?Jose Andres: Ambassador of Food from His D.C. Base

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), April 13, 2011 | Go to article overview

?Jose Andres: Ambassador of Food from His D.C. Base


Byline: Brett Zongker Associated Press

Jose Andres is moving from small plates to big ideas.

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. …

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