“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.
That noontime nosh is followed by a proper lunch, if proper can describe 20 courses spread over four hours. Casa Gerardo sits on the main road of Prendes, 20 miles north of Oviedo. The father-son team of Pedro and Marcos Morán has earned the restaurant a Michelin star for taking vanguardista cooking and making it warmer and more accessible. Red mullet with potato emulsion, sea urchin with tahini, and razor clams in almond butter sound like dishes for culinary intellectuals, but they taste like recipes passed down for generations. The climax is an ethereal version of fabada, Asturias’s best-known dish, a normally dense stew of beans simmered with sausage and slabs of pork fat. “Nobody is eating a fabada like this anywhere else because there is no other fabada like this,” pronounces Andrés, holding up a spoonful of beans. As he’s both Asturian and an Adrià disciple, he’s uniquely qualified to know.
Not far away is Gijón, a jewel of a port where we walk the seawall under puffy clouds and above the shimmering bay. We stop for a coffee, then continue to hug the coast until we reach the cobblestoned fishing village of Tazones. Up a street is an hórreo, a centuries-old stone granary. Hórreos in Asturias tend to be square, as opposed to the long, rectangular ones of Galicia, Andrés explains with the precision of an archaeologist.
Though we finished lunch only three hours before, we’re in Tazones to eat. Bar Rompeolas is a ramshackle fish house with wooden beams and cloth-covered tables. The owner produces basketball-size crabs that Andrés holds up to inspect. A woman in a gray coat shows up carrying a plastic bag of twitching lobsters. Friends of Andrés’s arrive, filling out a large table. And for the next few hours, food appears with the regularity of tidal currents: fried calamari, a bubbling cauldron of clams, glorious egg-battered monkfish that has the delicate crunch of fine tempura, and those crabs and lobsters, cooked to perfection.
One of the guests runs the Centro Niemeyer in Avilés, near Prendes. He tells me about the organization’s dramatic new facility, which opened in December 2010, perhaps the final creative act by the 103-year-old Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. “It will change the area,” he says. I’m skeptical until he ticks off an impressive list of advisers and collaborators: Brad Pitt; Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka; writer Paulo Coelho; Stephen Hawking—and Andrés, who apparently has promised to be a guest chef at the center’s restaurant. I wonder why I haven’t heard of this before. “This is Asturias,” the man says with a shrug. “News doesn’t travel.”
It’s after midnight again, and we’re two hours from our next hotel. While he drives east under a full moon, Andrés has a series of animated phone conversations. I’m amazed by his limitless energy, one reason he was able to arrive in the United States as an adult and in short order succeed as a chef, impresario, and television personality, while simultaneously making an even bigger name for himself in Spain. Finally, for the first time all day, he falls quiet. I look over to make sure that he isn’t nodding off at the wheel and find him steering the car with his forearms, answering e-mails.
Inland Asturias consists of a chain of ancient towns nestled in the Cantabrian Mountains. Late one morning, we pass through Covadonga and see the church where Andrés’s parents were married. Then we head up into the Picos de Europa national park. Even in winter, the day can be warm, almost balmy. But as we drive into the mist, the temperature dips toward freezing, dropping a degree a minute. Andrés lowers the window all the way. “I’m in Asturias,” he explains. “I have to smell the air.” We’re bound for crystalline lakes, an unexpected bit of Switzerland in Iberia, but Andrés’s rented Opel wavers on a frosted slope. We step out and contemplate the utter stillness as I dissuade him from trekking the final mile over the ice.
We head back down and visit the famous Virgin of Covadonga, a shrine in a curiously mesmerizing chapel cut into a cave above a waterfall. Then we’re supposed to steer toward the coast and lunch. But as we’re approaching the turnoff, Andrés can’t help himself. “If you love food and you’re in Asturias,” he says, “you must visit Cabrales and taste the cheese.”
Soon we’re in the village of Arenas de Cabrales, at a bar that feels like every other Spanish bar. The television is blasting, patrons are carelessly dropping paper napkins on the floor. But the wood is polished to a gleam, there’s frosted glass in the windows, and instead of a soccer match or a soap opera, a cooking show is on. The best Cabrales cheeses, Andrés tells me, are blended from equal parts cow’s, sheep’s, and goat’s milk, then aged six months in one of the caves that dot the Asturian landscape. A ración arrives, crumbly and veined with blue. It’s a revelation, fruity and nutty, faintly spicy, and completely irresistible.
As a chef, Andrés’s greatness is rooted in his painstaking technique, which allows him to harness and direct his soaring creativity. But as an eater he’s all about the intense flavor of particular ingredients, especially when they conjure up emotional attachments. I’ve never seen him happier than when he’s alone with a plate of pata negra ham in a Spanish bar; the shambolic smile that curves across his face reminds me of a five-year-old. Here in Arenas, his trancelike expression as he devours the Cabrales comes close.
After an exhilarating drive down from the hills, we hit Llanes, a town of tidy clapboard houses bisected by a canal. It reminds me of coastal Yorkshire with a touch of Copenhagen. Turned around, Andrés keeps stopping to ask directions. He’s recognized each time, even by the pensioner with a cane and a loden overcoat who looks glum until Andrés lowers his window. “Hey, it’s the chef,” the man says, and grins hugely. When we pass an abandoned monastery on a marsh, Andrés remarks that his dream is to retrofit it as a hotel/restaurant. I’d scoff at that from anyone else, but Andrés opens restaurants the way some people open bank accounts. It’s just the kind of ambitious and unexpected swerve his career might take.
The traditionally Asturian lunch that follows at La Huertona, a wood-paneled restaurant with a view of the Picos, is spectacular: a classic fabada, baby eels sizzling in garlic, and half a dozen other dishes that whiz past in a blur. Over three days in Asturias, we haven’t had an hour without eating, drinking, or traveling at high speed. Every place has been compellingly beautiful, somewhere I’d willingly return to.
After lunch Andrés drives to a nearby seawall, stops the car, and steps out. That night, we’ll end up in Avilés and tour the Centro Niemeyer. I head to bed, but Andrés will go out drinking cider until three, and then, racing to get to the airport in the morning, he’ll slam the rental car against a post in a parking garage, waving down a taxi to make our flight to Madrid. For the moment, though, he’s placid. He stands by the rocks and tracks the tide, letting the spirit of Asturias calm his soul. “Every place has its own rhythm,” he says quietly. “I’d recognize those waves if I heard them anywhere in the world.”
When to Go
Asturias is lovely from March through November. Beware of August, when urban Spaniards arrive en masse.
From the U.S., you can fly to Asturias via Madrid or Barcelona on Iberia and U.S. carriers; through Paris on Air France; and through London on EasyJet.
Great Value La Cepada Outfitted like a hotel three times the price, with quirky design, full-service facilities, and a panoramic view of the mountains. Avda. Contranquil, Cangas de Onís; 34/98-584-9445; hotellacepada.com; doubles from $78.
Great Value Meliá Hotel de la Reconquista The former hospital feels charmingly old-fashioned, with its grand hallways and liveried staff. But amenities are contemporary and service is first-rate. 16 Gil de Jaz, Oviedo; 34/98-524-1100; hoteldelareconquista.com; doubles from $193.
Bar Restaurante Rompeolas San Roque, Tazones; 34/98-589-7013; dinner for two $72.
Cafetería Santelmo Raciones of Cabrales cheese served all day. Crta. General, Arenas de Cabrales; 34/98-584-6505; cheese plate for two $8.
Casa Gerardo Km 8, Crta. AS-19, Prendes; 34/98-588-7797; lunch or dinner for two $130.
Restaurante La Huertona Crta. de la Piconera, Ribadesella; 34/98-586-0553; lunch or dinner for two $98.