As a child growing up in a little town called Mieres in northern Spain, José Andrés used to beg his father to let him cook alongside him. But each time, his father would tell him no and ask him to tend to the fire, instead.
One day, after his father had made paella, he told his son that maintaining the fire was the most important task of all.
"Don't you see it -- if you control the fire, one day you will be a cook," his father said.
Today, Andrés, 39, says this was the most important lesson about cooking that he learned from his family.
His father's advice turned out to be a powerful metaphor for Andrés' passion for cooking, and he has done well, tending that kind of fire, building a restaurant empire in the Washington, D.C., area and a loyal audience on his PBS cooking show, "José Made in Spain."
A Restaurant That Doesn't Profit
Ever since he was young, Andrés knew all he wanted to do was cook.
"I always felt great around food, around aromas. One of the best things to me is when I am having a day off and I am cooking for friends or family, and sometimes cooking like crazy, and going to the market and all day cooking. And at the end of the day, I will complain, 'Why am I cooking again for everyone?' So, that is why I know that cooking is something that this is too much in my body and in my DNA that I cannot get away from it."
Andrés arrived in America when he was 21 after serving in Spain's navy.
"I was very young, in love with anything that sounded American," he said.
He began cooking traditional Spanish dishes, introducing them to the American palate slowly. It was an experience that gave him purpose in life, but at the expense of pursuing more avant-garde dishes. Now, he says he is finally able to do both, and "the wait has been worth it."
Four restaurants later, while others might have rested on their laurels, Andrés was not yet content. He says he only recently fulfilled his "ultimate dream": a restaurant that doesn't turn a profit. The six-seat Minibar, located on the second floor of Andrés' Nuevo Latino-style restaurant, Café Atlantico, provides a small number of patrons with critically acclaimed avant-garde Spanish food.
To Andrés, "perfection cannot be something that can be achieved by profits. It is something that can only be achieved by devotion and giving your best, and sometimes it is spending more money than what you are able to charge for."
"Minibar," he continued, "is not a restaurant where you exchange food for money. It is a place where you only exchange dreams and creativity, by only getting the attention of someone during two, three hours every day."
The Minibar experience is meant to be surprising and unique. "I want them to have a smile as when they were children. I want them to be like, 'Awww, oh, my God! What is this?' This is the best thing that can happen to me. It is not as much about if the food is great or the best. Yes, it is important, but it is not the primary [reason] I do this. I want people to leave with a smile. And I want people for a moment to be that children we forget we were," he said.
'A Humble Glass of Water'
Andrés delights in pleasing his customers, but knows that he must please himself first.
"I don't cook for the customers, and I don't say this in a very egocentric, in a chauvinistic way," he said. "I am actually only serving one purpose, and that is to fill my inner dreams to make sure that I am happy with what I am cooking. If, as a chef, I am able to please myself, then I can please you and I can please everyone else."
He says he wants his staff to have that experience, as well. Although they are working to support Andrés' vision, his chefs are also encouraged to bring their own interpretation to each meal, "giving them the opportunity to slowly but surely, bringing a little bit of what everyone is into my world. And if I balance this, then I have successful restaurants," he said.
Andrés' goals are sky-high, and his definition of creativity suggests perfectionism. "Creativity is, 'What can I do to this glass of water today that never ever in the history of mankind has been done before?'" he said. "Ninety-nine point nine, nine, nine percent of the times, no answer, but I live for that 0.1 percent that actually we are able to do something as we did that has not been done before. A glass of water, a simple humble glass of water at the end becomes the biggest challenge. That is what I try to do every day of my life."
He prefers that new customers arrive at his restaurants a blank slate, without preconceptions.
"Let's be like children, when you see things for the first time," he said. "I love my children when they see something for the first time and they are amazed. I think in the today life we live, everyone knows so much about everything, so many news, so many Web, so many everything, that the world is not fun anymore, because we know it."
The Same Meal Again? No Way José!
"I can tell you that, for my eating habits, I hate to taste the same thing two days in a row. One of the issues I had at my house is when my daughters, my wife, ask me for the same dish and I say, 'Not again. No, no, no. No way José.'"
There are foods he can't get enough of, however. "I love the pure flavors that the world gives us, and oyster is a pure flavor. It is the sea water protein, no? I love that. I love the pure flavor of Iberico ham, the acorn-fed pork. I love the pure flavor of caviar."
That purity of flavor translates to his cooking, as well. He'll forego adding additional ingredients, in hopes of giving people an immediate burst of flavor. Waiting any longer than three seconds is a waste of your day, he says. "Those three seconds is what I live for. That is the way I like to eat, and that is the way I like to cook. The three great seconds of flavor. Everything else, I like to put it on the side."
His three-second rule is yet another of Andrés' lofty goals, but one fitting for a man who believes there is no end point in the pursuit of elegant, clean cooking.
"After the end," he said, "there is a corner to be turned, no?'"
With each new bend in the road, Andrés intends to find out.