Some acts never get old.
Take, for example, the cooking demonstration José Andrés gives on The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman beach during the annual Cayman Cookout food and wine festival. Every year, his event is among the first – if not the first – to sell out. It is one of the favorites of guests, who are treated to a lively and humorous spectacle that is as much entertainment as it is a cooking demonstration.
What makes the performance all the more impressive is that José doesn’t have a script and he doesn’t rehearse.
“It just comes out,” he says with a laugh. “There are no two alike.”
Hamming it up in front of a crowd comes easily for José, who participated in theater as a child and hosted his own television show, “Made in Spain,” as an adult. He firmly understands that what he does during his beach cooking demonstrations is entertainment.
“Restaurants and food is entertainment business in the 21st century,” he says. “That’s a reality.”
Cayman is fortunate to have the extremely popular José at the Cayman Cookout each year; he doesn’t participate in many food and wine festivals, not that he couldn’t.
“Everybody wants me to, but I can’t do this every day,” he says. “I could take [the performance demonstrations] on the road, but I like to do it for fun and improvise. The more you do something on the road, it becomes…boring. It doesn’t become fun. Here, all my friends come to see me. It’s fun.”
Born in Spain and now a naturalized American citizen, José heads a culinary empire called the ThinkFoodGroup in the United States. The group runs 17 restaurants, most of which are in the Washington D.C./Virginia area, but also in Las Vegas, Beverly Hills, Miami Beach and Puerto Rico. The company also sells products ranging from cookbooks and DVDs of his television show to José Andrés-branded gourmet foods and cookware.
Since immigrating to the U.S. in 1990, many credit José with bringing the small plates/tapas form of cuisine, prevalent in his native Spain, to America. He believes tapas are “the most democratic way of feeding,” a form of dining that gives flexibility to both the restaurant and the guest.
“What tapas gave guests was control over the menu,” he says. “In the old format, you would order an appetizer and main course and dessert. It doesn’t matter what restaurant you were at; in the American-style restaurant you
would order one plate and the plate would come with the protein, the vegetable, and the potato with the sauce. What tapas gave you is this amazing way of bringing high-end cuisine to the masses and a chance to do a tasting menu in a more informal way, and a more affordable way.”
José says that while some Americans still want their big steak on a big plate in front of them and not share it, more are warming up to the idea of a tasting menu concept where they eat smaller amounts of many dishes.
“I believe that the vast majority of people enjoy multiple flavors and experiences in every meal,” he says, adding that he understands – and caters to in his restaurants – the fact that sometimes people will just want a salad. “But more often than not, when you eat, your mouth, your brain, your body seems to be happier when you have different bites of different things; life is more fun. It’s almost like, what do you prefer: the white color or the rainbow?
The rainbow is more fun.”
The rainbow of José’s cuisine doesn’t stop with the variety of Spanish-inspired tapas; his different restaurants offer a melting pot of food cultures, including Mexican, Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, Chinese, Japanese, Peruvian and even good, old-fashioned American. Part of the reason José has embraced multi-cultural flavors is simply that, in today’s information age, where world travel is easy, he can.
“In the old days, when you learned cooking, it was French cooking, and that’s it,” he says. “There was no other world beyond that. But then you open the world and you see there is Indian cooking, and Chinese cooking and Middle Eastern cooking and African cooking and South American cooking. It’s not just French cooking anymore; it’s everything, with ingredients, with techniques, with ways to treat ingredients.”
Still, José knows that there are foods and flavors in the world he will never discover.
“There’s so much to learn and so little time,” he says, adding that even with unlimited resources, he could not see every place he’d like to see or “visit every flavor” he’d like to taste.
He might not get to see the whole world, but he has seen the Cayman Islands every year now since the Cayman Cookout started in 2009, appearing annually as part of the triumvirate known as the “Three Amigos” along with host chef Eric Ripert and television food celebrity Anthony Bourdain. One of the reasons he keeps coming back, the fun aside, is that his wife and three daughters accompany him and they enjoy together one of the family’s favorite pastimes: scuba diving.
“For me, it’s a good excuse to be with my family,” he said, noting that his annual trip to Cayman has become his family’s “scuba diving week.”
While he’s on Grand Cayman, he does what he does everywhere else: He goes out to eat to see what other chefs are doing, a form of professional research.
“An onion is an onion, but if you put the onion in the hands of a thousand chefs, then that onion becomes a thousand different things,” he says. “That is astonishing about our profession. So I want to know what the other 999 are doing with that onion – that’s part of learning and celebrating. I love what I do, but I love what others do, too.”