“I’m hungry,” José Andrés says. It’s nearly midnight and we’re driving to our hotel in Oviedo, the capital of the northern Spanish province of Asturias. But Andrés, a chef and restaurateur whose M.O. is inspired improvisation, wants to stop in his birthplace of Mieres for a late-night snack. I’m not arguing. During the week we’ve already spent together in Spain, I’ve learned that any meal he proposes will be an extraordinary one.
This one begins less promisingly than most. The sky is spitting rain, restaurants are closed, and we have to park on the sidewalk. But when we arrive at the only open bar we see, Andrés immediately gets slapped on the back by people he’s never met.
Spaniards know Andrés from his role as host of a cooking show that ran on government television from 2005 to 2007, during which he filleted fish and prepared tortilla española with a joyous exuberance that made him a national celebrity. In America, he’s the champion of all things Spanish, the man who pulled the cuisine out of its gazpacho-and-paella doldrums. (An acolyte of Ferran Adrià, Andrés taught a lecture series on science and cooking at Harvard with the legendary chef last fall.) His first restaurant, Washington, D.C.’s Jaleo, opened in 1993. Today he has 10 more, in D.C., Las Vegas, and Beverly Hills: Spanish, but also Greek, Mexican, Chinese, Nuevo Latino, and avant-garde. Beginning in 2008, Andrés produced and hosted 26 episodes of Made in Spain, a travel and culinary series for PBS. This month, in conjunction with a National Archives exhibit, he’s opening America Eats Tavern, which will temporarily fill the three floors of D.C.’s Café Atlántico with his take on cheesesteak, oysters Rockefeller, and other iconic dishes.
Despite this formidable culinary empire, Andrés is anything but a buttoned-up CEO. His appetite for life in general—and food in particular—is prodigious; he’ll roam far and wide for something delicious to put in his mouth, or to watch his favorite soccer team, FC Barcelona, play an important match. He’d rather roast a pig over an open flame for assembled friends than do almost anything else. And his manner with intimates, acquaintances, and even strangers is warm and genuine.
The people of Asturias, a tranquil, under-the-radar region on the Bay of Biscay two hours west of Bilbao, have embraced their local son like a conquering hero. So I’m not surprised that, though the kitchen at this bar has closed, food starts arriving at our table within minutes—not bar snacks, but authentic local dishes. There’s eel with eggs, boiled sea urchin halved to reveal the unctuous orange roe inside, sliced meats and cheeses—all served with glasses of purposefully tepid cider poured using the traditional Asturian technique, which resembles trying to milk a cow while simultaneously changing a lightbulb.
For two hours, Andrés eats and drinks, signs dozens of autographs, and at one point sprints outside into the rain to intercept the police cruiser that has stopped beside his car. (Once they see it’s Andrés, of course, the Guardia Civil give him a handshake rather than a ticket.) As we race through Asturias at warp speed, similar scenes play out again and again, with one thing in common: food. With Andrés, it’s nearly always about food.
Early the next morning, I leave my hotel in Oviedo for a walk and encounter head-turning public art on nearly every corner, including a likeness of Woody Allen, who showcased Oviedo in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Someday I hope to linger in this serene and attractive city, but Andrés is rushing to nearby La Foz de Morcín to appear in a festival celebrating afuega’l pitu, a soft, aromatic cow’s-milk cheese. When we arrive, two TV crews materialize and follow him from table to table as he tastes his way through the bounty of the event, chronicling each bite for the cameras. Andrés receives an award, which roughly translates into “The Greatest Cheese Man of Asturias,” and improvises a speech. Before we leave, he sees an old acquaintance. “I’d love to meet the mayor and congratulate him,” Andrés says. “Oh, José, you are too funny,” the man replies. It turns out that he is the mayor.