“I associate cooking with happiness,” chef José Enrique told Fox News Latino recently.
Enrique must be ecstatic these days. The 36-year-old chef runs three restaurants in San Juan, Puerto Rico—a coffee house, Miel, a brasserie called Capital, as well as his signature place, the eponymous “José Enrique”—and is about to open a fourth on the island of Vieques.
“There were so many times when I was growing up,” he said, “that the whole family would be gathered and my grandma would be cooking and everyone was drinking and eating and having a great time.”
In fact, when you ask Enrique, who grew up in San Juan, about his favorite places to eat in Puerto Rico, he doesn’t mention sit-down type joints. Instead, he talks about going to a hole in the wall where they make great alcapurrias—traditional taro and banana fritters—then “driving an hour to that roadside stand where a woman heads into a field, picks some plantains, cuts them up and fries them for you.”
After that, maybe you go up to the mountains where a few friends with a caja china have been roasting a pork since the morning.
Enrique is a classically-trained chef with a farm-to-table food philosophy who is helping to bring haute cuisine treatment and presentation to traditional Boricua fare, and his work is turning heads in the more traditional centers of culinary arts.
Last year, he was a semifinalist for a James Beard Award and in November he was selected by the editors of Food & Wine as one of its best new chefs. “I’d never been blown away by Puerto Rican food,” the magazine’s restaurant editor, Kate Krader, wrote. “The dishes I’d tried were always a little heavy and a little bland. But José Enrique and his bright, sharp, fresh flavors have changed my mind… That’s what a Best New Chef does: takes a cuisine you don’t think you like and turns you into a convert.”
Enrique said that review turned things around for him.
“If you look at the chefs that they have spotlighted in their Best New Chefs, it’s an amazing group,” he said. “Daniel Boulud, David Chang—all these incredible people.”
As unlikely as it may seem, Enrique was never supposed to be a chef. “I wanted to be a lawyer,” he said, but he dropped out of college after a few months and started working in restaurants.
Eventually, he got himself into the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
“That opened my eyes to how structured food preparation can be,” he said.
He worked at a number of top restaurants after that, in New Orleans (Riche), New York (Café Centro) and Puerto Rico (Bili, San Juan Water Beach Club).
Did he ever experience the sort of environment that’s depicted on restaurant reality shows like “Hell’s Kitchen”?
“I’ve had knives thrown at me,” Enrique said, chuckling. “But the worst behavior was this one guy in Puerto Rico who was from the mainland. He had a serious, important restaurant but was lying on its menu. Calling a bird a ‘naturally-raised guinea hen’ when it wasn’t. When I quit, I told him, ‘This isn’t the path I wanted to be on. There’s supposed to be pride in cooking.’”
In 2007, he opened his first restaurant, “José Enrique,” across from San Juan’s largest green market. It’s the sort of place where the menu changes every day—every few hours, even—depending on what’s available and fresh.
Enrique’s latest restaurant is scheduled to open in June, in an eco-friendly beach hotel on Vieques called El Blok. The project is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified, and Enrique has a suitably stripped-down notion for its restaurant.
“It’ll be beach food done simply,” he said, and you get the impression that by “simply,” he does not mean “plain.”
Hotel co-owner Simon Baeyertz is so sold on Enrique’s talents that he recently told Afar magazine, “I like to say we’re a restaurant with rooms above.”
“It’s amazing how much the food culture here has changed in the last 10 years,” Enrique said. “I see young adults investing in farms, making good, organic produce much more available.”
Some of the change, he feels is attributable to the Food Network and other media outlets that push foodie culture. “People are so knowledgeable now,” he said. “Kids ask all these really smart questions about food, and it only pushes you to be better. It pushes the whole industry.”
The Puerto Rican economy is at the brink of financial collapse – its bonds were recently downgraded to junk status – but he said he hasn’t noticed much of a difference in the island’s restaurant scene. If anything, he said, restaurants these days are even more crowded.
“It’s really weird,” Enrique said, “but I see people going out non-stop now. People here love going out for dinner and having drinks. Maybe it makes no sense, but there are more restaurants open and they’re making better food.”