In a New York Times interview, chef Jose Andres singled out Brillat Savarin's Physiologie du Gout as the favorite of all the books in his collection. "He was a visionary...the Jules Verne of gastronomy." Source: Wikimedia Commons
Lovers of actual books may be an endangered species, but consider chef Jose Andres. You might say that he's a fish swimming joyously upstream.
One of Andres’ literary heroes is the writer Jean Anthelme Brillat Savarin, who, in The Physiology of Taste, famously wrote, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” In the chef’s case one might paraphrase that celebrated remark to say: “Tell me what you read and I will tell you who you are.”
To read a recent New York Times profile, Andres is more than a peripatetic celeb chef with an empire of 12 restaurants, popular TV shows in the U.S. and Spain and a few cookbooks under his belt.
He’s also an ardent lover of actual books, especially historical ones about food and cooking. In “Not Just Spices on His Shelves,” (The New York Times, August 1, 2012, p. D3), writer Marian Burros gets a first hand look at the chef’s eclectic collection. “Books, for me, this is a way of learning,” he tells her. “This is my college education….Old cookbooks connect you to your past and explain the history of the world.”
Among the 1,500 volumes Andres has amassed are a 1931 first edition of The Joy of Cooking and an 1851 edition of The Virginia House-Wife, written by Mary Randolph. As a budding chef, he spent a summer cooking half the recipes in The Cuisine of Fredy Giradet, written by an exemplar of nouvelle cuisine and the first cookbook he ever bought. More recently he’s become interested in Japanese manga, comic books with recipes that trace the evolution of Japanese cooking.
One of the unique historical documents in his collection is “a rents and receipts notepad from 1795” that belonged to Honore Julien, a French cook who became Jefferson’s chef at the White House. Andres treasures “the tattered little pad,” not least because one page “proves Julien brought French fries to America, or as he called them, pommes de terre frites a cru en petit tranches.”
Though Burros doesn’t say it, one suspects that Andres adores having these books at his fingertips—many are in his home library, as well as in his office in Washington D.C.—where he can pull them out and turn their yellowing pages. Often they prove useful: He found recipes in The Virginia House-Wife for dishes he served at America Eats Tavern, a pop-up restaurant that supported a show at the National Archives.
But the real story here is the way that Andres’ historical book collection has led him to focus on issues of poverty and food. Inspired by heirloom vegetables and heritage breeds that have come back into fashion, he’s working with Michelle Obama to improve school lunch programs and “teach children how good…healthful food can taste.” It’s all part of a campaign to make Americans aware of their culinary heritage and their “right” (my quotes, not his) to eat good food.
One question that’s on his mind: Why “the most powerful country in the world won’t spend the money to help the poor eat better.”