Credited with popularizing Spanish cuisine in the United States, culinary master José Andrés is a creative tour de force in Las Vegas and throughout the world. He has been named to Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential list and awarded the James Beard Foundation’s top prize of Outstanding Chef. He first came to Las Vegas in 2010 with his concepts China Poblano, Jaleo and é at Jaleo at the Cosmopolitan; his piéce de résistance, Bazaar Meat, opened this year at SLS Las Vegas.
What inspires your cooking?
Inspiration can come from anywhere but it most often happens when you are working. Some of my greatest moments of inspiration and discoveries have happened by working and learning with people from other fields, like the great artist Mr. Chihuly and his beautiful glass sculptures, or by working with the scientists at MIT and Harvard. Or sometimes, I find inspiration through travel. Food opens that window into new cultures and territories. I can tell you that Ku Noodle (at SLS Las Vegas) was inspired by my many trips to Asia. From the amazing street-food culture of Singapore and the art of hand-cut noodles in China, to the amazing ramen and soba noodles of Japan, I wanted a way to capture that and make it my own.
Did you always have the goal of becoming a chef?
I was very young when I started to help out in the kitchen at home. In Spain we cooked at home because we couldn’t afford to go to restaurants, but it’s what made me really appreciate the possibilities of every ingredient we used. I was never really that good at school and I didn’t like sitting in a classroom. I knew I wanted to do something different. I wanted to be a student of life and I wanted to create. I’ve been a chef all my life and I’ve never imagined doing anything else.
When did you first become interested in cooking?
Those early memories of visiting the markets in Spain had a big impact on my life. I remember meeting the farmers, fishermen and small producers that dedicated their lives to creating the best food. I remember helping my parents cook paella on Sundays for our family and friends. Food was always the meeting point of connecting with friends, creating memories and sharing experiences. So you see, food has always been at the center of my life and as I got older it became the mechanism that helped me understand and learn about the world.
What are your thoughts about the Las Vegas culinary scene, from when you opened your first restaurant here until now?
Vegas is such a unique place. It’s a destination where people go to escape, to see a grand spectacle and experience something totally different. When we opened in Vegas in 2010, it was an opportunity to do something unique and go bigger and bolder than the original Jaleo we already had in Washington, D.C. That’s where the idea for the paella grill was born—the open flame, the large paella pans and the cooks manning them. It was the perfect opportunity to recreate those childhood memories of cooking paella over an open flame. This was also the perfect opportunity to introduce my small intimate tasting room called é by José Andrés, which is tucked away inside Jaleo and is one of our most unique dining experiences. And I really felt Vegas was the perfect place to introduce China Poblano. Where else would [the mix of] Chinese and Mexican cuisine be so successful but in Vegas? These are two completely different cultures but there is a fascinating story that connects these countries and our guests love to explore it. Both countries have very alive, complex and regional cuisines with amazing street food in traditional markets and town centers.
Vegas is still a destination where people go to experience something totally different, and because it’s become such an important food town that means we have to work harder to really wow our guests. I love that!
When was the first time you came to Las Vegas? Did you have an impression of Vegas before you came here, and did that impression change?
Landing in Vegas for the first time is an astonishing experience. It’s beautiful to see pure desert on one side and on the other end big bright lights that illuminate the sky. It’s a homage to society to see Las Vegas as a destination and also a home to many people. We first opened in Las Vegas in 2010, right when people started to recognize it as a big food destination, but a lot of that activity and development was focused on the Strip. The rest of the city, and especially downtown, still needed to recover from the economic crisis. I’ve been really inspired by my friend Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, who has really led the revitalization of downtown Las Vegas. Not only is his own company, Zappos, based in downtown, but he has helped bring in new businesses and development that has breathed new life into the city. When we opened SLS, I loved that the location was off the main strip because I wanted to be a part of that new revitalization. We’re really proud that the hotel has created over 3,000 new jobs. Yes, the hotel is beautiful; it’s amazing and unique, but it’s becoming a really important part of the city’s evolution and helping to grow the local economy.
What was your vision for é?
é by José Andrés is like a window into my mind. There are many shelves of old-school catalogues hanging on the wall, which are representations of my thoughts, memories, experiences and ideas about food, and life. You also have playful art elements and items that tell stories of Spain or that make you think more—it’s all part of the experience. The dishes are all comfort food, it’s food that is familiar yet re-imagined and elevated to a new level and mostly inspired by the foods of Spain.
How is Bazaar Meat different than any concept in Las Vegas?
I think Bazaar Meat is a meat concept unlike any other! It’s about tapping into our carnivorous side and enjoying the best meats possible. We pulled inspiration from the greats like Escoffier and Careme so in a way we are recreating history. We have whole animals on display like baby pigs and lambs. And I’m really proud of my beautiful wood fire ovens from Josper and Grillworks. We are one of the only restaurants in the U.S. that has a Josper oven, which grills meats at extremely high temperatures, giving the meat a bold and smoky flavor. The restaurant is beautiful and dramatic. It’s everything you want Vegas to be!
Do you like to cook at home?
The kitchen is the central and most important room in the house and it’s my favorite way to connect and spend time with my wife and daughters. We love going to the farmers’ markets on Sundays as a family and choosing the most beautiful ingredients. When I am at home with my family we make humble meals. Maybe we start with rice or quinoa and we mix in some vegetables with tomato sauce and play with different ingredients. Now that it’s getting a little colder, it means my wife’s garbanzo soup. It’s one of the first dishes that she ever cooked for me when we first got married and it’s still one of our favorite dishes. This is how I like to eat at home with my family.
Do you have a residence in Las Vegas?
I live in Washington D.C., but my home away from home is Vegas since opening in 2010 in the Cosmopolitan. And now that we have just opened at the SLS, I have another place to call home. Between these two amazing places, I always have a place to go and relax and call home.
When you need to get away from it all in Las Vegas, what do you like to do?
Well, the truth is, I am always escaping because I am always in my restaurants. I never feel like Las Vegas is overwhelming to me because I feel like I am at home, in my kitchens and in my dining rooms and with my amazing team of people that make it all possible each day.
What’s one item you cannot be without in the kitchen?
Extra virgin Spanish olive oil—it gives your dish the right flavor and finishing touch.