José Andrés has no beef with Impossible Burgers, he just wants you to roast a whole cauliflower, too

In "Vegetables Unleashed" a chef, celebrity and political activist exhorts us to push meat to the side of the plate

Published May 30, 2019 7:00PM (EDT)

 (Salon Talks)
(Salon Talks)

The ebullient Spaniard, José Andrés, has just written a love letter of sorts to vegetables. In his new cookbook, “Vegetables Unleashed," Andrés has embraced the high (a recipe for carrot curry) and the low (a recipe for microwaveable mac and cheese) with some philosophical noodling and a healthy dose of technique — try boiling vegetables using just enough water to cover, so the resulting broth is concentrated and immediately useful in a sauce — in order to convince his reader that plants deserve the kind of attention you have not yet given them.

But the chef credited with bringing small plates (tapas) to America doesn't want you to turn your back on meat entirely, instead embrace vegetables (all of them) with bright eyes and an open heart. It's not that much to ask and it's not a political act insists the man who tore-up his contract to cater Trump's inaugural banquet to protest the anti-immigrant bile the newly-minted most-powerful-man-in-the-world was spewing. The same man who famously swept into Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in order to feed hundreds of thousands of meals to displaced islanders while Trump's FEMA fiddled.

Andrés sat down with me on "Salon Talks" on his way to Mercado Little Spain in Hudson Yards, the newest of more than 30 restaurants he owns, to talk l things vegetables and politics.

Check out all our "Salon Talks" food episodes here.

You've been awarded the Humanitarian of the Year by the James Beard Foundation. You have 31 restaurants, you're an educator, you run a food rescue organization called World Central Kitchen, you're an advocate and a proud immigrant.

Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

I am so proud to have you on as a guest and to talk about “Vegetables Unleashed.”

Thank you for having me, Manny. Really, happy, happy to be here.

The book is great in a lot of ways. It just talks about you; your co-author Matt does a great job of helping you talk about you.

Matt Goulding, he's like a Jedi of words. Actually, the best part of the book . . . Except for the recipes . . .  is the amazing way he's able to write. This is not my book, this is very much his book. He gets so involved and he's able to, not only tell my story but the story of my team members, the story of many unknown farmers. He's been giving voice to every single vegetable and somehow he's able to translate me. He's like a Jedi of writers. He's the Yoda of writers.

Well, it's a fantastic book. One of the ways it starts that I love is that one whole page is dedicated to boiling water, and ways that people . . . because so many vegetables are cooked in water, a lot of people just throw a big pot water together and throw the vegetables in. But you want people to do it a little bit differently, right?

Well, but seems like lately water and vegetables, they are like a big no-no. All the recipes is about roasting or grilling or sautéing, which, actually is fine, is great. But I always remember when my mother, my dad, both nurses, they had to feed my three brothers and I, and sometimes they don't have enough time because they're working — had busy lives. Four children in the family.

My mom would always have this little pot of water, and we'd always have a lot of vegetables because we went every day to the little vegetable store, that we had in our little town. Whatever was in season is what you will find. Broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, asparagus. My mom would add salt into the water. She'll have the florets of cauliflower, she'll put it in, she'll put them in the water, two, three, four, five minutes. Depends, because I like them crunchy; my brother, he likes it softer. She will remove the cauliflower from the water before for me, leave it later for my brother and serve it with sherry vinegar.

I remember that moment, that cauliflower in my mouth being an amazing moment. So I think, sometimes we need to be bringing those forgotten techniques; we've seen not to like. Like boiling vegetables sounds so bad. But to me boiled vegetables are sexy, are good. It's the best way to bring the flavor of the vegetables forward without spending a lot of time in the kitchen. That's why I want to just make the point that boiling vegetables is actually the beginning of a great meal.

Another thing you mention is, don't use too much water because the water that you boil the vegetables in is a tool as well.

You get the water not too much, you put enough salt, so the flavors . . . the salt penetrating the vegetables also gives these very beautiful green color, the chlorophyll pops up. But also, it's specifically true you don't need to use so much water because why will you waste it? But then, don't throw it away. If you think you going to be boiling more vegetables tomorrow, just keep it in the kitchen. It's okay, the water is good.

If one day you're making a stock, tomorrow with the leftover vegetable scraps as I tell in the book, use that water to boil more vegetables and then you can have a beautiful vegetable stock that can become a soup itself, or you can use it for any cooking you want. You can even boil pasta on that same water and all of a sudden, believe it or not, the pasta is going to be even tastier. So yes, treat that water with respect. We need to be using water in a smarter way on this day and age. This will be a smart way to be using water in ways that are going to make our lives smarter in the way we cook, but also tastier.

Delicious and good for the planet at the same time.

You got it.

Actually, your story about your mom's cauliflower reminds me of my grandmother, used to cook green beans. She used to run them through a tool that would pull them into four-

To make the julienne, the long slices.

Gone for me from my childhood in England, until one day I came across one of these tools and it was exactly the same tool that my grandmother used. I started using it and I haven't stopped and it's completely changed the way I eat beans.

It's so many utensils are there that can make your life very easy around vegetables. Me, I tell everybody you should be buying, every time you see a utensil that makes your life easier around vegetables, do it. Like to pit the olives or to pit the cherries. Yes, to do the long scrapes of the green beans; if you don't want to be using a knife to peel the apples in the same moment that takes the core of the apples, and it slices the apples. It's so many machines out there that are great, not only for you to make your life easy in the kitchen, but also to bring your kids, your husband, your wife, your friends, and make sure that the moment in the kitchen with vegetables is always a fun moment.

Fun, right. I'm still working on fun, and I'm a very bossy kitchen person. I'm still working on having the rest of the family come in. I'll let them tool the beans.

If my children are watching, and boy, they're watching this, they will say, "Yeah, you are very bossy too, daddy." So, okay.

I let them tool the beans.

We need to be less bossy.

I know. But it has to be right. That's my thing, but you know.

Right, but we are bossy. Sorry.

In the book you also cover a great range of vegetables and preparation. You have pretty much every vegetable that I can think of in there, and you also focus a lot on seaweed and things like that. One of the elements in the book is that you have very esoteric, fancy carrots as spaghetti. You also have mac and cheese that's made for the microwave.

I think we did the one probably like béchamel but with corn, I think. This was actually my daughter that goes like, "Daddy, daddy, look at what I found in the computer." Actually, she was already cooking it because she likes pasta. Sometimes even after we all go to bed, she goes down and she makes her own little dish. If I go down to the kitchen I may find her almost with the entire house in darkness and she's right there with her iPhone light, cooking.

She had this kind of recipe that she said, "Look, daddy. With very little water and in less than two minutes, I can be cooking the pasta. Right there, you can use more water, just you add the cheese, you can add the corn, you can add anything you want." In this case, oil and you can add black pepper. All of a sudden you have a great pasta. The idea of the recipe was from my daughter, she got the inspiration through different recipes on the big world wide web. It's amazing that in this book, again, it's not my recipe. But it's the recipes of my wife, of my children, of my team members, of Matt Goulding, of so many people. That's why this book is not just about Jose's vegetables but the way I see the world enjoying their vegetables.

Vegetables through José. You have "The Joy of Cooking" riff and recipe in here about corn cakes.

The corn fritters probably are what made me fall in love with "The Joy of Cooking." I own the first edition of Irma Rombauer. The first edition was so, so tiny compared to the one that is right now, which is an entire encyclopedia. So, that recipe was probably only three lines long. It called for corn kernels, make sure a little bit of cornstarch, a little bit of egg white, a little bit of egg yolk, a little bit of salt. That's it. And there you have those amazing fritters with olive oil. Almost like a quick pancake, but quicker and faster.

I fell in love with those corn fritters. In my house at the moment we have received the first Maryland corn, like the silver corn and others, the first thing we are doing is the corn fritters.

That's what you did?  You went home, and you said, "Let me look in 'The Joy of Cooking' for a corn recipe. That's great.

I have so many old cookbooks that sometimes they are the inspiration for what is going to be my next favorite dish. That's why I always go to books. Especially the old ones.

And you have thousands, right?

Well, I have many.

There's a great picture in here, of you, in your library surrounded, covered really, in books.

Well, knowledge is everything. I would like to tell you I know everything. Chefs, everybody thinks we know everything, but it's so little we know. The only thing I know is that every time I know more, I know, I know nothing. It's true!

Stay hungry in that regard.

You have to stay hungry. As I'm growing older, I realize that the world is full of things we don't know. That's why I want to share through vegetables some of them in this book.

You're very aware of the state of vegetable cooking and the state of meat versus vegetable in the book. You describe yourself as coming from a pig culture, and that it takes some energy to get from the pig culture to a focus on vegetables.

The truth is that if you go, for example, to the country I come from, Spain, you will find more vegetables in the markets but then at home. All restaurants in the old days used to be more meat-centric or fish-centric. And vegetables seemed to always be in side dishes. I thought that was a moment to start bringing vegetables to the front and give them the importance they should have in the way we feed ourselves.

In my house, the vast majority of the meals are vegetable and fruit-centric. A lot of legumes, a lot of lentils, a lot of chickpeas, and every single root vegetable you can imagine. Meat, I love meat, my family loves meat and fish. But we feel better every time we eat less of it . We have a little garden outside.

The idea for me was what can we do to put vegetables forward? Four years ago I opened a fast food restaurant called Beefsteak. Beefsteak is a fast food restaurant that even though the name is Beefsteak, is 99.9% vegetable. This was for me to make a point that we all talk about how vegetables are necessary for a better world, for a healthier population, but the vegetables, they really need help to be put out there. People want to eat vegetables, America wants to eat vegetables, the world wants to eat vegetables, but sometimes we make it very difficult for them to access vegetables.

We've just started prioritizing vegetables at our house. Trying to make meat the condiment or the garnish.

The side dish. No, in my house I would say that because my wife basically we always make vegetables more of our diet. In the book, I have, for example, gazpacho, which is the tomato soup of south of Spain where my wife comes from. It's one recipe that probably everybody in America has it by now because it's been published many times; even here I'm giving a new version. My wife has been the one always pushing gazpacho in our family. In my refrigerator, you will always find it, even in winter when on paper you don't have the best tomatoes, you will find gazpacho in the refrigerator, but especially in summer.

Imagine, think about it: it's a liquid salad. Gazpacho is using the tomatoes, but you blend it, all of a sudden you don't need a fork, you don't need a knife, you don't need to be using your teeth. You grab the pitcher, you serve yourself a glass, and you're drinking an amazing tomato salad that has been transformed into a soup. That's the kind of spirit of this book.

You have a cabbage gazpacho in here too. You're saying use the juicer, make the . . . 

A juicer I know for some families may be something it's expensive, but then everybody seems to be having an expensive iPhone or expensive tool that they barely use.

Spend your money wisely.

A good juicer is a fine way to spend money, because when you add some carrots and you add some, in this case, the red cabbage, and you don't know what to do? Go to your juicer and just juice that. That liquid on its own is amazing. If you add some vinegar and some oil, 2.0. If you add more oil and more vinegar, becomes a dressing. You can make a soup, you can make a drink. All of a sudden you can make a dressing to toss your salad over the same vegetable where the juice comes from. All of a sudden the leftovers of making the juice, some people throw in the garbage, some people, like in my house, do composting, or you use it to make the fried rice. You see, everything in the vegetable world technically can be always reused. It's not something we can say from the meat world.

Whereas meat, once you've done it, it's cooked . . . I guess you can put it in the corned beef hash.

The vegetable, the amazing thing is that the entire holistic circle of life, 360 degrees always happens. I see it when I'm composting at my house for many years now. I'm very lucky that I have a little house outside Washington and I have a little garden and I have an area for composting. I just wait to see that instead of throwing the vegetable scraps in the garbage, we go and we make compost and that then is helping me grow my asparagus, whatever I'm planting. Also, we describe in the book, we use the scraps sometimes to make a stock. You see, this is a good way to be using-

The compost caldo, right?

Rather than compost the vegetables we boil it and make a caldo — a vegetable stock. You add a little bit of salt then you can add any other vegetable after they are finished. Potatoes, some pasta. Right there you have a great broth, a great consomme of vegetable that somehow they were about to be thrown in the garbage. It's a very smart way to be using vegetables.

Some people are talking about the need to eat non-meat, and they're talking about the Impossible Burger. They're trying to create a burger meat that isn't as harmful to the environment as beef is. You have a great riff in here about the Impossible Burger.

With Matt, we wrote this essay because I'm very happy that we are addressing that already in this book because this kind of experimentation is something that is happening. Every single fast food company right now, as we're speaking, are incorporating that new product into their menus. The question here is, can we produce a protein that comes from the vegetable world that somehow has the mouth-feel and behaves-

Umami too, right?

And umami, but that behaves like almost meat. What we call, we can call it fake meat. Me, I prefer to call this is another form of vegetables, a new product that can be part of our diets. Not any different than tofu that we make out of the soy milk that we are able to coagulate with a little bit of heat. In the end, anything that is to create more vegetables or things that come from the vegetable world, I think is very smart.

Obviously, we need to be looking fro alternatives. When you see a carrot in the farmer's market, 99% sure that that carrot is good for you, it is good for your community, it is good for your children, it is good for the land. When we see foods that are more processed. At the same time, we do need to be careful to make sure that nobody is doing anything that may not be good for us or the world we live in.

But right now, I believe that we need to give a chance to these new companies that they are trying to bring a new product forward. One that I love, which is called Just Eggs or Just Scramble, which is almost, again, this vegetable kind of protein, that behaves like eggs and you can do an omelet. I think it's brilliant. I've been watching the company from the very beginning. Using less animal product is always very smart. We need only to be giving a chance to those companies to be part of who we are, but at the same time, we need to be asking those companies to be very open in the way they produce those ingredients.

If you're going to grow meat on a hook in a lab you need to be very transparent about the process.

We don't want to be supporting something that in the end becomes and is worse for us and the environment, than actually the problem they are trying to solve. But on paper, I will say I am giving them the benefit of the doubt because I think the product is already good. Hopefully, they are producing them in a good way. This is going to be good for the world.

Does this position get you in trouble with the GMO people?

No, I think the GMO people is another conversation. We need to understand that we've always tried to modify vegetables. Meaning, if today we have the type of vegetables we have, it is because somebody has modified them using what we call more natural techniques — bringing certain carrots, putting them one with another and at the end creating the perfect carrot or the same with every other fruit, every other vegetable. But this has been done in a more traditional way.

But then sometimes we use other mechanisms to change the DNA of a product, that is something we should always be alert to because we want to make sure that one day something like this doesn't create more problems than the problems we are trying to solve. Again, there are a lot of good people trying good things, but I only want to make sure that motivated by self-interest somebody doesn't create something that looks like the future and the best thing for everybody; but then one day we wake up, and it's like, "Oops. Hold on a second. This is not as good as . . . "

We were growing meat on a hook and now . . .

That's why I think we need to maintain our level, a good level. We need to have small farmers. That's important. We need to have midsize farms, we need to have the super big companies, but we need to make sure we give the same opportunities to everybody. It cannot be that the big, big super farms receive incentives from the farm bill and subsidies, but then the small farmers are losing carrots and cabbage and cauliflower, they get none. We need to make sure that our farm bill and our politics support the big, big industry, but they don't forget the little ones. The little ones, they should receive the same or even more support than the very big companies, because this way we will make sure that the world has a chance to eat the best we can and make sure everybody will always be fed.

There's a great section in this book talking about who gets what through the political process. You take time out of the book to introduce people who you've met in your travels who are doing great things. You have many profiles of them. One chapter is about the folks at Chef's Garden, which is a great organization that brings people in and teaches them about what's possible and what's changing and cutting-edge vegetable stuff. That's in Ohio. There's also a guy who has a garden called the Gangster Garden, who eked out of a small plot in South Central.


It struck me that he got arrested for doing it.

Mr. Finley. He's a legend in L.A. and around the world. Some of his Ted Talks are legendary. This one guy that sees producing your own vegetables as a way of freedom. He believes that there's a lot of people that live in areas of America and in the world, that are food deserts, the people there don't have an option to eat better; and that to eat vegetables is actually like a luxury because people have to get on a bus and on a subway to get to a faraway market.

He's saying, why we don't start creating in these forgotten communities in America and around the world, gardens that people with not a lot of resources can have access to the same fruits and vegetables that anybody in the richer parts of America or the world have. He's a fighter saying everybody needs to have the same opportunities for good quality food. Really, he's a food fighter in every sense of the way.

It struck me that a great place like Chefs Garden is about education, and Gangster Garden is about education and self-defense . 

Totally. Chef's Garden probably is the farm of farms. They don't care so much about the seeds, about the vegetables as they care about the soil. Nobody has engineered the soil better than the great people of the Chef's Garden. Every single vegetable has its own quality soil. When you see that soil through the microscope, you see that that soil is full of life, full of little tiny insects that all are enriching the soil where the vegetables come from.

A good vegetable, we need to remember that if it's very good and very tasty, it's because it comes from very healthy and rich soil. Soil is the key to great vegetables. With that, I'm not saying that hydroponics should not be also a way to the future, but that water also has to be very rich in nutrients. Nutrients are key for successful farming. More traditional ways like taking care of your soil, which still we need to take care of our soil, but also new technologies that are allowing certain parts of the world, that maybe they don't have access to that rich soil, to also produce with the harvest.

You've always been involved in this stuff, and one of the places you really drew the world's attention to the problems of food insecurity, was Puerto Rico after Maria, which is an ongoing project. Hoping you could update us and first of all tell us what it was like going in. I know you've told the story, but . . .

Puerto Rico happened, Maria, we were coming from a long season of hurricanes. I remember myself, I was using Houston and other places. Puerto Rico got hit big. We landed and we saw that the problem was even bigger than what we saw on TV. The entire island was without electricity, without gas, without telephones. Nothing was working. I'm not talking one or two days. We're talking weeks at a time.

Very much the supermarkets were empty, people ran out of food in their homes with no phone, no gas, people couldn't communicate, people couldn't travel, was total chaos. What we did very quickly was just make sure that we organize the team and any food was available on the island to start feeding anybody that really was desperate for a plate of food.

Was there food?

There is always food, and especially in America. What happened in this chaotic situation, you had to organize the teams to make sure we were able to gather anything that was available until new shipments would arrive on the island.

But initially there was plenty of food; what was not there was the organized system to bring it to the kitchens, to cook it and then to have a good distribution system to send it out. What we did in World Central Kitchen was create thise systems, we did almost four million meals. We had more than 25,000 volunteers, we opened more than 26 kitchens. We were feeding, almost 100,000 to 150,000 people a day and delivering food to more than 123 places per day, every day the same.

As we move away from the moment of the disaster and as the island began, many months later, to return to normal, World Central Kitchen changed modes and for the last year, we've been investing in farms. Puerto Rico imports more than 85, 90% of the foods they consume. That cannot be sustained any longer. We began investing in the small farmers that were closer and living the island.

We told them, "We want you to stay, and if anything, we want you to grow more." We have this plan that by the year 2020, 2021, we will have more than 240 farms all across Puerto Rico helping Puerto Rico feed itself, to make sure that we bring down the number of food they import. Hopefully, we can bring it to a more low equal number. That's what we're doing to bring food security to Puerto Rico.

That's true of a lot of islands in the Caribbean, is that there is no . . . I have a friend, Josh Eden, who opened Jean-Georges' restaurant in the Bahamas. They had all their food flown in every day by FedEx.

It's super expensive to do that. For example, the Dominican Republic shows us that there's a way forward. The Dominican Republic actually imports much less. I think they only import, 30, 40% of the food compared to Puerto Rico-

Still a lot.

 . . . almost 90%. Still a lot, but they still produce 60%, which is actually a no bad number for an island. Remember, islands don't have a lot of land compared to other parts of the continent. That's not a bad number at all. I think we need to make sure that places like the Caribbean, but then everywhere, that our communities . . . doesn't matter where you live . . . have easier and quicker access to foods.

I do believe that we have to have bigger control over the foods we eat. This means having food production closer to where we live. The cities of the future have to change. We have to bring the places we live together with water sources and healthy foods being so that they are not too far away from where we live so we don't have to be transporting food from thousands of miles away. The cities of the future will make sure that farm and food production is happening right where we live. I do believe that those are the cities we'll see towards the end this next century.

I was going to wrap saying, what's next? How are we going to do this? That's the answer. I think we have daughters the same age. My daughter's very concerned, I'm guessing yours are too, about all the dire climate change reports that are coming out.

Well, they're real, they're happening. I'm a scuba diver, I see what's happening under the water. I see, just watching my computer in the last 10 years alone, how the water temperature is increasing. If I go back 10 years scuba diving in Caiman Islands and I go today, I can see that already the temperature is two or three degrees higher in the sand. Yes, we need to be doing something about it.

But I think we need to remember a phrase from a Frenchman. Usually, I don't quote Frenchmen in the open so easily, but this guy was in 1826. His name is Brillat-Savarin. He wrote the book called "The Physiology of Taste." He's the guy who said, "Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are." He had a more important phrase. He said, "The future of the nations will depend on how they feed themselves."

I think it's about time that in the political discourse, our presidents-to-be, our congressmen, our senators, to start bringing food-talk forward. Our politicians right now are not talking very seriously about the food we eat, how we produce it, how we make sure that everybody has access to it, and this needs to change. If we want to have a good America, a great America, if we're going to have a great living world, we need to start thinking more about how we feed the world.

With that, I'd like to say thank you so much for coming in.

Thank you for having me.


By Manny Howard

Manny Howard is the author of "My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into A Farm." @mannyhoward

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