Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2014

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Q+A: Jose Andres:

With citizenship in hand, chef now ready to focus on SLS Las Vegas opening

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Aaron Clamage, courtesy of ThinkFoodGroup

Chef Jose Andres, who runs China Poblano, Jaleo and É by Jose Andres in Las Vegas, recently became a citizen of the United States. Andres is also culinary director of SLS Hotels and is currently working on the SLS Las Vegas, set to open in fall 2014.

Chef Jose Andres, who helped popularize the Spanish tradition of tapas in the United States, has restaurants in four U.S. cities and Puerto Rico, helms a nonprofit organization and teaches college classes.

While managing all of those responsibilities, Andres and his wife, after 23 years in the country, were sworn in as U.S. citizens in a ceremony Nov. 13 in Baltimore.

Andres already operates Jaleo, É by Jose Andres and China Poblano in Las Vegas, and the offerings from the James Beard Award-winner will expand in 2014. Andres is culinary director for SLS Hotels and is currently planning the lineup for SLS Las Vegas.

The chef’s interests go far beyond restaurants. He has taught a course at Harvard on food science, and he’s taught at George Washington University about food and civilization.

After a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, Andres went to the country to see how he could help. After he cooked meals in the street for people in need, he eventually founded World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainable projects for alleviating hunger and creating jobs.

In October, as Andres prepared for his citizenship ceremony, Congress failed to pass a budget and there was a federal shutdown. Andres offered free food to government workers and still embraced his new country, even with the warts of political gridlock, when it was time to perform the oath of allegiance.

Andres recently took time to answer some year-end questions from the Sun on his latest projects, philanthropic work and the citizenship process.

When did you come to the United States, and why did you choose to emigrate from Spain?

I first saw the United States from the mast of a ship when I was a young boy serving in the Spanish navy. I quickly fell in love with America and always knew I’d be back. I later had the opportunity to return to New York to help open a Spanish restaurant called El Dorado Petit. Unfortunately, the restaurant didn’t make it, but I knew I wanted to stay in America. It was challenging because I didn’t have much, but I worked hard and eventually opened a Spanish tapas bar called Jaleo in the Penn Quarter of Washington, D.C., with my business partner Rob Wilder. Only in America can an immigrant like me come from such humble beginnings and make it. For me, this country has always been a place where dreams come true. I remember my friend Michael Batterberry once told me, “If you love America, America will always love you back,” and I’ve never forgotten that.

Your naturalization ceremony was almost delayed by the government shutdown, and you offered food to federal workers during the furloughs. Did the dysfunction make you think twice about becoming a citizen?

Fortunately, my naturalization was not actually delayed by the government shutdown.

I offered food to the furloughed workers because it felt like the right thing to do. I didn’t even think twice about it. Government workers make up a big part of the city where I live, and many of these people make modest salaries, so I was happy to share a humble sandwich. In total, we gave away about 3,000 sandwiches in those few weeks. For me, it made sense to support the people that have been supporting my restaurants for the past 20 years. What goes around comes around, and the government workers of D.C. have always been good to us, so we wanted to give back.

You recently wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post on immigration reform. In your travels and speeches, what is the primary message you'd like to get across on immigration?

The main message that I wanted to share is that we need to look at all sides of the immigration debate and try to find common ground. We have 11 million undocumented immigrants that, like it or not, are already living here, and all we’re asking is to give them a chance to prove they are worthy of citizenship. As legal residents, these men and women would contribute more in taxes, spend more at our businesses, start companies of their own and create more jobs. So as I’ve said, I don’t see immigration as a problem for us to solve but an opportunity for America to seize.

What can you tell us about your projects at the under-construction SLS?

Right now, I can't share much. But believe me, its going to be outstanding. With my buddy Sam Nazarian, SBE (Entertainment Group), Philippe Stark and my team at ThinkFoodGroup, there will be many surprises. … Las Vegas has welcomed me with open arms; I can't wait to share more with the city when we open SLS.

It was publicized that you went on a diet, losing 40 pounds, earlier in the year. Did you fall prey to bad American eating habits?

I don’t think there is such a thing as bad American eating habits. People should take responsibility for their own habits. It’s easy to blame other parties, but we shouldn’t be pointing fingers.

And, yes, I lost those pounds, but I also regained some, and I am working on maintaining a healthy weight. As a chef, I should be more conscious of my health. I think as chefs we should have a genuine interest in how we feed people because we have the potential to be part of the solution, but at the same time we can also be part of the problem. So I think the chef community should be more hands-on to make sure that the obesity epidemic in this country does not get worse.

How did your experience in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake shape your views on philanthropic work and the projects you are working on now?

To tell the story of World Central Kitchen, I have to tell you about my friend Robert Egger and DC Central Kitchen, which has had a big impact in my life.

It’s one of the most amazing organizations because it does more than feed people; it employs and trains people to put them on a new path in life, and it has a catering business. It’s one of the most forward-thinking nonprofits in the world. Now I’ve joined Robert Egger as chairman of LA Kitchen, which he started to help feed thousands of Angelenos, especially the veterans and elderly.

I founded World Central Kitchen a few years ago. I was in the Cayman Islands when the earthquake hit Haiti. I called up a few friends and we went to Haiti to see what we could do to help. As a chef, I cooked meals for people in the street using a solar cooker, but I wanted to do more. Right around that time, I was honored with an award by the Vilcek Foundation, which came with a grant of $50,000. My wife and I decided to use that money to create World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit with the simple goal to try to empower the lives of people through the power of food.

What is the latest with your work in Haiti?

To me, Haiti is a fascinating country so full of possibilities, so I want to show the country in a new light. I want people to see how rich the culture is. Right now, I am working on a project with a great group of filmmakers at What Took You So Long to create a TV series where we will travel throughout the country showcasing the astonishing gastronomy of the country. I think in the years to come, Haiti has the potential to become a great travel destination, so I am really excited about this project.

You have said: “I’m a different immigrant. My life is so lucky compared to so many.” What did you mean by that?

I always worked hard and nothing was ever given to me, but I feel lucky because I didn’t have to break down walls or risk my life to be in this country. But that’s not the case for many other immigrants. If we don’t want people risking their lives in search for a better life, we need to be to be asking ourselves what can we do as a society to reduce poverty and insecurity in the world so that people don’t literally risk their lives to escape. We need to create a pragmatic capitalism that allows us to help the poor people around the world.

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