José An­drés is feed­ing dis­as­ter sur­vivors, speak­ing up for im­mi­grants, and tus­sling with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. Mean­while, his restau­rant em­pire flour­ishes. Here’s how he’s mak­ing im­pul­sive­ness an as­set.

Fast Company - - Contents - By Matthew Shaer

José An­drés is build­ing a mul­ti­tiered restau­rant em­pire while speak­ing up for im­mi­grants and help­ing dis­as­ter sur­vivors. Here’s how his ac­tivism is bol­ster­ing his busi­ness.


and, af­ter flick­ing through the head­lines on his iphone X, makes his way over to his home gym to work the el­lip­ti­cal ma­chine. Only af­ter he’s show­ered and shaved does the 48-year-old, who likes to de­scribe his ca­reer as “one long at­tempt to ex­plain the world through food,” al­low him­self his first meal of the day: a glass of fresh-squeezed fruit juice and a large mug of cof­fee with steamed milk, typ­i­cally con­sumed in the kitchen of the Mary­land home he shares with his wife, Pa­tri­cia, and their three daugh­ters. ¶ “My wife is al­ways telling me, ‘En­joy the mo­ment. The mo­ment is now,’ ” An­drés says one re­cent morn­ing, sip­ping the foam from the cof­fee. He is dressed, as he usu­ally is, in rum­pled khakis and a dress shirt. His feet are bare; his hair, still damp, pro­trudes at strange an­gles from his head. “Some­times I get close,” he sighs. “But pretty soon I’m think­ing, Maybe you’d be hap­pier if you were there, do­ing that. Then I’m off again.” ¶ The past year has been an es­pe­cially peri­patetic one for the chef, both lo­gis­ti­cally and pro­fes­sion­ally. Hold­ing out one hand, he ticks down the list on his fin­gers: First, there was the le­gal bat­tle with the pres­i­dent of the United States—an im­broglio that orig­i­nated in 2015, when then-can­di­date Don­ald J. Trump de­scribed Mex­i­cans as “rapists” and crim­i­nals. An­drés, who was born in Spain and be­came a nat­u­ral­ized Amer­i­can cit­i­zen in 2013, promptly pulled out of a deal to open a restau­rant in the lobby of the Trump ho­tel in D.C. Trump sued An­drés for $10 mil­lion for breach of con­tract; An­drés coun­ter­sued for the $8 mil­lion he said he had al­ready in­vested in the prop­erty, ar­gu­ing that “the per­cep­tion that Mr. Trump’s state­ments were anti-his­panic made it very dif­fi­cult to re­cruit ap­pro­pri­ate staff for a His­panic restau­rant, to at­tract the req­ui­site num­ber of His­panic food pa­trons for a prof­itable en­ter­prise, and to raise cap­i­tal for what was now an ex­traor­di­nar­ily risky Span­ish restau­rant.” ¶ Last spring, Trump and An­drés set­tled the law­suit, but the bad blood be­tween the two men per­sists, and in re­cent months An­drés has only stepped up his crit­i­cism of the pres­i­dent’s

im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies—es­pe­cially the de­ci­sion, ear­lier this year, to re­voke the tem­po­rary pro­tec­tive sta­tus granted in 2001 to hun­dreds of thou­sands of Sal­vadore­ans. As An­drés points out to me, it was not that he didn’t sup­port the idea of im­mi­gra­tion re­form. But many Sal­vadore­ans work in the restau­rant in­dus­try, and he wor­ried about the hole their sud­den exit would leave in the econ­omy—not to men­tion, of course, his own busi­ness. The re­vo­ca­tion or­der, he says, “wasn’t prag­matic, it wasn’t thought out. It just made for chaos.”

Then there were the emer­gency hu­man­i­tar­ian aid trips—taken on be­half of An­drés’s char­ity, World Cen­tral Kitchen. An­drés trav­eled to storm-rav­aged Hous­ton in Au­gust to cook for sur­vivors. He went to Puerto Rico a lit­tle over a month later to pro­vide food and as­sis­tance as the is­land strug­gled to re­cover from Hur­ri­cane Maria. And he ven­tured to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia just a few months af­ter that, join­ing food-world friends such as Tom Colic­chio to whip up meals for res­i­dents dis­placed by wild­fires. (An­drés re­ceived the James Beard Foun­da­tion’s 2018 Hu­man­i­tar­ian of the Year award in Fe­bru­ary and was hon­ored for his ef­forts on­stage at the Academy Awards in March. Five days later, he an­nounced that one of his D.C. restau­rants would pro­vide free sand­wiches and drinks for stu­dents par­tic­i­pat­ing in the March for Our Lives rally.)

Fi­nally, there have been the de­mands of his in­creas­ingly ten­tac­u­lar restau­rant em­pire, Think­food­group, which has grown out of An­drés’s first Amer­i­can prop­erty, the 25-year-old Ja­leo, near the Na­tional Mall in Washington. The busi­ness now in­cludes 29 prop­er­ties in eight cities in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Mex­ico—from the dou­ble-miche­lin­starred Mini­bar, in Washington, D.C., to the sul­try Span­ish-in­spired Bazaar, in Mi­ami, to Mi Casa, in the Puerto Ri­can re­sort town of Do­rado. Last April, Think­food­group forged an ex­clu­sive part­ner­ship with food-ser­vice man­age­ment gi­ant Com­pass Group to de­velop new con­cepts and ex­pand on ex­ist­ing ones, in­clud­ing Beef­steak, An­drés’s three-year-old plant-cen­tric restau­rant chain, and an Eataly-style food hall in New York’s Hud­son Yards de­vel­op­ment.

An­drés clearly rel­ishes the fre­netic pace, but he ad­mits it has taken a toll: While work­ing in Puerto Rico last fall, he lost 20 pounds and was sick for days at a stretch. He says he is strug­gling to reckon with his new­found sta­tus as a po­lit­i­cal fig­ure, a role he tells me he never sought out and does not par­tic­u­larly want. “Pol­i­tics is a kind of game,” he says, “where you’re ex­chang­ing this for that.” An­drés isn’t in­ter­ested in ne­go­ti­at­ing. He just wants to help the peo­ple who need it. Not that he has the diplo­macy for pol­i­tics, any­way: When the chef was re­fused en­trance to an af­ter­party fol­low­ing the an­nual Al­falfa Club din­ner in D.C. in Jan­uary—a glam­orous af­fair that drew

Ge­orge W. Bush, Madeleine Al­bright, U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice John Roberts, and oth­ers—he jumped to con­clu­sions. He tweeted out a photo of him­self at the door, sur­mis­ing that Ivanka Trump was to blame, and tagged The Washington Post. It was retweeted 13,000 times. The next af­ter­noon, he tweeted again: Ivanka had reached out to him. She’d had noth­ing to do with it. Along with his apol­ogy, he in­cluded a plea for im­mi­gra­tion re­form that would pro­tect Dream­ers.

In many ways, An­drés re­sem­bles fel­low busi­ness lu­mi­nar­ies such as Chobani’s Hamdi Ulukaya, Star­bucks’s Howard Schultz, and Patag­o­nia’s Rose Mar­cario, who have man­aged to ex­pand their en­ter­prises while speak­ing out about—and act­ing on—their val­ues. But An­drés’s spon­tane­ity makes him unique. Through his pro­lific use of so­cial me­dia, his lack of fil­ter, and his impulse to go where the ac­tion is, An­drés is pi­o­neer­ing a rapid-re­sponse model of lead­er­ship. This is no fully vet­ted cor­po­rate so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity ef­fort. It’s one man act­ing on in­stinct, ad­just­ing on the fly, and ob­serv­ing as things tend to fall into place be­hind him. This free­wheel­ing ap­proach might ran­kle some, but it’s work­ing: He’s at­tract­ing tal­ent to Think­food­group, do­na­tions to World Cen­tral Kitchen, and cus­tomers to his restau­rants. He is a walk­ing, tweet­ing, pot­stir­ring, brand-build­ing ex­per­i­ment.

Kim­berly Grant, for­merly the COO and pres­i­dent of Ruby Tues­day who was hired in 2014 to be Think­food­group’s CEO, re­calls ac­com­pa­ny­ing An­drés to a char­ity din­ner in Mi­ami last year that was “black tie, very for­mal, full of celebri­ties,” she says. “José gets up there to give a speech, and at the end, he rips open his shirt, and he’s got a T-shirt un­der­neath.” Four words were em­bla­zoned on the front: I AM AN IM­MI­GRANT. “None of us had any clue he was go­ing to do that,” Grant says. “But that’s José.”

An­držs’s trans­for­ma­tion from chef to ac­tivist be­gan in 2010, with a phone call. Manolo Vílchez, the Span­ish head of a so­lar-pow­ered-stove com­pany, al­sol, was headed down to Haiti to dis­trib­ute cook­ing equip­ment to sur­vivors of the re­cent earth­quake. Did An­drés want to come along?

As a 19-year-old chef in the Span­ish Navy, An­drés had trav­eled to the Ivory Coast and the fave­las of Brazil and en­coun­tered, for the first time, des­per­ate lev­els of poverty. “In Spain, there are peo­ple who go hun­gry, ob­vi­ously,” An­drés re­calls. “But I’d never seen hunger like I did in those places.” It stuck with him, and when he ar­rived in the U.S., as a young chef, he started vol­un­teer­ing with lo­cal soup kitchens; later he joined an or­ga­ni­za­tion called Share Our Strength and helped teach cook­ing classes in dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties around D.C. He of­ten grew frus­trated, he says, “be­cause I couldn’t see im­me­di­ate re­sults.”

Vílchez was of­fer­ing him a chance at in­stant feed­back, and af­ter hang­ing up the phone, An­drés threw his things into a cou­ple of old back­packs and headed to the air­port. “I didn’t take that much,” he says. “Some money, a knife, a fish­ing vest”—the same tan Orvis vest, now sweat stained and sun faded, that he sports in nu­mer­ous re­cent pho­to­graphs from Puerto Rico. When he ar­rived in Haiti, he says, “it was chaos.” Hun­dreds of thou­sands were dead; more than a mil­lion were dis­placed. For al­most two weeks, An­drés and his com­pan­ions trekked across the coun­try, some­times sleep­ing in the homes of lo­cals or un­der the stars. The al­sol team set up more than a dozen so­lar cook­ing fa­cil­i­ties around the is­land, and An­drés taught res­i­dents how to use them.


An­drés re­turned from the trip in­vig­o­rated, and over cof­fee with Robert Eg­ger, the head of DC Cen­tral Kitchen, a char­ity that dis­trib­utes un­used food from lo­cal restau­rants to the city’s home­less pop­u­la­tion, he made a pro­posal: Why not cre­ate an in­ter­na­tional ver­sion of the group? It could be called World Cen­tral Kitchen. Eg­ger, who worked along­side An­drés for years at DC Cen­tral Kitchen, where An­drés was a vol­un­teer—and later a ma­jor fundraiser—agreed. “José,” he says, “has a record of pulling stuff out of his ass and mak­ing it work.”

Ini­tially, World Cen­tral Kitchen had two full-time em­ploy­ees (both have since left), and the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s at­ten­tion was fo­cused on Haiti, where it es­tab­lished a san­i­ta­tion train­ing pro­gram for lo­cal cooks and built a bak­ery, still ac­tive to­day, that helps feed the res­i­dents of an or­phan­age in the town of Croix-des-bou­quets. “My feel­ing was that a lot of NGOS were do­ing im­por­tant work in Haiti, but in the long term, the prob­lems weren’t get­ting fixed,” An­drés says. “Or the prob­lems were get­ting big­ger.” He was look­ing to im­ple­ment projects like the bak­ery, that would be­come part of the fab­ric of the com­mu­nity, that wouldn’t just feed peo­ple, but would also train lo­cals in a pro­fes­sion.

Soon, An­drés was rais­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars for WCK from large donors such as the Crown fam­ily. The or­ga­ni­za­tion part­nered with 11 restau­rants, in­clud­ing a hand­ful in the Think­food­group port­fo­lio, for a World Food Day fundraiser in 2014, with 10% of all earn­ings go­ing to WCK. In Zam­bia, it opened a bak­ery mod­eled af­ter the one in Haiti. In the Do­mini­can Repub­lic, it in­vested in a bee­keep­ing com­pany run en­tirely by women. In Nicaragua, it joined forces with a Cen­tral Amer­i­can NGO to help mem­bers of a cof­fee-roast­ing col­lec­tive sell their beans di­rectly to ma­jor Amer­i­can mar­kets. All of these projects re­main op­er­a­tional to­day.

Back in the States, An­drés helped Eg­ger open L.A. Kitchen, a sis­ter in­sti­tu­tion to the one in D.C., and presided over the cre­ation of the Chef Net­work—a small army of what is to­day around 100 food in­dus­try pros, in­clud­ing An­thony Bour­dain and An­drew Zim­mern, who con­trib­ute to WCK in var­i­ous ways, in­clud­ing outreach trips around the globe. As these culi­nary and phil­an­thropic ef­forts grew, the awards piled up: An­drés re­ceived an hon­orary doc­tor­ate from Ge­orge Washington Univer­sity and a Na­tional Hu­man­i­ties Medal from Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

By early last year, the ac­co­lades—and his on­go­ing dis­pute with the Trump fam­ily—had made An­drés one of the most fa­mous chefs in the coun­try. But it was his work af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria that made him a house­hold name. As An­drés tells it, he had no con­crete plans when he and film­maker Nate Mook, who had vol­un­teered

on nu­mer­ous WCK ini­tia­tives, boarded a plane to Puerto Rico in Septem­ber, mere days af­ter the cat­e­gory 5 storm swept across the is­land, killing dozens and lev­el­ing the power grid. “I just knew I needed to be there,” An­drés says.

It be­came im­me­di­ately clear to them “that no one there was re­ally deal­ing with the hunger sit­u­a­tion,” Mook says. “There was food, but no one was equipped to pre­pare it. So José made some calls, and we ended up in this beach­side kitchen [of a restau­rant] run by José Enrique”—the best­known chef in Puerto Rico. “There were holes in the roof, and all this wa­ter was com­ing in, but there was a gen­er­a­tor. And we started cook­ing.”

Even­tu­ally, they es­tab­lished 23 kitchens that churned out what An­drés es­ti­mates to be more than 3.3 mil­lion meals, lean­ing on lo­cal vol­un­teers for help with cook­ing and dis­tri­bu­tion. On An­drés’s in­sis­tence, many of the meals were hot—big, steam­ing pots of paella and chicken and rice. “It wor­ries me that the only thing some­one should get right af­ter a dis­as­ter is some kind of mil­i­tary-style Nutrapack or what­ever they’re called,” says An­drés. “Peo­ple need real food. They need the com­fort of it.”

An­drés ended up spend­ing more than 10 weeks on the is­land, spread over mul­ti­ple trips. He found the work re­ward­ing yet ag­gra­vat­ing, due to the way he saw the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion mis­han­dling the re­lief sit­u­a­tion. As with all things Trump, An­drés didn’t bother keep­ing his opin­ions to him­self. “The most in­ef­fi­cient place on earth,” he wrote in one Twit­ter post last fall, un­der a pho­to­graph of the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency head­quar­ters in Puerto Rico. A top of­fi­cial at FEMA, which had funded some of the World Cen­tral Kitchen’s pro­grams there, re­sponded by writ­ing off An­drés as a “col­or­ful . . . busi­ness­man look­ing for stuff to pro­mote his busi­ness.”

There’s no ques­tion that the re­lief work has helped in­crease An­drés’s vis­i­bil­ity. Hun­dreds of ar­ti­cles have been writ­ten about the chef ’s ef­forts in Puerto Rico alone, and he has be­come a fre­quent source for jour­nal­ists look­ing into gov­ern­ment aid ef­forts on the is­land. But, he says, none of this is com­mer­cially mo­ti­vated, any more than his vol­un­teer work in the soup kitchens in New York and D.C. was. “Some­times,” he says, “you have to hold your ground. You have to speak from the heart.” He is the head of the largest restau­rant em­pire in the cap­i­tal city of the United States. More than half a mil­lion peo­ple fol­low him on Twit­ter. He has a soap­box, and he

in­tends to use it.

On pa­per, World Cen­tral Kitchen and Think­food­group re­main wholly sep­a­rate en­ti­ties. In prac­tice, the dis­tinc­tion is blurry: Each ef­fort in­forms the other. An­drés’s com­mer­cial suc­cess and ris­ing pro­file make it eas­ier for World Cen­tral Kitchen to at­tract top restau­rant tal­ent to its Chef Net­work; WCK’S phi­lan­thropy, in turn, has a halo ef­fect on Think­food­group—and mo­ti­vates its more than 1,200 em­ploy­ees. “I came to Think­food­group in large part be­cause of the outreach work José was do­ing,” says Eric Martino, COO of the com­pany’s fast-ca­sual divi­sion. “It makes you go, ‘I’ve got to find a way to match that.’ ” In Fe­bru­ary, Martino or­ches­trated a col­lab­o­ra­tion with DC Cen­tral Kitchen so that grad­u­ates of its job train­ing pro­gram re­ceive place­ment at a lo­cal Beef­steak out­post. “As an or­ga­ni­za­tion, as you ex­pand, you want to have that,” he says. “You want a re­minder from the top that this is more than about serv­ing food.”

Since the be­gin­ning, An­drés’s restau­rant em­pire has been in a more or less con­stant state of ex­pan­sion, both in terms of scope and ge­o­graphic


reach. Ini­tially, the chef stuck pri­mar­ily to the Span­ish cui­sine he’d mas­tered dur­ing his time as a young chef at El Bulli, the Cat­alo­nian restau­rant con­sid­ered the pin­na­cle of molec­u­lar gas­tron­omy un­til it closed in 2011. Ja­leo, on the Mall in D.C., is cred­ited for pop­u­lar­iz­ing Span­ish tapas in the U.S. But the crit­i­cal and pop­u­lar suc­cess of the place also gave An­drés the con­fi­dence to ex­per­i­ment with a more di­verse menu, of­ten at con­sid­er­able pro­fes­sional risk. Mini­bar, an ex­pen­sive D.C. restau­rant known for cut­ting-edge culi­nary tech­niques (e.g., mo­ji­tos as squares meant to be chewed, not drinks to be sipped), could have been a costly, pre­ten­tious flop when it opened in 2003. In­stead, the es­tab­lish­ment earned two Miche­lin stars. Sim­i­larly in­no­va­tive ef­forts, like the Asian-peru­vian fu­sion joint China Chilcano, which launched in D.C. in 2015, and the seafood-cen­tric Bazaar Mar, which opened in Mi­ami a year later, have helped ratchet Think­food­group’s rev­enue to, as of last year, well over $150 mil­lion.

To­day, An­drés is not as in­ti­mately in­volved with every new restau­rant open­ing as he once was. More and more, he serves as fi­nal ar­biter—of menu choices, of restau­rant de­sign—with CEO Kim­berly Grant and oth­ers at­tend­ing to ev­ery­day de­vel­op­ment de­tails. There are plenty to go around. In ad­di­tion to open­ing new Beef­steak lo­ca­tions this fall—in­clud­ing one at the Cleve­land Clinic, in Ohio—think­food­group will de­but a mas­sive Span­ishin­spired food hall in the new Hud­son Yards, in the shadow of Man­hat­tan’s High Line, in part­ner­ship with fel­low El Bulli veter­ans Fer­ran and Al­bert Adrià. In De­cem­ber, the com­pany an­nounced that it would pro­vide food and bev­er­age ser­vices for the Es­ports Arena in the Luxor ho­tel, in Las Ve­gas—a fur­ther re­sult of its part­ner­ship with food-ser­vice man­age­ment com­pany the Com­pass Group.

Mean­while,in­tex­as­in­febru­ary,an­dré­sopened a new lo­ca­tion of Zaytinya, his Mediter­raneanin­spired of­fer­ing. Even­tu­ally this Zaytinya out­post will be one of sev­eral Think­food­group es­tab­lish­ments in the Dal­las area—an ap­proach the com­pany has used ef­fec­tively in L.A. and D.C. “Think about it in terms of ef­fi­ciency,” CEO Grant says. “Could Zaytinya be [our] only Dal­las restau­rant? Yes, but if you have a clus­ter of restau­rants, you’re able to share the bur­den of food pro­cure­ment, you’re able to share staff—you can have one som­me­lier who moves be­tween the lo­ca­tions.”

When I visit the restau­rant, which is lo­cated in the wealthy north­ern Dal­las sub­urb of Frisco, the mood on a cloudy win­ter day is one of up­beat dis­or­der. The open-air kitchen is rau­cous and busy; the re­cently hired wait­staff darts from ta­ble to ta­ble, cater­ing to friends and fam­ily who have been pressed into ser­vice as testers. “It’s crazy, but all restau­rant open­ings are, be­cause noth­ing is ever ready ex­actly when you need it to be,” says Joe Raffa, Think­food­group’s D.c.-based ex­ec­u­tive

chef. Still, he has grown ac­cus­tomed to the process. “If you can deal with the oc­ca­sional gray hair, there’s a lot of joy to it, and a lot of cre­ativ­ity. Noth­ing is ever a cookie-cut­ter repli­ca­tion, even if we’re work­ing with an ex­ist­ing brand. You bring in new menu items: We’re go­ing to do a lot more beef here, be­cause it’s Texas. You cre­ate a unique vibe.”

Like most new Think­food­group prop­er­ties, the Frisco Zaytinya had been de­vel­oped over the course of more than a year, start­ing with a se­ries of scout­ing trips. Once a gen­eral area is iden­ti­fied, the dis­cus­sion turns to the type of restau­rant that will best fit the neigh­bor­hood. In the case of Frisco, Think­food­group had been ap­proached by back­ers who knew specif­i­cally that they wanted a Zaytinya, but Grant told me she would have pro­posed some­thing sim­i­lar, re­gard­less. “We could have done Bazaar Meat”—the com­pany’s steak-cen­tric chain—“but that wouldn’t have dif­fer­en­ti­ated us enough in this mar­ket. Ditto for Oyamel,” Think­food­group’s Mex­i­can brand.

Af­ter a lease is signed, de­sign and con­struc­tion be­gin, with An­drés reg­u­larly cycling through to of­fer sug­ges­tions and feed­back. When launch­ing Bazaar Meat, in 2014, “we knew we were go­ing to do a meat restau­rant, and we all sat down to­gether to dis­cuss con­cepts,” Raffa re­mem­bers. “We had some stuff to show him. Some he liked, and some he didn’t. Then we came back to his of­fice, and every wall was lit­er­ally cov­ered in print­outs of pic­tures and menu items. He was ex­plod­ing ideas. And it was so spe­cific: It was, ‘Get me this steak I ate 12 years ago at this small restau­rant in Spain.’ ”

At Zaytinya in Frisco, the lunch ser­vice winds down and the staff set­tles in for a com­mu­nal meal be­fore an­other wave of friends and fam­ily show up for din­ner. Grant re­treats to a cor­ner with Michael Don­eff, Think­food­group’s CMO, to dis­cuss plans for ad­di­tional restau­rants for the Dal­las clus­ter. They’d re­cently spot­ted a store­front they liked in the rapidly bal­loon­ing up­town area. “It’s just a ques­tion of when the land­lord can de­liver it,” Don­eff says. “Right,” Grant agrees. “But we’ll get there.”

A few weeks later, they do. And the cy­cle starts again.

More than two decades af­ter the open­ing of the first Ja­leo, in D.C., the sur­round­ing area has been so densely col­o­nized by Think­food­group that you can hardly walk a block with­out pass­ing a prop­erty op­er­ated by the com­pany: Oyamel and China Chilcano on Sev­enth Street; Zaytinya, Mini­bar, and the ex­per­i­men­tal cock­tail space Barmini on Ninth; the cor­po­rate head­quar­ters on D Street.

One over­cast af­ter­noon, I trail An­drés as he ping-pongs from one restau­rant to the next, his thick arms pump­ing, his Camper sneak­ers un­laced. At Oyamel, he chuffs down some gua­camole. At Ja­leo, he won­ders aloud why the back door is ajar— “Needed some air,” the host said, a re­sponse that did not pla­cate An­drés, who noted the “arc­tic tem­per­a­tures”—and points out that not enough oys­ters had been or­dered from a lo­cal sup­plier (“Sorry, chef, sir, it won’t hap­pen again”). At Zaytinya, he sam­ples a batch of caviar that lo­cal im­porters have brought in (“Very nice,” he says with a nod), and then, catch­ing sight of his wife, Pa­tri­cia, who is hav­ing lunch with the wife of the Span­ish am­bas­sador, he low­ers his head and curses. “My out­fit,” he says, ges­tur­ing down at his sneak­ers. “She’ll kill me.” (Nei­ther woman, ul­ti­mately, seems to no­tice.)

Then it’s back out into the cold. Near the cor­ner of D and Ninth, a young man wear­ing a suit un­der his coat flags down An­drés. “Thank you,” he says,



shak­ing the chef’s hand. “You keep fight­ing the good fight, prom­ise?”

“Okay,” the chef says. “Yes! I will.”

He heads off again, at a can­ter, to­ward the door of the cock­tail bar Barmini, as his as­sis­tant, Satchel Ka­plan-allen, strug­gles to keep up. Ka­plan-allen has only been work­ing at the com­pany since the fall, but he al­ready wears an ex­pres­sion that I’ve seen on the faces of An­drés’s long­est-serv­ing em­ploy­ees—a mix­ture of ad­mi­ra­tion and ex­as­per­a­tion. “I’ve learned that the best you can do,” Ka­plan-allen says, “is to just hang on for dear life. Be­cause he never stops.”

Barmini, which di­rectly ad­joins Mini­bar, Think­food­group’s most culi­nar­ily ad­ven­tur­ous restau­rant, is not yet open for ser­vice, but the place hums. Be­hind the bar, a staffer is mix­ing test cocktails, and in the kitchen, a few mem­bers of Think­food­group’s R&D team are mess­ing around with ex­per­i­men­tal dishes that might one day make it onto the Mini­bar menu.

An­drés takes a seat at the bar for a tast­ing. Raffa, Think­food­group’s ex­ec­u­tive chef and An­drés’s culi­nary deputy, says R&D is em­pow­ered to range widely when it comes to new menu items—“to tear things apart and put them back to­gether, over and over again.” But it is An­drés who gets the fi­nal say. “José has a palate that can’t be matched, and an un­canny sense of what will work and what won’t,” Raffa ex­plains. “When he goes, ‘This is what I think is go­ing to work,’ I lis­ten. We may ar­gue, but in the end, you trust him.”

The dishes are pro­duced. Snail eggs with tapi­oca, meant to be con­sumed in a sin­gle slurp. (“Salty!” An­drés says. “Too salty?”) A fan­tas­ti­cally frag­ile but­ter­fly made of flash-frozen pump­kin oil. (“Good.”) And a lit­tle piece of some­thing fried in tem­pura.

What is it?

“Cod se­men,” one of the R&D chefs says.

An­drés’s jaw hinges open. “Can you not call it that?”

“Yes, chef.”

“I mean, even the Ja­panese, they call it ‘cod milt.’ ”

“Shi­rako,” the R&D man says with a nod.


An­drés glances down at his phone. In a half hour, he is due at Think­food­group’s pop-up space, near Eighth Street, which tonight will be giv­ing away pu­pusas—a kind of stuffed tor­tilla pop­u­lar in Cen­tral Amer­ica—to fans of D.C. United, the lo­cal soc­cer club. A few months ear­lier, An­drés says, he’d in­ad­ver­tently found him­self in hot wa­ter with United’s sup­port­ers af­ter news went pub­lic that Think­food­group, with the sup­port of Com­pass Group, would be the pri­mary ven­dor for the team’s new sta­dium, at Buz­zard Point. Sal­vadorean pu­pusa ven­dors had been a reg­u­lar pres­ence out­side the old Robert F. Kennedy field for more than a decade, and there was wide­spread worry that An­drés would get rid of them. He turned to so­cial me­dia to call the re­ports “fake news”; the ven­dors would stay. Now, as a demon­stra­tion of his good will and al­le­giance to the club, he’s pro­posed a pu­pusa night.

Near­ing the pop-up space, where hun­dreds of fans are al­ready assem­bled, An­drés’s face soft­ens. He wades into the crowd, shak­ing hands and pos­ing for selfies. But he can’t stay long: In an hour, he’s sup­posed to give a short talk at the U.S. In­sti­tute for Peace on his re­lief work. He hasn’t pre­pared any notes.

Dur­ing a 2014 visit to a culi­nary school in Haiti, An­drés demon­strates tech­niques for cut­ting veg­eta­bles. His World Cen­tral Kitchen non­profit has built or ren­o­vated more than 40 school kitchens in the coun­try, which feed 15,000 stu­dents daily.

The chef vis­its the kitchen of China Chilcano in Washington, D.C.

An­drés greets Hur­ri­cane Maria sur­vivors ar­riv­ing to re­ceive a Thanks­giv­ing meal at one of World Cen­tral Kitchen’s food dis­tri­bu­tion points in Puerto Rico last Novem­ber.

An­drés is known for his fla­vor­ful opin­ions. “Some­times you have to hold your ground,” he says.

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