Star Chef Jose Andres Cooks Up Americana Cuisine

With his PBS series and nine restaurants, Jose Andres is America's unofficial ambassador for Spanish food. His latest project, America Eats Tavern in Washington, D.C., explores American heritage dishes inspired by an exhibit at the National Archives, "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government's Effect on the American Diet."

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NEAL CONAN, host: Since he arrived in this country two decades ago, Chef Jose Andres has been a tireless advocate for Spanish cuisine. His D.C.-based restaurants helped popularize tapas, the small plates that typify Spanish food. But now Andres has shuttered his popular Cafe Atlantico to open America Eats Tavern, a showcase for the history of American food. In part, his project is a collaboration with the National Archives for their new exhibit, "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government's Effect on the American Diet." America Eats opened, appropriately enough, on July the 4th and will serve traditional American dishes, some classics, some forgotten.

We want to hear from you. What's the dish your family preserves? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Chef Jose Andres joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program.

JOSE ANDRES: Very happy to be here.

CONAN: And Happy July 4th.

ANDRES: Happy July 4th.

CONAN: I'm looking at a menu that includes both dishes and stories about those dishes. For example, you offer more than half a dozen takes on oysters, including something called a hangtown fry. What's the story for that?

ANDRES: Well, the oysters are very much the history of New York, the history of Manhattan. I think many people forgot that the island of Manhattan itself was a gigantic oyster bed. And these many recipes like pickled oysters that New York used to be a huge supporter to the colonies, I'm only wondering, what happened with all those dishes?

Hangtown fry will be this perfect example on the 49ers with the Gold Rush, where eggs, bacon and, in this case, oysters were the three most expensive items that any miner that found gold could afford. So the hangtown fry become a very popular thing in mid-1800s.

CONAN: So as soon as you struck it rich, you went to town and ordered a hangtown fry.

ANDRES: You got it.

CONAN: And this is a project, though, of some ambition. Why did you decide to take it on?

ANDRES: Well, I always say that I don't believe I'm a chef. I try to be a storyteller. And I do believe every dish has such a wonderful, rich story behind, that if we let any dish disappear, something about ourselves disappears with the dish and I'm not in this business. So I'm an immigrant, but the story of America is about immigration. I've been 21 years here and I've been always asking myself, what exactly American cooking is?

So this was almost my research, with the help of many people, in going back in history and saying, how things were in the 1500s, 1600s, 1700s? And we are finding so many amazing things that they've been forgotten, and I'm trying to bring them to life not in a restaurant, but in a - what I call an exhibit. What happened in this exhibit happens - you can eat.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: You could order your exhibit and see how it tastes.

ANDRES: I already see - today I had to table a family that came from California and they have three children. You had to see those children eating and reading the stories at the same time that they were putting the food in their mouth. I learned that when we know what we eat and we know the stories and the people behind, everything is so much more enjoyable. And this tells the story of America, but especially the forgotten story of America.

CONAN: For example, there is a soup dish, a she-crab soup. Now I live in the state of Maryland, I'm not unfamiliar with she-crab soup, but other people might not be.

ANDRES: Well, I mean, she-crab soup, I'm kind of giving this recipe credit to William Deas, which very much - this was almost like a Scottish seafood bisque that, obviously, with the arrival of Deas, who was this person who cooked for the mayor of Charleston and popularized very much in South Carolina, using, if it was possible, the female crabs that always were seen as being the most kind of enjoyable.

But, you know, the soup I really love is the peanut soup. Many times, you have tourists, that they come to Virginia and they order the peanut soup. And quite frankly, it's something like I'm not - no one will be proud of. We kind of took back some of the earlier recipes - some was from Thomas Jefferson - and we are bringing back dishes that I believe they belong to a higher level in the world of food.

CONAN: George Washington Carver gets some credit for peanuts, he printed the recipe.

ANDRES: We had to give George Washington Carver for many reasons because very much as a scientist, he was able to write this amazing book using peanuts in part because - and this is something you see at the exhibit at the National Archives - he believes that Afro-Americans needed to get more protein and be healthier and stronger. And he was trying to convince them why they had to go back to those peanuts, that maybe back in time everyone was forcing them to eat it, but he was trying to make it enjoyable and pleasurable. So here we see a scientist almost influencing how people were eating over a century ago.

CONAN: And, of course, other historical figures get calls too. Dwight David Eisenhower, we never think of him much as a great chef. And Benjamin Franklin.

ANDRES: Yeah. Well, I mean, President Eisenhower, we have this recipe at the exhibit at the National Archives, What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? And I don't have any recipes honoring the, in this case, many, many presidents, but we have one for Mr. Eisenhower. And he was famous for cooking this big pot of beef and vegetable for over 50 people. So we very much recreated his recipe as was printed, no? You know, one of the recipes I really love is this book I have here, Irma Rombauer.

CONAN: Irma Rombauer.

ANDRES: "The Joy of Cooking."

CONAN: Yes. This - everybody's got this book. Maybe not that edition. That looks like an early one.

ANDRES: This was the family edition, and this is almost an homage to all the women of America that made the cooking we have today. This is signed by her. And the most amazing recipe here is one that has been forgotten. It's a cocktail of grapefruit and shrimp.

CONAN: Grapefruit and shrimp cocktail.

ANDRES: With a French dressing, paprika and sherry. This is becoming one of the most popular dishes. When I open this book, I almost have a feeling that Irma herself told me, Jose, help me out bringing this dish back into the world. And that's what I'm doing. Sometimes, I'm only listening to the books.

CONAN: What is the dish that your family preserves? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Coby(ph), Coby with us from Baton Rouge.

COBY (Caller): Yes, sir. My family cooks gumbo, and that is a dish that we have cooked throughout the generations of our family. We learned it a very young age. I learned to cook gumbo when I was 8 years old from my grandmother. And it's usually our grandparents that teach us how to cook it.

CONAN: And what is the story your grandmother told you about your family gumbo?

COBY: Well, the family gumbo, supposedly, is the recipe that our ancestors in the Acadia region of Canada who were kicked out of that region many years ago. That was their recipe. And it's been passed down in our family for many years.

CONAN: That's the story. We...

ANDRES: Give us ingredients.

COBY: Well, it starts out with a roux, which is a flour and oil base. And then you add onions, bell pepper, celery, garlic. And then you - usually, you either use chicken and sausage or seafood.

CONAN: And is okra involved?

COBY: Sometimes. I know other families in Louisiana use okra. We do sometimes but not always.

ANDRES: All right. Come to Washington and cook it for me. We didn't go gumbo yet. I began with jambalaya for many reasons. We're using rice that was one of the original rices planted in South Carolina. And so we are using right now crawfish, which we have the last ones of the season, the cayenne spices. We make every jambalaya by the order, the chicken.

CONAN: There is a stew though, you feature, called burgoo. What's that?

ANDRES: Ha. Burgoo, that's a fascinating one. I'm going to be offering this for the beginning only, once a week. And this very much the burgoo, it's a long story that we don't even have time to say here but very traditional in Kentucky, a stew that used to use blackbirds. It was very much a French chef that - his name was Gus Jaubert. Many dishes early on had English influence because the first books were English, British. But many French chefs came, and we see French all over the place for obvious reasons.

CONAN: Coby, thanks very much. And if you come to cook for Chef Andres, invite me, OK?

COBY: I definitely would.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we could go next to - this is Mark and Mark with us from Myrtle Beach.

MARK (Caller): Hey, how are you guys?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

MARK: I couldn't agree more. We lose our traditions, our cooking traditions. I think we really do lose our identities. My family has been cooking a recipe for about 600 years that comes from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, Parma, specifically. It's called agnolini, A-N - A-G-N-O-L-I-N-I. And it's kind of like a ravioli, but it's in a half-moon shape. It's got veal, pork, beef, onion, bread crumbs, a little bit of egg and tomato paste. They make that in the - I'll make the pasta.

And then you, after they've dried, you boil them in a pot of chicken broth with onions and celery. And it's a marvelous dish that we all love to make. We all make it a little bit different, all of us. And...

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Sometimes, you see it now available mass-marketed in some supermarkets.

MARK: Exactly. And it doesn't taste anything like ours, I could tell you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ANDRES: So we don't have any ravioli in the menu here. I've been trying to do the early three, 400 years of America, not so much the later kind of immigration. But I have a dish with pasta, which is what my daughters will say, daddy, mac and cheese. But we don't call it mac and cheese. We call it vermicelli prepared like pudding. This is very much a recipe from 1802. And we have to credit Philadelphia with this invention. And this was French that came, leaving the revolution, leaving the revolution behind. His name was Mr. Fresnaye. And very much, he was making this vermicelli, parmesan and butter. I'm recreating exactly the recipe as 1802.

CONAN: Mark, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

MARK: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Chef Jose Andres, the chef/owner of nine restaurants in the Washington, D.C., Las Vegas and Los Angeles areas. And we're talking about the preservation of some classic and some forgotten American recipes. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to James. And James with us from Florence in South Carolina.

JAMES (Caller): Yes. Hello. I just wanted to let you know that the big recipe in my family is a particular recipe for eggnog, which has been passed down from generation to generation, but only to the males of the family. I'm not quite sure why. My grandfather got it from someplace in his line. He was a Charleston dentist. And my father made me swear when he revealed the recipe to me that I would only make it with Myers' dark rum. I'm not sure if that makes a difference or not.

ANDRES: So he was a dentist, so he was giving a cup of eggnog to everyone coming to visit him, before getting operations.

CONAN: At least he wasn't a cardiologist.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: No. No. Well, actually Prohibition never happened in Charleston, so - but I just wanted to point out that my father has just passed away. And we got his eggnog recipe out, written in his handwriting, this year for Christmas. And it was like he was there with us. It was just wonderful.

ANDRES: Send it to me at info@thinkfoodgroup.com. And if I find the right moment, we'll try to honor your father. Try to do the...

JAMES: I'll do so. All right. Well, thank you, gentlemen, very much.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, James. And speaking of beverages, you offer some colonial beverages at the restaurant. I've heard of sherry cobbler, though you think of it as a dessert. I've heard of grog. I've heard of port wine sangaree. I've never heard of switchel.

ANDRES: Yeah. I mean, here, what you are seeing if you go through the entire list is drinks that through my elite bartender, Owen, we've been going back in history. And we've been trying to see which ones were the first ingredients, which ones were the first liquor, some of them coming from Europe, some of them already genuinely American. But yes, we're celebrating very much is the cocktail creation was something unbelievably American. And it's great to see now, people going back to drinks that were so old. We are bringing back punches that some of them are 17, 1800s.

That was a great way to bring the bowl to the table and the cups around and making this drinking thing kind of a very family and friends, kind of, affair in the hot afternoons anywhere. So the drinks we went back even in the wine list. Obviously, we're only honoring American wines. But we have few of the early wines that came from France, the early wines that came from Germany and the early wines that came from Portugal and Spain, because the British love so much port, Madeira or sherry. They were used a lot into drinking and into cooking.

CONAN: Let me ask you a question about business if I would. Cafe Atlantico, the restaurant you closed to open this new place, was very popular. It seemed to be doing very well. Aren't you taking a big risk by shutting it down even temporarily?

ANDRES: I want to make sure that the America Eats, all the proceeds are going to the National Archives. I think I told you when this exhibition, "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" that I'm inviting everyone in America to come to the Archives and visit the great (unintelligible) they have, but also the exhibition, and they can come to America Eats. The proceeds are going back to the Archives because I feel this is almost like, I'm immigrant, my way to pay back to the institution that is doing so much to bring back our past in cooking and food.

It's so much of our past that I want to make sure that no dish, no ingredient, no person is forgotten like paw-paws. How that the most amazing American fruit, 95 percent of America, doesn't know about?

CONAN: Paw-paws.

ANDRES: We are bringing paw-paws. We have reference of Lewis and Clark crossing to the West, eating paw-paws. We have reference of early 1500s, Hernando De Soto, one of the first Europeans to come to Florida. I found a peace treaty between United States of America, 1826, and the Indian tribes of Illinois talking about who was going to keep the paw-paw groves. In September, you're going to come to America Eats Tavern and you're going to find paw-paws from Ohio, from Maryland, from Virginia.

CONAN: And though Chef Andres is using American foods and American recipes, I did notice that there is a recipe for gazpacho. You're offering a famous Spanish soup, but President Clinton's gazpacho.

ANDRES: President Clinton has this recipe in his library. It was very popular, I guess, for him at the White House. And because his recipe shows up at the National Archives, and this is a way also to bring my Spanish side into the question. But don't blame me. Blame President Clinton.

CONAN: Many people do. Chef Andres, thank you very much and good luck with America Eats.

ANDRES: Thank you very much.

CONAN: America Eats opened this week here in Washington, D.C. Tomorrow, we'll talk about summer learning loss. When school is out, some kids have a hard time retaining what they learned all year and start the next school year behind. We'll talk about it tomorrow. Join us then. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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