Under a smoky tent in GW’s Kogan Plaza, 100 students celebrated their last day of class with their professor— world-renowned chef José Andrés—and an eight-foot paella.
“Come on, people!” Mr. Andrés called out while cooking his native Spain’s traditional rice dish. “The paella doesn’t just like to be cooked, she likes to be talked to. I need some questions!”
Although it was the first time Mr. Andrés and his students had cooked together, the moment was a perfect illustration of what he has brought to GW in his semester-long class, The World on a Plate. Food, so to speak, doesn’t just like to be cooked; food should be part of the conversation. The way we produce, cook, and eat it is fundamentally interconnected with every issue imaginable, from pop culture to global health and economics.
“Food is the ideal context for communicating ideas,” Mr. Andrés tells GW Magazine. “Eating is the one thing, besides breathing, that we all do from the day we are born until the day we die. Food is that thread that runs through the fabric of society: culture, energy, art, science, the economy, national security, the environment, health, politics, diplomacy.”
On that April day that Mr. Andrés presided over a massive, steaming pan of paella, a huge wooden paddle for stirring in hand, he directed his team of volunteer cooks with the cheerful efficiency of a man in his element. He is, after all, a James Beard award winner, GQ’s chef of the year, and a member of Time’s 2012 list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
In addition to his many industry awards and his time as the host of public television’s Made in Spain, he has chatted with late-night hosts, appeared on the Food Network and Travel Channel alongside food celebrities like Anthony Bourdain, and been a guest on programs including NBC’s Today and Bravo’s Top Chef. A profile on CBS’s 60 Minutes had host Anderson Cooper admitting that, when it came to Mr. Andrés’ food, he was “trying to resist licking it off the plate.”
At GW, however, Mr. Andrés was eager to engage with his audience instead of just being watched. That’s the kind of class Mr. Andrés wanted to teach: one that would help students, whatever their chosen discipline, to think about food in a new way and then use that knowledge to become agents of change.
Mr. Andrés is himself an activist through food. For nearly two decades, he has volunteered his expertise at D.C. Central Kitchen, a local community kitchen engaged in food recycling and meal distribution programs. He also has made visits to Haiti, still suffering from the devastating effects of the 2010 earthquake, to learn about the country’s exciting food culture and to try to understand how best to address its severe hunger problem.
“International aid has to be smarter. Giving is not enough,” he told the class at the first session, adding that creative, interdisciplinary thinking is needed. “It’s like investing in Wall Street—before you invest, you think. We need to start thinking about how we give aid or we’re going to be doing more damage than helping people.”
As culinary ambassador for the Global Alliance of Clean Cookstoves, Mr. Andrés is part of a massive effort to get 100 million households in the developing world to use clean cookstoves—solar ovens, for example—by the year 2020. The smoke from traditional cookstoves is a pollutant, and clean cookstoves mean fewer people get sick. Switching to alternatives to woodburning cookstoves can even help reduce deforestation, which damages the soil and causes landslides in countries such as Haiti.
“This is an issue that touches almost every aspect of life in so many countries around the world,” Mr. Andrés says, marking another example of the ubiquity of food issues.
“I liked that the class presented itself as the intersection of food and a number of other subject areas—especially as the intersection of food and policy,” says Emily Russel, BA ’13, who taught a nutrition class for fourth-graders as part of her final assignment for the class.
One of her classmates on the project, Jennie Krems, BA ’13, says the class was one of the highlights of her college experience.
“In D.C. you can get so many world-class speakers from various subjects who come not only to speak but also to teach. It’s one of the great things about this school.”
|Students in the class, The World on a Plate,"created and carried out "action plans" addressing a food issue within their community.
In Washington, Mr. Andrés is a beloved institution. Though his reach now extends across the country—from the Bazaar in Beverly Hills and Miami Beach to é in Las Vegas to his newest venture, Mi Casa in Dorado Beach, Puerto Rico—he has chosen to continue to make D.C. his home.
His restaurants in the area include the critically acclaimed Zaytinya, Oyamel, and minibar. His first restaurant, Jaleo—opened in 1993 in the Penn Quarter area of the District—was a major player in bringing Spanish tapas-style food (a variety of small plates, eaten in a convivial communal style) to popularity in the United States.
Mr. Andrés didn’t just aim to bring his country’s cultural traditions to prominence: He modified and reinvented them in the process.
“As a young cook starting my career, Spanish gastronomy was undergoing an evolution where avant-garde cooking was booming,” he recalls. This “avant-garde cooking” was the birth of molecular gastronomy—the blending of art and science in which chefs use the techniques of molecular chemists and other scientists to make dreamlike re-interpretations of food.
Mr. Andrés himself worked under Ferran Adrià, perhaps the best-known figure in molecular astronomy, whom he calls “my great friend and mentor.”
His playful, innovative approach to food is in part due to this training. In his first class session, for example, the chef demonstrated how he reinvented his own mother’s simple, two-ingredient company appetizer for the menu at minibar. “She puts the cheese on the table, and she puts the almonds on the table,” he said.
For his version, marcona almonds were fried, pureed, and shaped into creamy, delicate cups with a quick dip in liquid nitrogen. Blue cheese was transformed into silky foam and then piped neatly into the sorbet cups like cupcake icing. Sprinkled with shaved toasted almonds and tiny jewels of honey, served sorbet-cold, the resulting dish was a mad-scientist version of what Mr. Andrés’ mother might have served her guests—and it looked delicious.
Mr. Andrés is not just interested in transforming food into new forms. He’s interested in transforming the way we cook, eat, and think about food—in making food itself the agent of transformation. He is a believer, he told the class, in 19th-century food philosopher Jean Brillat-Savarin’s famous axiom: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”
“Understanding the way we cook and the way we eat and the way we feed others is going to say a lot about who we are,” Mr. Andrés told his students. “It’s a new way of democracy—tell me what you’ll be serving, and I’m going to tell you how it will influence the politics of tomorrow.”
|Teaching a class [at GW], he adds, “is something I’ve been wanting to do for a really long time.”
“If this class had been taught 20 years ago, we’d probably have significantly fewer problems to solve in the world right now,” said legendary New York restaurateur Danny Meyer when he addressed a session of The World on a Plate in January.
Mr. Meyer is CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, which owns, among other properties, Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke, and Shake Shack. His class topic, nominally, was “Food as an
Industry,” but the discussion Mr. Meyer led ranged significantly wider, from the changing nature of the restaurant business to the underrated virtue of simple hospitality.
“The role that food has always played in our species is far, far more than just taking in calories,” Mr. Meyer said. “I have two dogs at home—they’re not making life plans while they eat.”
Mr. Andrés invited new guests each week, ranging from traditional food-world legends Mr. Meyer and Christopher Kimball, editor-in-chief of Cook’s Illustrated; to culinary scholars such as Warren Belasco, author of Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food, who called himself a “professional worrier” in his presentation about the food supply chain; unlikely crusaders of food issues, such as Rear Adm. Jamie Barnett of the U.S. military’s “Mission: Readiness” initiative, which advocates for nutritious school meals.
While each class focused on a discrete issue, such as the politics of food or the history of American cooking, the guest speakers often opened up the class to other issues. When Travel Channel host Andrew Zimmern, for example, spoke at an April class session on food and pop culture, his talk—on the transformative power of travel and the lessons to be learned from isolated cultures—raised questions from well outside the expected bailiwicks of travel or the entertainment industry.
“So I killed an animal today,” one student’s question began.
“Congratulations!” responded Mr. Zimmern.
The student went on to describe her experience killing a chicken, an undertaking she’d shouldered for her final project in Mr. Andrés’ class. She and Mr. Zimmern discussed the mechanization and centralization of the food production industry. It wasn’t exactly the conversation an onlooker might have expected, but it was precisely the type of interaction Mr. Andrés wanted.
“When José called me on the phone and said, ‘I have something I really want you to do,’ I just said yes,” Mr. Zimmern recalled. “I didn’t even ask what it was. I’ve learned in life to pay attention to the people who teach me on a daily basis how to be a better human being, and José is one of those people.”
Mr. Andrés says he has learned a lot from people who were not directly involved in the food world. Living and working in Washington, particularly, has given him an opportunity to see how food affects and is affected by policy.
“I remember when we first opened Jaleo in 1993,” he tells GW Magazine, “one of our first guests was Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He would come in and eat at the restaurant every day and we would talk for hours about everything, from food, to politics, to our families. He was a great man.”
Anecdotes like these help to explain why Mr. Andrés chose to bring The World on a Plate to GW.
“GW is the university closest to the White House and where we are educating our future leaders,” he says, “so this is what drew me [here].” Teaching a class here, he adds, “is something I’ve been wanting to do for a really long time.”
As a special adviser on food issues to GW President Steven Knapp and a member of the Urban Food Task Force (see sidebar), Mr. Andrés had been involved at GW before taking the professor’s seat. He is also a part of GW’s Integrated Food Project, an initiative among GW, School Without Walls, and his ThinkFoodGroup that works to incorporate food and nutrition lessons into existing curriculum, from biology to history and culture. This involvement, in addition to his prior experience co-teaching a class on the science of food at Harvard University, led him to design the GW course.
In The World on a Plate, there was no final exam or culminating paper. Instead, for their final project, Mr. Andrés’ students produced uniquely modern activist documents: YouTube videos. In groups of six, they created and carried out “action plans” addressing, in a practical way, a food issue within their community. Then they created four-minute mini-documentaries, explaining what they did and how it made a difference. A panel of judges, including local chefs and GW faculty members, chose the winning video.
The projects were intended not only to bring awareness to an important community issue but also to address the issue and try to find practical solutions. Practicality is one of the chef’s major priorities; it’s important to Mr. Andrés that he not be perceived as a head-in-the-clouds idealist or an ideologue. Although he does want to raise awareness of the often-flawed systems that determine how we eat, he’s not a romantic eater—“I like a hot dog in the middle of the street sometimes,” he says—and he hardly has utopian fantasies of a world where everyone is eating exclusively organic, locally sourced, environmentally responsible food. There’s no silver bullet for such complex issues.
Accordingly, Mr. Andrés’ students kept their goals reasonable and close to home. One team chose to raise awareness of the local Foggy Bottom Farmers’ Market; another lived on the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (commonly known as food stamps) and started a letterwriting campaign to encourage legislators not to cut the already-tight budget for the benefits.
“I’m really loving this,” White House pastry chef Bill Yosses, one of the judges, told the class. “It’s wonderful to see these activist approaches.”
The winning team—a nutrition class for fourth-graders called “Mission Nutrition”— taught students basics such as reading a nutrition label and making their own snacks. The team won dinner at one of Mr. Andrés’ restaurants as a reward.
“It’s very difficult to believe we can make global change if we can’t change the humble issues in our own community,” Mr. Andrés told his students. “So I’m very happy that you tried to address the issues that touch your life every day.”
And he reminded them that those issues would touch their lives no matter what happened next.
“We need chefs; we need farmers; we need historians; we need lawyers. We need businesspeople; we need politicians,” he said. “I hope that’s what you are taking away from this class. That we need many people, from different angles, to really make meaningful change.”