JOSE ANDRES, always charming, is the life of the party at a soiree in the Hollywood Hills, and guests are circling around him next to the infinity pool. Chef Andres is scooping caviar onto slices of jamon iberico (ham from the black-footed pigs of Spain), rolling it up and placing it directly into their mouths.
“I’m feeding you one bite at a time,” Andres tells the small crowd. It’s a line he uses often. Who knew he meant it literally?
Andres, bright-blue-eyed and often dressed in an untucked button-down shirt and khakis or jeans, has, with his restaurants, TV show and cookbooks, helped bring a Spanish culinary revolution to the U.S. in the last 15 years -- and he’s busier than ever feeding people. Says Sam Nazarian, the host of the party and chief executive of SBE, the company behind Andres’ coming L.A. restaurant: “I’ve had a harder time chasing Jose than chasing women.”
Already chef-partner of seven restaurants in and around Washington, D.C., Andres has recently returned from the Canary Islands, where he taped the final episode of the second season of his PBS-aired cooking show, “Made in Spain.” His third book, “Made in Spain: Spanish Dishes for the American Kitchen,” hits the shelves in November, the month his L.A. restaurant -- the Bazaar at the new SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills -- is expected to open.
It’s an exuberant experiment in dining, located in the public space of the 11,500-square-foot hotel lobby, with several whimsical dining areas: a cocktail bar and raw bar, a space featuring his tapas as well as cured meats and cheeses, a “patisserie” with a display kitchen and a roving “street food” cart. “Who needs one more chef in one more building with four walls and a kitchen?” Andres asks.
“I’m bored with the system of it. I want people to be able to move around, not feel chained at a table,” he says, sitting down to lunch at Gordon Ramsay at the London West Hollywood (he’s starting to look uncomfortable squeezed into a circular banquette in the middle of the dining room). “I want energetic, unpretentious, fun.”
Diving right in
Those ARE the same words that describe Andres, who often punctuates his sentences with “amiga” or “amigo” and is a bit of a daredevil, a bullfighting fan not afraid to battle a big wave or two for gooseneck barnacles.
He and Nazarian, a nightlife impresario who has successfully marketed the Katsuya chain of slick sushi restaurants (among others), “were meant for each other,” says Andres, whose title is culinary director and partner of SLS Hotels. They have in common unbridled ambition.
The SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills is a reportedly $230-million project, and more hotels are planned for Las Vegas, Miami and beyond. The hotels, the restaurants, the clubs -- all seem to promote what a brand manager might call “the SBE lifestyle.”
But Andres insists the Bazaar, designed by Philippe Starck, “isn’t gimmicky.” It might be exactly the way people want to eat right now -- a little of this, a little of that, with a lot of entertainment factor.
SBE also is opening XIV in West Hollywood next month, a venue for chef Michael Mina and yet another Starck-designed restaurant -- the theme is a European chateau.
Andres, who was born in the Asturias province of Spain and grew up in Barcelona, opened Jaleo tapas restaurant in D.C.'s Penn Quarter in 1993 after stints at a couple of less successful restaurants in New York.
“When I would tell people I work in a tapas place -- I don’t know if it was my accent -- they would think topless. . . . Everyone would look at me very weird,” he said during an appearance on “Late Show With David Letterman” a couple of years ago. But now “Spanish cooking is very hot and everyone is eating, reading Spanish things.” Nobody thinks he’s working in a topless place.
Andres and his partners, under the name ThinkFoodGroup, have two more Jaleo restaurants, Cafe Atlantico (with a nuevo Latino menu), Oyamel (Mexican) and Zaytinya (eastern Mediterranean), all in the D.C. area.
Minibar is his six-seat restaurant on the second floor of Cafe Atlantico. There he unleashes his most creative culinary techniques -- a deconstructed glass of white wine (white wine gelee dotted with flavor components such as a mint leaf, lemon zest or vanilla bean seeds), salmon-pineapple “ravioli” with crispy quinoa, a saffron gumdrop in an edible wrapper -- the meal orchestrated in a series of “bites.”
There’s no doubt that Andres, 39, a onetime crew member of a four-masted schooner (“the most beautiful ship in the world”) who studied cooking at Barcelona’s Escola de Restauracio i Hostalatge and worked for Ferran Adria at El Bulli, is a busy man. “I’m in meetings all day, about the Bazaar and other projects, testing new recipes all day, talking to key members of my team, trying to get the new system up and running, finalizing the opening menus,” he says.
Chef or TV star?
He’s HARDLY an in-your-face Food Network type of chef -- but in Spain, he can’t walk down the street without being asked for his autograph, thanks to his Spanish prime-time cooking show, “Vamos a Cocinar.” He taped more than 200 episodes of “Vamos” in three years beginning in 2005 but is no longer doing the show.
“My wife said, ‘If you want to be a chef, we stay in Washington. If you want to be a TV star, we go to Spain.’ ” He’s staying in Washington, with trips to L.A. to help oversee the Bazaar, as well as other restaurants in the hotel -- the more intimate Saam and the guests-only 3 Meal.
He did return to Spain last month for a vacation, spent in a beach town in the south (with a side trip to see bullfighter sensation Jose Tomas in the ring). “I had visits from my best friends. Ferran Adria and Juan Mari Arzak [of Arzak in San Sebastian] came for five days -- we spent all day shopping, all day cooking.”
But he also fit work in (“I get bored of vacation”), traveling to the Canary Islands for “Made in Spain,” a vehicle for his enthusiasm for Spanish ingredients. The next season will air on KCET beginning Oct. 4.
“I was cooking on the top of a volcano, can you believe that? . . . They make this amazing wine there, [the grapes grow] on top of volcanic dirt. I went fishing for a very special fish -- they call it la vieja, it means old woman -- it’s like a parrot fish, very unique in the Canary Islands, and they make a unique stew, with water and the liver of the fish. . . . And did I tell you -- I rode a camel!”
During lunch at Gordon Ramsay, Andres spoons into an amuse bouche of chawan mushi (Japanese savory custard), finishes it off in a couple of bites and looks at the empty cup: “An English chef comes to Los Angeles and is cooking Japanese food. Incredible!”
To full-of-life Andres, much of the world is incredible . . . or unbelievable . . . or astonishing. “My producer [of “Made in Spain”] told me, ‘Jose, you say astonishing too much. Stop saying astonishing.’ But I say, it is astonishing.”
He’s so animated and excitable when he talks on the show that once in awhile it’s difficult to understand exactly what he’s saying -- but even if you don’t catch the words, the meaning comes across in his zeal. But when the waiter comes to the table to take his order for an after-lunch macchiato with a side of steamed milk, he makes sure he’s not misunderstood -- “I want steamed milk, not skim milk,” he emphasizes.
Others are following in Andres’ public-television footsteps. “Spain . . . On the Road Again” is a new PBS show featuring Mario Batali (an Italian chef) with Gwyneth Paltrow (who doesn’t eat pork!).
The cookbook “Made in Spain” highlights the ingredients for which Andres is such an ardent spokesman, in recipes such as: padron peppers with Tetilla cheese; olive oil pancakes studded with Spanish chocolate; nectarines and anchovies with Pedro Ximenez dressing. The recipes are straightforward, with the occasional “spherification” instruction (using alginate to make yogurt spheres, for example), with Andres’ notes on background and ingredient sources.
The menu for Bazaar leans toward the Minibar-type: oysters with lemon “air,” salmon tartare smoked a la minute, shrimp cocktail on a pipette (you eat the shrimp from the pipette and then squeeze the sauce into your mouth).
Andres is a fanatic about fruits and vegetables (“Man, the flavor of a pineapple is 100 times more powerful than the flavor of meat.”); Bazaar offers dishes such as sweet peas “spherification,” melon with almond foam and spaghetti made of carrots.
Also on the menu: a “nitro caipirinha” cocktail; caviar served with steamed buns; iberico ham sliced to order; and dragon fruit with lemon “air.”
And the foie gras cotton candy? Cotton candy -- it’s what Andres calls the “most amazing form of caramelization ever made by man.”
You might even call it astonishing.