What It Takes

Jose Andres cooked his way to success

By Avis Thomas-Lester

Celebrated Washington chef Jose Andres fell in love with cooking growing up in Spain and helping his parents prepare food for him and his three brothers. He was just 23 when he and two partners opened Jaleo, the flagship D.C. eatery in an empire that now includes eight acclaimed restaurants and a hotel in Beverly Hills. The businesses employ more than 800 people and last year charted sales in excess of $50 million. Andres, 40, who lives in Bethesda with his wife Patricia Fernandez and three young daughters, has written two cookbooks, hosts the PBS cooking and travel show "Made in Spain" and is about to launch a foundation aimed at creating a national food policy.

Why he's successful: "I think a lot of it is being open to the opportunities when they come along. I like to do new things, so if a project comes along that sounds interesting, and I can do it, I do it. And luck and good timing. Those play a part, too."

Obstacles he overcame: Youth and inexperience. "I came to America when I was 21 with a backpack, and no job, and a few dollars in my pocket. At the time, it was a great adventure, but I look back now, and I think wow!"

First job: He apprenticed under the great Spanish chef Ferran Adria of El Bulli restaurant near Barcelona. "My first job was in a restaurant while I was in culinary school, a traditional place whose dining room was dominated by a big fish tank" that he once managed to dump a pan of hot canelones into by accident. "I was mortified, but the boss and the customer just laughed. I learned not to take things too seriously, and that most mistakes were learning experiences."

Worst job: Errand boy in the Spanish navy. "The second commander made me his kind of assistant. I would have to wait next to him when there were general maneuvers in case he needed a glass of water. Everyone else would be in the boat, with the sails going up the mast, like they were real sailors, real pirates. I said, 'I can't believe I joined the navy... and I have to be here doing what he wants.' ... About a week later, I said, 'I didn't join the navy for this. I want to be a real sailor.' The next day, I was a real sailor."

Smartest move: To stay with his business partners, Roberto Alvarez and Rob Wilder, and form ThinkFoodGroup in 2006. Though his restaurants were successful, "I didn't feel I had the control and ownership that I felt I deserved at the time." Instead of quitting, Andres talked through his frustrations with a group of advisors. "Once I realized that I wanted to stay in Washington because I am Jaleo, I am Zaytinya, I am Cafe Atlantico. .. I thought why am I going to throw that away with all the people who are here? So Rob Wilder and I sat down with [our] advisors, and we had a very powerful kind of negotiation ... Out of that, we became so much more empowered."

Biggest misstep: Trying to open restaurants in the suburbs. "We are a company that is more urban--more Washington, more New York, more L.A., and we opened a couple of restaurants in the suburbs, where you have to compete with a whole different kind of restaurant model...I use better tomatoes, better lamb, better asparagus. It's no way I can compete with the big chains that can always beat me on every level on price ... So to open in the suburbs like Crystal City and Bethesda for me was not ... the best for who we are."

What he loves: Being on the board of directors of D.C. Central Kitchen, a non-profit that feeds the hungry and offers culinary arts training to the unemployed. "Meeting Robert Egger, founder of this amazing organization that fights hunger and creates opportunity and trying to help him achieve his dream ... to make sure no one is hungry and that we give opportunities to those people who want to contribute. That has been my sidekick job for 14 or 15 years and is probably the one that has given me the most joy."

What he hates: Unhealthy food. "It breaks my heart to see the logos of fast food chains and soda all over the NBA All-Star Game or the Olympics or to see athletes endorsing fast food or soda. What are they thinking? Is that really what they eat for peak performance? To be the best? What kind of message is that? ... I worry about the impact this [obesity] crisis is having on our children's future because we don't just see overweight adults. We see children who are struggling with these same problems. For the first time, we are raising a generation who might have a shorter life expectancy than the previous generation."

What he'd like to change: The way kids learn about food. "We need to make food part of the curriculum in schools. Not just the scientific part, but teaching children how to cook, how to make good choices. Children also need to understand food production, to learn about where food comes from, how it is produced, how it arrives on our tables, to understand the true cost of food ... We need to show them the connections between food and everything else."

What lies ahead: Opening more restaurants and hotels, exploring Chinese cuisine and, most importantly, having more impact on the nation's food policies. "Food touches everything -- the environment, culture, art, security, etc., and I think chefs have not been part of this larger conversation. There is a lot of talk today about obesity and poor nutrition in this country and the impact these have on our health, on the health care system, on productivity ... I would like to help to make sure chefs like me are involved in the discussion. We should be invited to the table, but if we are not, we should invite ourselves."

Advice to the aspiring: Don't be afraid to fail. "I came to New York to open a Catalan restaurant that later closed. Failure, right? But not really, because that brought me [to the United States] and out of that came everything else ... A lot of young people are afraid to make mistakes, and I think that keeps them from succeeding. Churchill said success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. So screw up, but don't lose heart. Learn from it and keep moving."


Avis Thomas-Lester

 |  March 14, 2010; 11:42 AM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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