andres is a whirlwind of activity, juggling restaurants and politicking with managing book projects and his PBS show, “Made in Spain.”
On a recent visit to Jaleo, Andres met with makers of a pressure cooker that could be used in solar-powered kitchens during a humanitarian crisis. After visiting earthquake ravaged Haiti, last year he created a nonprofit called World Central Kitchen to help feed people in countries suffering a crisis or food shortage.
In Washington, Andres volunteers with D.C. Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that recycles unused restaurant food into meals for shelters and provides culinary job training for homeless people and ex-convicts. Andres leads the charity’s top fundraiser each year.
“Jose talks a lot about opportunity, giving people opportunity,” said the charity’s CEO, Mike Curtin. He said Andres has done the same with his staff.
For a new Jaleo spot in Las Vegas, Andres chose Rodolfo Guzman — a former construction worker who laid tile for the original Jaleo kitchen 18 years ago — as head chef after teaching him for more than a decade.
After teaching a popular course last year on culinary physics at Harvard University, he also is talking with George Washington University about creating a food institute with a curriculum spanning science, business and international relations. A research center for food policy, he said, could level the playing field with lobbyists from agribusiness.
“I cannot wait to see the day that one day we will have a chef that will become the secretary of food of the United States of America,” he said. “With all due respect to (Agriculture Secretary) Tom Vilsack, food is so much more important than farming itself.”