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José Andrés: 'Boiling Point'

José Andrés was born in Nieres, Spain, and attended Escola de Restauracio i Hostalatge of Barcelona, apprenticing at restaurant El Bulli under celebrated master chef and mentor Ferrán Adrià. In 1990 Andrés moved to New York City to work for the Barcelona-based restaurant El Dorado Petit. In 1993 he moved to Washington, D.C., to become head chef and partner at Jaleo, a Spanish restaurant there. He has since opened two more Jaleo locations and serves as executive chef-partner at Café Atlantico, Oyamel, Zaytinya, and the six-seat minibar within Café Atlantico, one of the premiere destinations for avant-garde cooking in the United States. In 2003 The James Beard Foundation named Andrés Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic Region, and in 2004 Bon Appetit named him Chef of the Year. He published his first cookbook, Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America, in 2005. José is also the host of the wildly popular Vamos a cocinar, a daily food program on Television Española (TVE), Spanish national television.

I learned a lot of what I know about cooking, especially traditional Catalan cooking, from my mother. She was a working mom, but she cooked for us every night. My father, on the other hand, confined his cooking to the weekends, as do many men in northern Spain and, as I’ve learned, here in America.

My father’s Sunday cookouts were kind of like American weekend barbecues, when the men are out in the backyard with their friends, beers in their hands, gathered around the grill poking at hamburgers, except that his were grander in scale than the run-of-the-mill barbecue.

His specialty, the dish that he used to make every other Sunday for the entire time I was growing up, was paella. Paella is a Spanish classic, a rice dish prepared in a broad, shallow, two-handled pan called a paella. He cooked tremendous paellas, paellas that could feed a hundred people. He used a gorgeous copper paella pan that was giant -- a meter and a half across -- big and beautiful. It seemed impossibly huge to me when I was a child, the size of the moon.

One of the first paellas I remember my father cooking was at a fund-raiser for my school, in Santa Coloma de Cervelló, when I was six or seven years old. It was during the spring, and the cherry trees were in full blossom. Sometimes I think that I feel so at home here in Washington, D.C., because the first time I visited, the cherry trees were flowering, like they did every spring in the rural town I grew up in Cataluña.

By the time I was eleven or twelve, I was old enough and eager enough to start helping my father with his Sunday meals. But while he agreed to let me assist him, to my disappointment he never let me participate in the physical act of cooking, the sautéing, simmering, stirring: the glory work. That was always for him and his adult friends. There were other tasks for me to look after.

As instructed, early Sunday mornings I would commandeer the other young kids from the neighboring houses to start the preparations. There were dozens of things to be done until the paella was ready in the early afternoon. We would put the tables together and set them. We would open bottles of wine that the adults would drink later in the day. We would gather bunches of wildflowers to decorate the tables.

And then there was the fire to be dealt with. An all-day fire for a giant copper pot requires a lot of fuel. Initially, I would just go out with the other kids to gather wood from the countryside. When I got a little older and a little more savvy, however, my father revealed to me how the fire under the paella pan needed to work: in the beginning, when you are sautéing the meat or the seafood or the shellfish, you need a moderate to high fire; at the stage when you add everything to the pan -- the rice, water or broth, the saffron and pimentos -- you need huge boiling, amazing boiling, supernatural boiling. This is the moment of truth, and the fire must not fail you. The flame needs to be very, very strong for a few minutes -- and then suddenly die down, so that the paella steadily simmers and doesn’t overcook.

My father explained how all the different woods we were gathering would burn. Cherrywood burns differently from oak and different still from olive. I learned that wood is a whole world of knowledge unto itself: some wood burns hot and fast and dies after three or four minutes -- that’s what you need for the crucial boiling; some burns slow and steady, which is the kind of wood you need for before and after. Over time I became adept at making and managing the fire under the paella. But, oh, do I still remember how much I would sweat. It was the heat of the fire, certainly, but also in part from worrying whether or not I had it right.

It took a few months -- not that we ever lost a paella on account of the fire -- before I eventually mastered it. But I’m a guy who’s always asking myself, What’s next? I think it’s important to be curious if you’re going to be a chef, to always be searching, to not sit around and be satisfied with what you’re doing. Maybe I am that way today because I was always curious as a kid, always impatient, always wanting to know what came next.

I was thirteen or fourteen by the time I was put completely in charge of the fire, just the time in your life when you really start questioning everything: Why does this happen? Why do I cry when I cut up onions? Why do you add things in a certain order? Why don’t you stir the paella after a certain point? Everything. It’s also when you stop being satisfied with grown-ups just letting you hang around and you actually want to be dealt with like a person.

Every couple of weeks I’d think, This will be the week when I get to cook the paella. I’d finally get to stir, to stand around with the men, to be one of the cooks. And every Sunday I was back down there sweating, hand in the fire, burning myself. My temper grew as hot as the cherrywood flame. I was headed toward a confrontation with my father.

One week I couldn’t stand it anymore and I blew up at him in front of everyone: "When am I going to get to cook the paella? It’s always fire, fire, fire. I want to cook!" I was pissed off, with all the indignant rage that only a teenager can muster. My father, a jovial guy, always with a little bit of something to eat in one hand and a smile on his face, turned serious for a second. "José," he said. "We are cooking right now. We will talk about this later, my boy." And he went back to tending to his paella. I stormed off, fuming.

He found me later in the day, when our neighbors had all gone home. "Son, I would have thought you were smarter. The fire is the most important job! Don’t you see that everything begins and ends with the fire? Without the fire there wouldn’t be a paella." He grinned and placed his hand on my shoulder, directing my gaze toward our backyard, the scene of countless festivities. "And if there wasn’t wine to drink, tables to sit at, and neighbors to eat with, there would be no point in making the paella at all. The cooking? The cooking is the easy part. The truth is that every step is important."

How simple he made it seem. How hard it was for me to accept. Though I continued to help make the fire every other Sunday until I went off to cooking school at fifteen, I never woke up one morning and thought, "My dad was right."

Now that I’m a grown man, I know that he was. I’ve been cooking -- not just making the fire -- for twenty years, and I understand that every inglorious step, from the most rudimentary chopping and prepping to cleaning up at the end of the night, is important. And that in order to reach the point where you get to be the one stirring the paella, you’ve got to master each step along the way.

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