José Andrés is not a museum curator or an anthropologist.
But sitting in his new restaurant, America Eats, and listening to the chef talk about food policy and history might lead one to think otherwise.
America Eats is Andrés’ take on the history of American cuisine, with a menu featuring dishes that date as far back as 1607.
He developed the restaurant at 405 Eighth St. NW as a complement to the “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” exhibit that opened in June at the National Archives. The exhibit traces the history of American food policy and culinary innovation, and Andrés wanted his restaurant to reflect on and expand those ideas.
“This is technically not a restaurant anymore, it’s an exhibit. And it’s not an exhibit that you see or you listen to — it’s an exhibit that you eat,” he said.
His involvement in the exhibit began when the National Archives contacted him to be its culinary adviser. He soon realized the exhibit offered him the perfect opportunity to develop a long-held idea.
“Maybe now is the moment for this American restaurant I’ve always wanted to open,” he said he thought at the time.
But America Eats is more than just another feather in his cap. The restaurant will stay open for only six months, and all proceeds will go to the National Archives. Andrés said the philanthropic aspect of the restaurant makes it all the more meaningful for him.
“You can do a great American restaurant, and even if you do it because you have a passion, it’s a business,” he said. “It’s one more powerful thing that when you open a restaurant, it has a purpose.”
Andrés was able to find two corporate sponsors to support his endeavor, Dole Food Co. and American Express, but when he initially conceived the philanthropic restaurant, he had planned to put himself out on a limb to achieve it.
“I’m risking a lot. When we said we wanted to do that, we didn’t even have the full commitment of the sponsors, so it was risky in so many ways, but I had the conviction that it had to be done,” he said.
Though this is his first attempt at creating a philanthropic dining establishment, Andrés has said for years that the future of experimental restaurants — such as his Minibar — will include corporate sponsorship. America Eats seems to be a success — he said the restaurant has been booked solid for dinner since it opened a month ago, and lunches, typically a difficult time, are also busy.
The idea of a restaurant-as-exhibit is also something Andrés hopes to expand on in the future. He said his next idea might be a restaurant that pairs with the State Department to show what carbon-neutral, no-emissions cooking looks like.
Along with America Eats, Andrés is supporting the National Archives exhibit by hosting roundtable discussions that bring culinary experts together to discuss solutions to the world’s food problems. Andrés believes, in the same way it’s important for architects to plan the cities of the future and doctors to have a say in the evolution of the health care system, chefs should take part in planning future food policy.
“If you don’t speak up and you don’t nag anyone or you don’t push, someone else will. And, quite frankly, I prefer that the chefs of the world have something to say about how we feed America and the world than a politician from the middle of nowhere that has no interest in cooking or even loves food,” he said.
Andrés is particularly concerned with the 2012 reauthorization of the farm bill. He said it could be the most important farm bill negotiated in the history of the world because of the effects it could have on obesity in the U.S. and on hunger-related issues in other countries.
In a field focused so wholly on singular dining experiences, it’s unique to find a chef who considers the long-range effects of the food he serves to his patrons. But for Andrés, his study of food history and policy makes perfect sense.
“I am interested in all things food, and all things food means more than going to the market and shopping. All things food means history and politics and social and commerce,” he said.
For Andrés, each dish is more than just a moment’s meal.
“I think you can explain the history of the world through cooking, through food,” he said.