After opening more than ten restaurants encompassing Spanish, Greek, Turkish and Mexican cuisines, receiving the prestigious James Beard Award and popularizing tapas for Beltway patrons, Chef Jose Andres has a new role as culinary historian.
"I'm going back to 16th, 17th, 18th-century books, because books to me are a very important way to say, 'This began here on that date and this is the first book that ever published that recipe with corn or that recipe with pawpaw," said Andres gesturing to an imaginary book in his hand.
Indeed, the celebrity chef has his own collection of rare archives, old cookbooks with traditional American recipes such as oyster cocktail and grapefruit cocktail and documents he says verify the arrival of the first cows to Plymouth in 1624 or ones describing uses for curious native fruits like the pawpaw.
"I never enjoyed cooking for the sake of cooking even though that's something I love," explained Chef Andres.
"I love cooking for the sake of understanding how people before me used to feed themselves, used to feed their families. And I think that's probably the most fun when you eat, when you really understand and know why you are eating the way you are eating today. Only this will happen if you understand how your ancestors were eating before."
As an immigrant to the US from Spain, Jose Andres has dedicated himself to introducing Americans to the variances of regional Spanish foods as well as pushing epicurean boundaries through his six-seat reservations-only restaurant, minibar. At the same time, Andres has embraced the culture of American diversity opening restaurants outside his native comfort zone and in his latest endeavor, launching a pop-up restaurant, America Eats Tavern, in conjunction with What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?, an exhibit at the National Archives, located just a block away.
Through numerous tastings, Jose Andres and his team developed a menu reflecting the exhibit, which will change as certain foods come into season. The menu maintains the integrity of a chef accustomed to serving discriminating palates, while seeking to preserve American classics. Hush puppies with caviar and oyster stew, chicken pot pie, clam chowder and fried Ipswich clams were a few of the dishes tasted by Andres just days before opening.
The restaurant's name "America Eats" comes from a WPA (Works Progress Administration) writing project designed to stimulate the economy following the Great Depression. "What's Cooking Uncle Sam" is full of posters, photos and records documenting the government's involvement in American eating habits.
At America Eats, those documents come to life.
"America Eats, I want to be that moment in history where we could argue that's American cooking," explained Andres, clearly proud of his latest undertaking.
"In this place, in America Eats, you are going to be looking into the past but you are going to see that you are also moving that past forward."
While proud of his team who carefully executed dishes from regional cuisines, the boast is also a nod to centuries of homegrown American cooking, which Andres says is too often dismissed.
"This is going to be a place where not only Americans are going to find themselves or learn more things than maybe they didn't know about but also for the foreigners who sometimes don't give true respect to American cooking," said Andres.
"And where everyone thinks that we are nothing more than a bad burger and a bad hot dog on the corner of Fifth Avenue. I love burgers and I love hot dogs. But we know America is so much more than that."
"I want you to look from today into the past," explained Andres while pointing towards a reprint of an iconic Norman Rockwell illustration "Freedom From Want" hung prominently in the restaurant's dining room.
"The one down there, Mr Rockwell, the great image of a family having Thanksgiving surrounded by a turkey, the most known American bird. Many of the photos tell you a story. I'm trying to achieve that people will be transported into the past."
"That's what these photos do," Andres said then pointing to a collection of images from the National Archives exhibit copied onto glass mosaics and hanging as a centerpiece.
"Many of these people looking at you this is what they are doing, it's almost like they were talking to you. And they are almost telling you, 'Thank you for not forgetting who we were,' and that's what we hope to achieve here."
America Eats opened on the Fourth of July in the same space as Jose Andres' restaurant, Cafe Atlantico. The Nuevo Latino fusion restaurant will move to a nearby location. Minibar remains at its current location, on the second floor while America Eats is scheduled to remain open through early January in conjunction with the exhibit at the National Archives. All profits from the restaurant will be donated to The Foundation for the National Archives.
Jeremy Moorhead contributed to this report
Food says so much about where you’ve come from, where you’ve decided to go, and the lessons you’ve learned. It’s geography, politics, tradition, belief and so much more and this week, we invite you to dig in and discover the rich, ever-evolving taste of America in 2011. The week will culminate with a Secret Supper in New York City, and Eatocracy invites you to participate online starting Monday July 11th at 6:30 p.m. E.T.