Spanish chef José Andrés, who is a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, discusses social issues over Cuban coffee, pastelitos and croquetas.

Immigration, minimum wage, job creation. Chef José Andrés sees America in this one dish

BY Carlos Frías

A box of warm pastelitos and a fresh Cuban coffee colada make José Andrés pensive.

Place the white box from Miami’s La Rosa bakery in front of him, pour him the first of many thimbles of Cuban coffee and watch as he spins from topic to topic: Puerto Rico, immigration, French philosophy, robot chefs, running for office.

Deep breath now. But first, cafecito.

Venga, la colada,” he says. I pour him his first sip of the six-ounce brew. Even when changing planes in Miami, Andrés schedules time to grab Cuban coffee at Miami International Airport.

“I love it. I really love it,” he says. “I always say I’m going to have one or two shots and I usually finish the whole coffee. I don’t know why I don’t drink it directly from the cup.”

That would be gauche, he admits. There’s something obscene, in comparison, about a 30-ounce cup of Starbucks coffee. This ritual, sipping Cuban coffee a bit at a time, demands gravitas, he says.

“I think we need to elevate that because this is very special,” he says.

Even when it’s cold, he sips and imagines it a new way.

“Actually, if we do a colada on the rocks, it could be an amazing thing,” he says. “This and piece of foie gras — boom! — we’re in business.”

Digging through the box, he immediately goes for the croquetas — the hallmark of Asturias, Spain, where he was born — and what he half-jokingly calls Spain’s greatest contribution to the food world.

One bite, and he’s standing in his mother’s kitchen. At the end of the month, when money was tight, his mother would scrape together what was left in a nearly empty fridge — leftover chicken, eggs, cream — and whip together a bechamel for the croquetas and let it set overnight.

He and his brother Mariano would tiptoe into the kitchen at night to scoop spoonfuls of the salty, buttery bechamel and chicken mixture out of a casserole, then try to patch over the mix to cover their tracks.

“The next morning, my mom would wake up and the entire bechamel would look like the moon’s surface,” he said. “That’s the memory that croquetas bring to me, those moments where the best dishes were when we didn’t have much food left at home. It was where my mom showed off the best of her. Out of nothing, making a great dish.”

The same could be said for Andrés.

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In the wake of the 2017 Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico, Andrés parachuted onto the American island and immediately started cooking for locals. In the early days after the storm, he tapped his chef friends, restaurants and food trucks to eventually cook more than 3.7 million meals — more than 100,000 meals a day — with the help of a $16 million contract with FEMA, according to the agency. That indefatigable effort earned him a nomination shortly after this conversation for the Nobel Peace Prize.

He didn’t stop there. His mobile kitchens popped up to help those affected by wildfires in California, hurricanes in Panama City, Fla., and the Carolinas, and, most recently, furloughed federal workers in Washington D.C.

In Puerto Rico, out of disparate ingredients, he and his fellow chefs made magic. Mashed potato flakes and ground meat became a memorable pastelón de carne, a sort of Puerto Rican shepherd’s pie.

“Even when the ingredients were not many and the resources were few, it tasted to me, at the end of a long day ... like the best pastelón de carne I’d ever eaten in my life,” he said.

He reaches into the white box again.

“I’m going to have another croqueta. Why? Because when you have one croqueta, you have to have a second croqueta,” he says.

This time he grabs a guava pastelito — I pour him another shot of coffee — and his mind is off again.

He pulls apart the thin leaves of puff pastry, then puts them back together for a bite.

“Mmm. The guava. So good. So buttery. Oh, my god, these are so good,” he says.

In that first bite, he can envision the husband and wife team that made these pastries on Flagler Street in central Miami. In one bite, he sees culture.

“The men and women who made this, what are they thinking and what are their dreams, their sufferings,” he says, more to himself.

Here is America, in this one, humble dish, he says, and every conversation we are having: immigration, minimum wage, job creation, cultural history.

“Oh my God, in one dish alone, we can be talking about so many things!” he says.

He sees echoes of America’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of whom work anonymously in restaurant kitchens around America.

They’re “part of the DNA of what America is. ... They are all around us. America wouldn’t move without them,” he says. “But somehow we don’t want to recognize their real contribution day to day. That’s what I think about when I taste these foods.”

A year ago, he told me he would never run for office. After mobilizing 25,000 volunteers to help feed Puerto Rico — and staring at the bottom of a box of pastelitos and croquetas — José Andrés reconsiders his aspirations.

“We’ll see,” he says, with a grin. “I’ll be there to serve America in the best way I can.”

Carlos Frías is the James Beard award-winning Miami Herald food editor. Contact: 305-376-4624; @carlos_frias