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By Victoria Pesce Elliott | July 2, 2012 | Food & Drink
Chef José Andrés is arguably one of the most important culinary figures on today’s international food scene.
Andrés discusses a dish (grilled turbot with Brussels sprouts, apricots, Spanish ham, and apples) from the Bar Centro lunch menu, with his kitchen staff.
Sea urchin nigiri with mango and nori
The Bazaar’s main dining room
There once was a time when the average American would have been hard-pressed to name a Spanish dish other than paella. Well, José Andrés, the whirlwind creative force and cooking mogul (and one of the most influential people in the world, according to Time magazine’s 2012 list), can be thanked for changing that. Known as Spain’s unofficial culinary ambassador for his ongoing efforts to promote his country’s culture, food, and travel spots, Andrés has also had considerable commercial success bringing the tapas or small-plates concept to American dining. His group of restaurants—including Zaytinya, Jaleo, Oyamel, China Poblano, and The Bazaar by José Andrés—now stretch from coast to coast. He can count such boldfacers as Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Spanish royals as customers, too.
Born in Asturias, Andrés first came to the US in 1990, two years before the Barcelona Summer Olympics, to help launch a Spanish restaurant in New York City. “Suddenly, everyone wanted to open something Spanish,” says Andrés, who was fresh off a two-year stint at El Bulli under the culinary innovator Ferran Adrià. Andrés brought with him many of El Bulli’s then-exotic molecular concepts and introduced them gradually into his restaurants alongside more traditional dishes.
Andrés has come a long way in two decades. His burgeoning empire—15 restaurants, including The Bazaar at the SLS Hotel South Beach and one to open in Puerto Rico’s Ritz-Carlton Reserve; Spanish products and a cookware line; and three cookbooks and TV cooking shows airing in Spain, Japan, and New Zealand—puts him in the same league as America’s biggest culinary powerhouses. So it’s not surprising that his umbrella company, ThinkFoodGroup, is expected to gross $85 million this year, according to partner and CEO Rob Wilder. (Andrés is also launching the nonprofit World Central Kitchen for people in need around the globe.) Not bad for a kid who came to this country with less than a hundred bucks in his pocket and never graduated high school.
“Andrés is a genius,” says fellow Spaniard Jordi Valles, executive chef at The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort, who cooked with him several times, including at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival’s 2009 fête at the Biltmore Hotel for the king and queen of Spain. “It’s amazing how he expresses himself, how he creates such incredible concepts and how he sells them.” Who else could popularize lychee and duck tongue tacos, which Andrés did at his Mexican-Chinese eatery China Poblano at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, one of the hottest resorts in Vegas?
Andrés’s next big move was to Miami, where in June he opened The Bazaar by José Andrés, modeled on his super-successful Los Angeles iteration, which received a rare four stars from the Los Angeles Times. Miami’s Bazaar sits in the sexy new SLS Hotel South Beach, where he’ll also serve as culinary director. The reveal of the 1939 Deco gem, the former Ritz Plaza Hotel, has been one of the most anticipated in years. (Bazaar won’t actually be Andrés’s first foray into Miami Beach, if you count a sputtering clone of Washington, DC’s Café Atlántico, which opened and closed on Española Way in the early 1990s. The hot spot was more of a party destination than a real restaurant, and Andrés says he wasn’t a chef there.)
What made The Bazaar concept work in Los Angeles was a mingling of 21st-century molecular gastronomy with the timeless Mediterranean flavors of Spain—El Bulli meets Spanish tapas bar. Think liquid mozzarella and gelatinous olives paired with Spanish ham (the Not Your Everyday Caprésé); bread so light it melts like meringue, with slivers of Wagyu beef and wisps of cheddar (his take on the Philly cheesesteak); and cotton candy duck liver and nitro coconut floating islands for dessert. It’s dining as great adventure. For the South Beach Bazaar, Andrés promises Miami-centric dishes. “The truth is, I have been working on this menu my whole life,” he says, recalling his first trip to Florida as a sailor on a Spanish tall ship.
Andrés will use local fruit and vegetables, for example, making tropical chips from yucca, plantains, and sweet potatoes. He’ll experiment with Cuban flavors in such dishes as criollo cheese espuma and papaya with caviar and Cuban rum. He’s also planning playful inventions like conch fritters with a hot liquid center in escabeche sauce. There will be innovative culinary blending of Miami’s Latin influences—Cuban with touches of Mediterranean cooking, such as pollo al ajillo Cubano with black garlic, and papas a la huancaina with sea urchin. Of course, his version of a Cuban sandwich will use only the supplest of pork meat, the juicy presa de Ibérica.
Andrés is known for his energy, pace, and passion—he chats faster than a teenager talking his way out of a speeding ticket, and has a frenetic workday schedule: “[A typical] day could include tastings at my restaurants, a meeting with the UN about clean cookstoves, an interview for a new chef, meeting with my R&D team on new dishes, a call with the International Culinary Center about our new Spanish Studies program, making the rounds at my DC restaurants at dinner service, a flight to Las Vegas,” and so forth. But “don’t even think about scheduling a meeting when Barcelona is playing in a Cup game,” he says. Soccer notwithstanding, he looks to imbue that energy in a Bazaar staff that will be “onstage,” cooking as much as performing. The chefs will work in a central, open kitchen in the dining room that Andrés says “is right in your face,” a culinary theater with the art of food-making visible to all.
The space was designed by Philippe Starck (who also designed the Delano next door, as well as the chef’s LA restaurant) and divides into two rooms. The front dining room has an Iberian black-and-red color palette, a dramatic bull’s head sculpture by one of Andrés’s closest friends, Mikel Urmeneta, and hints of Asia via wood-block communal tables and Chinese characters. The rear room is more breezy in vibe and is anchored by a massive octopus-like chandelier encrusted in sea shells. It’s all part of a “dreamworld” theme that includes lots of acid-yellow artwork; it is meant to convey an “out-of-focus memory of the charming dining room of your grandmother who loved art,” says Starck in his unique way. “Even Philippe’s daughter painted an astonishing mural [on the awning of The Bazaar’s cocktail lounge, Bar Centro],” explains Andrés.
The quirky design is “very personal,” says Andrés, and pulls from different episodes of his life, such as sojourns to Asia, where he was transfixed by not only the food but the mix of architecture. “We talked about the connection between Singapore Art Deco and Miami Art Deco that I found so fascinating. We looked at bringing Chinese wording and touches into [the restaurant],” he says. Bar Centro is situated at the rear terrace of the hotel, adjacent to The Bazaar, and is designed to be the gathering place of the SLS building. Drinks will have gourmet detailing: For example, the seemingly simple José’s Ultimate Gin & Tonic combines Fever-Tree tonic (made with botanical oils and Congo quinine), juniper berries, verbena, edible flowers, and a “sphere” of ice, while the Salt Air Margarita tops a classic margarita with salt “air,” a lighter-than-foam concoction of saltwater and soy lecithin that floats atop the drink and is designed to impart the ideal amount of salt per sip.
Andrés says he has always had an affinity for Miami because it reminds him of his home city, Barcelona, another vibrant waterfront locale. It’s a natural fit for his family: “My wife loves the beach,” he says, and his three daughters share his fondness for scuba diving and look forward to exploring the underwater realm of the Keys with him. (He says you might find them working in The Bazaar’s kitchen, too.) And although Andrés has slimmed down, losing more than 40 pounds over the past year and eating mostly fruits and vegetables and controlling portions, don’t expect to see him lounging by the pool. He is up early and goes to bed late. “I am more the gin-and-tonic-and-mojito guy watching the Beach from the chiringuito [a small beach bar serving food and drinks that’s popular in Spain] or the shore.” All this relaxed talk would have you believe him when he says he likes to “hang out.” But for anyone who has ever seen him in action, this is one chef who doesn’t stop moving—America’s current culinary scene is proof.
Photography by Gary James