Perhaps one of the most respected people in the world today is José Andrés. Born and raised in Spain, he grew to be one of the most successful chefs in the world with over 29 different restaurants under his wing. While he has made a name for himself with his innovative dishes (he's been named to Time’s “100 Most Influential People" list and received the James Beard Foundation's "Outstanding Chef" award, twice), his most recent project has made the largest impact of all.
After Hurricane Maria, Andrés went to Puerto Rico with his charity World Central Kitchen, and proceeded to cook 100,000 dishes per day to help feed the devastated Americans who had been left with no resources. To date, the group has served over 3.5 million meals and continues to help an island in need.
Andrés's next cause? Sustainability. The chef just opened a brand new restaurant from his chain, Fish, at The Cove in the Bahamas, and while the menu features many local favorites, it also serves an invasive species that has been hurting the local ocean ecosphere. With no natural predators in the Atlantic, Lionfish have taken over the region and have destroyed much of the native populations. Yet many are afraid to catch them because the spines are venomous and need to be removed properly to eat. By transforming it into a delicacy, Andrès hopes to spark the removal of the overpopulated Lionfish from the waters, and also help boost the local economy with more employment for fishermen.
We chatted with Andrès about the goals of his new restaurant, the realities of achieving sustainability in the restaurant industry, and how food can really make a difference in the world.
Can you tell me the inspiration behind your new Fish restaurant in the Bahamas?
JA: The first Fish we opened in D.C. was based on Maryland shore kind of dishes and other things. I would say it’s an American fish restaurant as it happens through the eyes of a Spanish chef. Then when the opportunity came to open here, it made a lot of sense. It’s not like one day you’ll see me opening up a Fish in the heart of Kansas.
But Fish makes a lot of sense in a climate like the Bahamas. The environment was the inspiration. With the concept here, it is a very simple menu trying to maximize as many little fish that we can take out while maintaining the equilibrium in the ocean. Then we can incorporate things like Lionfish that can help you have a good meal. But, you don’t realize you are helping local people in the process of protecting local fish from being exterminated. It’s a win-win.
Are all the ingredients you use local and if they aren’t, do you look for sustainable ways of sourcing?
JA: Now restaurants cannot be everything because it’s hard. I knew for many years I couldn’t make a Spanish restaurant because I didn’t have the Spanish ingredients. That’s far away from local. But the truth is, I spent a lot of time bringing in a lot of ingredients that were never available in America. That’s how it works.
Fish that are local and are within the fishing permits are what we are using right now. I can’t wait for the Spanish lobster season to open again because that’s going to be important on the menu. But it’s great that they shut down when they are not in season. For years and years and generations and generations, they can be a way for many families to have a living. But that’s why a fish place plays such an important role. If you don’t have conch or Spanish lobster season open, you can incorporate new seasons.
Lionfish, in a few years, will become a very important menu item. Now, we are only frying it because people in the Bahamas love frying their fish. But it’s going to show up in rices and ceviches and other ways. On this island, I’ve been having problems finding them, which is actually a good thing. But in many other islands, the problem is bigger. On islands with not very many people, I can guarantee you the Lionfish is destroying there. So, if we are able to pay good money, that’s a good reason why people will go out and catch them. That’s good.
Should every restaurant be working towards sustainability?
JA: The ability to do it is what’s complicated. Sustainability is expensive. Even when people think they want to do it, maybe they cannot afford to. [Not using] plastic straws is a very smart change and we should eradicate them everywhere. We should make it mandatory that none of us can have them. But usually people don’t like to drink with a straw that is out of paper. I don’t know why, but they don’t like it. Then, what do you do? But when people realize really that that’s a problem, everything becomes really simple.
But sustainability sometimes is way more expensive than people think. Obviously it’s a low-hanging fruit for islands like the Bahamas. Farming is expensive here. That’s an issue. Good news is that I think in places that don’t have a lot of expensive land, the farms are going to be here for the future. Actually it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have cilantro and other things come from somewhere else. If it’s here to grow, it’s here to produce and can create jobs locally. Then things can become cheaper. So it’s a win-win-win.
Obviously, food is a very important part of the environment — the way we produce it, the way we consume it, and the way we get rid of it. It’s very important for the energy we use to produce it. It has huge implications.
Yes, chefs are kind of at the forefront. But let’s face it. We can’t be the only ones. There needs to be a more drastic take on certain things that, with the right policy, you can be far more effective than just some chefs making some decisions. The good thing though is that what chefs like Alice Waters in Berkeley have done is become highly influential. Many in fact, have done more to adopt those methods when they can. Doing so can keep you honest and keep you conscious.
But it still is ok. There’s nothing wrong with having parmesan from Italy or having a beer from Switzerland while you’re in the Caribbean. But everybody would agree that it’s better to have beer that is produced locally. That’s just smarter, no?
After your incredible work feeding people in Puerto Rico after the hurricane, what plans do you have for your charity the World Central Kitchen moving forward?
JA: Well we are getting ready for what is going to be. We were never supposed to be in Puerto Rico in the first place. We were never technically supposed to be a relief organization. I guess by doing it randomly under the rutter for many years, we became really good at it. In Puerto Rico, we put all the life lessons into one project. So I guess now we cannot escape that fate and we’ll be ready.
Now I think a lot is expected from us. Again, I think if we disappear tomorrow, nobody will be upset with us. I think we did what we had to. But, I think we showed that we could be bringing a very big group of people that know how to feed people — and do it with no time and infrastructure.