From humble beginnings, one Spanish chef has won the love of a population
Humanitarian. Immigrant. Chef. Three words that define José Ramón Andrés Puerta and his priorities better than any other. This is a man who takes philanthropy as seriously as fine dining; an individual who has made it his mission to do right to others on his journey to the top.
The chef’s voyage started on a warship. At 19, he was seconded as a chef in the Spanish Navy, where he provided meals for an Admiral. His journeys around the world gave him access to new cuisines and ingredients, as well as his first sight of true poverty. A notable waypoint saw him dock near the favelas of Brazil, which introduced him to a kind of hunger and desperation he had previously not witnessed. The seeds of altruism were sown and he made a quiet promise to himself that where and when he could, he would do something about it.
After completing his military service, Andrés moved into restaurants. The late 1980s saw him spend time at elBulli, where he met Ferran and Albert Adrià, men he today considers to be best friends.
Before long, he set his sights on the USA and the American dream. The land of opportunity showed its hand to Andrés and he happily doubled down. He began working in the kitchens of Manhattan, where he learned the language and the structure of American restaurants. It’s here he gave consideration to his own style of food and how it would apply itself in America.
All the while, he kept true to kindness. In his downtime, he would volunteer in soup kitchens. He also joined Share Our Strength, an initiative which gave cooking classes to poor communities in the US capital. He began to realise that food was able to be a strong prong in the force for good.
Andrés in Mozambique
Today, he’s considered the man who brought tapas to America. With its reliance on quality ingredients and simplicity, it was not a style of food that would translate well. Provenance is at its core and the Spanish people had been perfecting growing techniques and fine-tuning processes for centuries. Andrés could not simply just phone a local supplier to get what he needed. He had to go straight to source.
After much painstaking work, he developed a supply chain for products that define Spanish cuisine such as jamón ibérico, manchego, chorizo and smoked paprika. Twenty six years ago, he took the helm of his first restaurant, Jaleo, in Washington DC. Today, his ThinkFoodGroup has more than 30 sites, stretching from the Mexican border to Las Vegas and New York. His flagship restaurant Minibar holds two Michelin stars and continues to push the boundaries of contemporary Spanish cuisine.
While his dining destinations are well established, people outside the realm of restaurants are now familiar with Andrés for his humanitarian work. Through the non-profit World Central Kitchen that he established with fellow cooks, he helps co-ordinate wide-reaching disaster relief. Andrés travelled to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria to provide hot meals to tens of thousands of displaced local survivors, helped in Houston after it was ravaged by storms and flew to California to feed residents who lost their homes to wildfires. For this work, he received the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 Humanitarian of the Year award.
Feast, famine, fire and floods – one man provides and battles them all. There is no more deserving winner of the inaugural global American Express Icon Award 2019. Step forward, Chef José Andrés.
Get to know José Andrés:
Now read the 50 Best interview with the chef on cooking at elBulli, his role in disaster relief and if he’d ever consider running for office.