Since opening his eponymous restaurant in San Juan in 2007, chef Jose Enrique has steadily gained a following both in his native Puerto Rico and beyond. Just this past year, he was a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South, as well as one of Food & Wine's selections for its 2013 class of Best New Chefs. In both cases, he was the first chef from Puerto Rico to get such an honor.
In the following interview, Enrique talks about a career that started with training at the Culinary Institute of America, followed by more training at restaurants in the U.S. and in Europe, and has developed into a celebration of Puerto Rican cuisine in the heart of San Juan. He also talks about the Best New Chefs experience — including his desire to start a traveling culinary circus of sorts with his fellow classmates — and the new restaurant he's opening in Vieques in early 2014.
So what prompted you to pursue cooking professionally?
It's funny because right after high school, I wanted to be a lawyer. I started going to a university down here in Puerto Rico. I started in August. By October, I was done with my lawyer career. I quit. That's when I started cooking. Like a month afterwards, I was in a kitchen. Honestly, I never pinpointed what made me do it, but I always associated food with happy times. So I think that's where it must have come from.
You worked all over and then returned to Puerto Rico to open your restaurants. Tell me about that decision.
When I left, I always knew I wanted to come back here. Family is really present to us. I was born and raised by the beach, and it's just something that's hard for me not to have. I've surfed all my life, so I always knew I wanted to come back. I figured I'd get as much experience as possible. I remember saying, "I want to come back when I'm 35," and I ended up coming here when I was 30. I had this opportunity and I took it. I wanted to travel a bit more, but whatever. It's what happens.
It's just traveling the world as much as I can and learning as much as I can from as many chefs as I could.
What were you trying to get out of your travels? Did you try to strategize your different moves to learn certain things?
Well, really it's just experience, just traveling the world as much as I can and learning as much as I can from as many chefs as I could learn from. Then, on top of that, just learning from different cultures. You'll use it eventually.
Jose Enrique with fellow Best New Chefs, Chris Shepherd of Underbelly and Ink's Michael Voltaggio. [Photo: Jose Enrique]
How does that play in now to the food that you're doing at your restaurants?
My food here, it's very Caribbean, it's very tropical, it's got a lot of Puerto Rico, which has a huge ancestry in Spanish food. We had a lot of slaves here, so there's still a lot of that left. But whenever I do a dish, I don't really try to do too much fusion. So if I wanted to do something Spanish, I tried it from my grandma's [method]. I got to try that old rustic, original way of doing things. I think without knowing that, it's hard to get creative. You need to know the rules and the origins so you can break them if you want to. You know what I'm saying?
Yeah that makes sense. What's an example of you breaking the rules?
I mean, it's nothing that I truly think about. My cooking is done on a menu that's written daily and it all depends on the products I get in that day, so it's not like, "Ooh, I'm going to break the rules here." It's more like, "This came here and this came here, oh man, I'll make this." So, for instance, let's say this dish has a lot of garlic in it. You're supposed to take all this garlic and fry it up in a saute pan and then that will be your base. What I do is I actually confit whole garlic cloves, and then I puree them. And then instead of adding that garlic at the beginning, I'll add it at the end. I add my garlic at the end, and you end up actually getting all that beautiful garlic flavor. It's just I confit it so the garlic was a lot more mellow, it's a bit sweeter as well.
You learn the rules and then you know how to break them.
It's just little things like that. When I'm doing French dishes, usually if you're doing a stew or a fricassee or a braise, you have your broth, you have your stock and you reduced it. So for me, being in Puerto Rico, I'll break that rule and we won't use stock. We'll braise and we'll use water and wine and it'll make its own stock, therefore making the dish a lot lighter. Because it's super hot down here. You're in the tropics. Heavy, heavy dishes just tend to be too much. So you learn the rules and then you know how to break them. If it was cold [in Puerto Rico], I wouldn't break the rule.
Right. And switching gears a bit, what was it like being selected as a Best New Chef this year?
I think it's still, I'm still in a bit of that whirlwind. It's just a really big deal. And it's nothing that I was ever pursuing. It was never on my mind when I started cooking. Those weren't goals of mine. My only goal was always trying to do the best [with the] ingredients that I have and try to not mess up. On top of that, just try to have people be happy when they're in my restaurant. Coming in and putting in the hours. It's awesome that doing something that you believe in actually pays off that much. I'm just extremely happy about it.
The Best New Chefs class of 2013 in Puerto Rico [Photo: @cshepherd13]
Just knowing that people are looking at Puerto Rico is beautiful for me.
And it was a first for a Puerto Rican chef, which you also got with your semifinalist nod in the Beard awards. What does that mean for you?
Again, it's almost kind of the same feeling. For me, more than me being the first in Puerto Rico, it's actually the fact that now there's eyes over here. We've always had great chefs down here, but they've never had that step of Food & Wine Best New Chef. Or yes, [they'd been] at James Beard, but they haven't been selected as semifinalist for the region. So just knowing that people are looking at things going down here in Puerto Rico is just beautiful for me.
Yeah, what's the dining scene like in Puerto Rico and how have you seen it change over the years?
People here truly love going out. They love having fun. I think there was a huge difference between going out to fine dining restaurants or going out to a nice little bistro. They were very different, even in the quality of food that was being served. Recently, I've seen more of that change. You can go fine dining or you can go to a bistro and you can eat extremely well in both. You will have the difference in ambiance and service. But before it was huge extremes, [and] now it's all kind of blended in. It's great.
And what do you think helps bring that attention to Puerto Rico now, those eyes that you mention?
I think it all comes from prior chefs like Alfredo Ayala, Augusto Schreiner, Wilo Benet, Mario Pagan. All these chefs have been doing it for years. So I think it started with them. These chefs who were cooking in the '70s and '80s and just killing it. Basically, this is a product of their work.
Also, I saw that some of the others from your Best New Chefs class came out to Puerto Rico a little while ago. How was that? Are you guys all in regular contact?
When we were introduced in New York in April, I'm like, "Listen, we need to do something where we all go cook at each restaurant. So it'll be like a traveling circus, three of us will go here and then three of us will go there and we'll all just cook at each others' restaurants." And the next time we saw each other was at Food & Wine Aspen. I was just like, you know what, I'm going to do an event and invite all of you guys. And that's just how it happened.
Out of the 11 chefs, it was eight of us. Three of the guys couldn't come. But it was a great showing. I just truly wanted them to come down, and show the Puerto Rican public what these guys were all about. In the middle of showing them a little bit of Puerto Rico and having a good time. It happened and I'm extremely happy about it. What's best is just all of them really came out rocking. They did awesome dishes. Sometimes in these events, you go there and everybody's like, "Oh yeah, this was the best dish." As far as this event, everybody that I've talked to has a different favorite. That's just because I believe the level of food was so good that it's actually personal now. It's just a matter of you liking more the spice over here or rabbit or beef. It just truly shows the merit that all these other chefs deserve in coming here and actually giving their all.
Rendering of the forthcoming El Blok in Vieques, Puerto Rico. [Photo: Official Site]
Have you been to some of their restaurants?
I got to go to Ink earlier this year, and I've been to Empellon and Mission Chinese. I just got a text message from Matthew Gaudet, who's the chef at West Bridge in Boston. He invited me to go cook. After [the trip], we were all really pumped up, so hopefully it'll keep going. Now we'll go cook in Houston or in Carmel or whatever.
And you've got a new restaurant coming up in 2014. What's that going to be like?
It's a Gold LEED certified hotel and it's 22 rooms. I have 60 seats and a bar with 40 stools, but the bar [has] a full menu, so it's going to be a 100-seat restaurant basically.
I was getting fed up with this thing where it's like "La La at the St. Regis by Jean-Georges."
Does it have a name yet?
No name. The hotel is called El Blok and, truly, that's the name of the whole thing. I was getting fed up with this thing where it's like "La La at the St. Regis by Jean-Georges," you know what I'm saying? Everything is like that now. Everything is like "Aquarium at the Ritz by José Andrés." I don't know why, I'm just like, "Oh jeez, all these things." So I figured I'll just put El Blok and that's it. "We're going to El Blok to eat." That'll be the name of the bar and the restaurant and everything. It's just one whole thing. It's not like separate.
So it's part of the hotel and not just your restaurant at the hotel.
Exactly. And then as far as the food goes, like here [at Jose Enrique] I do Puerto Rican and it's tropical and whatnot, but it's kind of urban. It has an urban feel because I'm in the middle of Santurce. Out there, I'll be in Vieques, this nice beautiful island looking at the beach. So just the feel will be less urban. It'll be more islandy. Even though I'm on an island right now, this will be a smaller island. There's only like 8,000 people that live there. It's just rustic, but very Caribbean.
When should we be looking for that one?
We're saying like March. February or March.