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The Spanish-born culinary innovator José Andrés has seven restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area. He has been praised by the New York Times as the "boy wonder of culinary Washington" and was named Chef of the Year by Bon Appétit. His talent was recognized early on in his career, when he was nominated for the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year Award and won the Best Chef Mid-Atlantic. He started his career at El Bulli and continued his rise at Café Atlántico, Oyamel, Zaytinya, and Jaleo, eventually opening two other Jaleos. Most recently, Andrés opened Minibar, his innovative six-seat restaurant within a restaurant. He recently published his first cookbook, Tapas.
I grew up in a little town, a half hour from Barcelona. The population was about five hundred people and ninety percent of them were farmers. We had lots of fruits and vegetables, but we had amazing cherry trees. In May and June, when the trees were loaded with fruit, my friends and I had a very curious kind of competition. We would eat the cherries off the tree without separating the pit from the stem or the stem from the branch. The lower branches of these trees would be nothing more than hanging pits. The neck movements required for this were far beyond anything that yoga has devised. I was an expert.
My parents were both nurses, and they cooked at home for me—since in those days, in the early seventies in Spain, there wasn't much money, and most restaurants were out of the question. My father really loved to cook on weekends, out in the countryside.He would make a big paella on an open fire for friends and family. By the time I was in my early teens, I was put in charge of the fire. I would gather the wood—often orange tree wood but other kinds also—and build the fire and spread out the embers, which is very important because too high a heat can ruin a paella. If I even put a finger near where he was preparing the food he would say, "No. You're in charge of the fire." At a certain stage I got upset that this was all I was allowed to do. He said, "José, don't you understand? I was giving you the most important task. If you control the fire you, too, will make a good paella one day."
I was very interested in cooking, and I was helping at home all the time. My mother would be in the kitchen peeling some red peppers that she would roast, and she would make this kind of nice stew with garlic and sherry vinegar and oil. I would help peel. But in Spain we picked up a fascination with food literally by breathing; it was in the air. In the mornings it was the churros frying in huge vats of oil that would be deposited still piping hot on newspaper and sprinkled with sugar. At lunch the predominant smell of the street was olive oil heated for frying. Most women didn't work outside the home in those days, and men always came home in the middle of the day. The streets, alleys, and stairwells of any town had a certain regional nuance. A long-simmered cocido full of chickpeas and chorizo in the interior, a fabada Asturiana in the northern region of Asturias; in Andalucia, there'd be lots of fried fish.
In Barcelona we had a veritable codfish culture; we didn't just have stores that specialized in salt cod, we had stores that specialized in how they desalted it. There's more than one school of thought on that subject. After all, when you put a fillet of salt cod in water, in the process of osmosis you are taking away molecules that are very important for the flavor. If you keep on taking away water and putting in fresh water you are harming the flavor. Barcelona is a city that understands that. The difference between the stores is how much water they take out and how long the desalting process lasts. One sells cod that has spent one day in water, another two days, another three days but with only half of the original water replaced.
My father liked to buy the cod still half salted and to finish the process himself. I loved that flavor, and when no one was around I often slipped a little morsel in my mouth. Unfortunately when you broke off a piece it was very obvious, and my father always would sigh. "José, did you eat it again? Could you cut it and not eat it with your fingers?"
He liked to cook it very simply, just fry it gently in a batter of flour and egg. Salt cod is already cooked by the salt; you need only warm it to make it perfect, magical to the palate. But if you cook it harshly, by searing or boiling, it loses its natural gelatin and becomes dry and hard. Everyone in Barcelona understands this, too. The charm of cod consumption in Barcelona is that there is the bond of obsessiveness that links purveyor and consumer.
So did cooking click for me, or did I just give in? I don't think I can answer that. The patterns of life are perceived only in hindsight. I was surrounded by food, fascinated by how it was prepared, and it was natural to try and constantly seek out more knowledge. When I was fifteen I worked in a three-person restaurant in a tiny town, and Ferrán Adrià used to come in to eat on his days off. I used to see him through the tiny window in the kitchen. He was the chef of the best restaurant in town, and though he wasn't yet famous in the outside world, he was a star to us. At first we thought we had to impress him, but he loved eating simple things, traditional things like garlic shrimp, gambas al ajillo or fish cooked a la plancha. I would make that dish for him. A year later, by the time I was a student at the famous culinary school Escola de Restauració i Hostalatge de Barcelona and I was privileged to be sent for an internship under Ferrán at El Bulli.Chef's Story. Copyright © by Dorothy Hamilton. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.