Monday, June 13, 2011

WASHINGTON, DC: The José Andrés Experience - A Conversation & A Taste at Jaleo

No, I did not have the fortune of a personal conversation with José Andrés...but it sure felt like it! As Tony and I were leaving the National Archives (a visit to the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence is a must in DC!), we stumbled on a little t-stand sign that said "America Eats" and "José Andrés." Tony was already half way out the door as I stood there staring at the sign and pondered...isn't that....? And yes, it was....THE Chef José Andrés, giving a FREE lecture at National Archives, and we were just in time for tickets and a prime seat! We saw a profile on Chef Andrés on 60 Minutes, and was intrigued by his molecular cooking. At the time, we were amazed there was such a foodie experience in DC...who knew!? For those unfamiliar, Chef Andrés was named Outstanding Chef by the James Beard Foundation in 2011 and is behind a number of great restaurants in the US, mostly in DC, including Jaleo, Oyamel, Cafe Atlantico and Minibar. I remember the 60 Minutes segment because it wasn't just about his food and his restaurants, but also about his dedication to food kitchens and his food is not just about fancy restaurants and kitchens - everyone deserves good food. I thought it said a lot about this man. And here in DC, we were lucky enough to be part of an intimate conversation with him, moderated by Corby Kummer, currently a senior editor at The Atlantic and previously restaurant critic at New York Magazine and winner of five James Beard Journalism awards!

There wasn't a lot of moderation needed. Every person in the 290 seat theatre hung on to Chef Andrés's every word right from the start...and he didn't just show up to answer some questions, the man came prepared, with a "short" slide show (I use quotations because he barely got into it). With each picture, he told great stories and expressed his passion, love, and understanding of food. What I really took away was his dedication to the origin of food what it means to food and people. He started by talking about paw paws, a fruit I had never heard of before that day, but is in fact, native to North America! It sort of looks like a green mango and is essentially a giant berry, apparently similar in taste to banana and mango. Chef Andrés's fascination with paw paw was all around its origin in America, and yet, NO ONE knows about it. His point was that a true "speciality" was the ability to leverage locally. Another example he gave was the Clam Chowder. This was the first dish he tried to re-invent and elevate in America. This was the start to an engaging talk on his inspirations - Chef Andrés doesn't believe in a "right" and a "wrong" in food, it is about creating an amazing experience, and that can source from many and any place. He talked about how food should inspire - we shouldn't force kids to eat healthy food, but think about how to create food and provide perspective so that kids will understand food and ask for it. He told the story of the origin of apples and truthfully, he could have convinced me to eat anything!

Chef Andrés spoke of many origins that we have adapted and changed today: the original shrimp cocktail has grapefruit and horseradish (that sounds AMAZING), and the burgoo was supposedly made with possum and used to be an aristocratic food - the French made it with blackbirds! His point was that in food, the melting pot of America shows up - it may be confusing what "American" cooking is, but it is an evolution of old dishes with new influences and new ingredients. Chef Andrés helped create the "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam" exhibit at the National Archives, a look at the relationship between government and food over the years (butter was food group...and in fact, so was "all other"). His genius shows up in his dedication to the message, he was about to turn Cafe Atlantica into America Eats as a live extension of the exhibit. How INCREDIBLE is that? True genius and cultural integration by bringing words and images to relevance today.

I'm sad to say we did not stay to the end of the lecture, we were actually heading out to a dinner reservation...but we stayed to the very last minute! The session was supposed to evolve into Q&A, but like someone close to us said quietly, it seemed everyone in the room was just content on listening to him talk more about the history, the origin, and the evolution of food. José Andrés's dedication to food showed him as more than just a great chef in creating good food, but that he was a great chef because of his passion and thoughtfulness about food.

We couldn't leave DC without a visit to one of his restaurants, and we decided to visit Jaleo for a Spanish tapas lunch; afterall, Spanish food is what he is known for. As a testament to the chef's dedication to the "origin" of taste and food, the bread came served with olive oil, fresh rosemary and fresh crushed garlic...why substitute the flavours with anything but the real thing?? The menu was extensive and we barely knew where to start, but the freshly made paellas immediately caught my eye - I LOVE paella! We decided we simply couldn't pass up the opportunity and settled on the black rice with squid ink, cuttlefish and porcini mushroom paella, served with aioli. It is as good as it sounds :D And believe it or not, we cleaned up the entire pan!
It's not as deep as it looks, in case you thought we were crazy! While we were waiting for our amazing dish, we started with some smaller bites: a cold almond soup with garlic, crab meat and grapes - perfect for the hot weather outside and no less flavourful than a "traditional" soup, it was served with fresh crab lumps, almond flakes and raisins....we licked the bowl clean; we also had rabbit confit on a delicious apricot puree, and Jaleo's famous garlic shrimp. I regret not ordering the fried pasta paella - I only had this dish once while in Barcelona, and it was amazing, but there was really no way I could have fit more food in my stomach! I really need to go back!

Having the opportunity to hear Chef Andrés was definitely a highlight in our trip. He was so inspiring and gave me new perspective on food. I obviously love food, but his passion was really something else. We'd love to go back to DC for a visit to MiniBar (plan a month in advance!) or any other one of his restaurants. Just knowing the thought he's put behind every dish makes me appreciate it all the more.

480 7th Street NW, Washington, DC
202-628-7949 (resevations available on OpenTable)

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