Q&A: How José Andrés grew from apprentice to top chef

December 1, 2016 11:47 AM EST

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By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Award-winning chef and restaurateur José Andrés got his start the old-fashioned way - as a teenage apprentice.

Andrés worked his way up from a convention center restaurant in Barcelona to an American-based food empire in ThinkFoodGroup, which includes acclaimed restaurants, catering services and a food truck.

Now 47, Andres just received two Michelin stars for his Washington, D.C.-based restaurant minibar, and was recently honored by President Barack Obama with a National Humanities Medal.

Andres has even made headlines for a restaurant he did not open, at President-elect Donald Trump's new hotel in Washington, D.C., for which he is still embroiled in a $10 million breach of contract lawsuit.

Andrés had a chat with Reuters about the life lessons he has learned along his journey:

Q: What did your first job at that convention center teach you?

A: There were four people in the kitchen and sometimes we were serving 200 or 300 people at once. What I learned was that as a worker, when you work and you make yourself useful and indispensable, your value always increases.

Q: When you were starting your own business, what lessons about money stuck with you?

A: It was 1994 that I got my first loan from a bank to pay for a little investment in a restaurant with my partner, Cafe Atlantico in Miami.

We weren’t super prepared. The restaurant did OK but two or three years later, it closed. The life lesson was that if you don’t raise your own money, you don’t really learn the value of owning something.

We all have dreams but at the end of the day, the numbers have to make sense. Bills have to be paid and salaries and rent - you cannot escape that fate.

Q: What did you buy with your first paycheck?

A: I bought a cookbook - "The Escoffier Cookbook and Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery." Knowledge is power and that book was like the heart of French cooking. That’s a book that’s been very important in my life. I also bought a Supertramp cassette of a concert in Paris. It gave me a lot of joy.

Q: What has become your secret to business success?

A: Make quick decisions. It’s almost like Darwin in the business world. The strongest will survive and adaptation is key. I’ve been fairly good at evolving - I never graduated from a school and I didn’t have a normal studying life but I kept learning as I kept moving.

I was a cook, then I became a chef, then I had an investment partner, then I became an owner. I always knew what I lacked and always tried to surround myself with people who had what I lacked or what I needed more of.

Q: As you became more established in your career, what did you learn about handling your personal wealth?

A: I've never been a good handler of money. In my house, my wife manages our finances. I don't even know what’s in the book. If she leaves me one day, I don't even know my bank account number. Once you believe in somebody, make sure you choose well so you can concentrate on other things.

Q: You and your wife started a non-profit, World Central Kitchen, in 2012. How does this fit into your philosophy on giving back?

A: Hunger issues are very much at the heart of it for me. I've been involved in a lot of things like L.A. Kitchen, Capital Food Fight and Martha’s Table. The lesson here is to put money and commitment into something you care about - at the end of the day, food is so much at the heart of everything to me.

Q: What money lessons do you pass down to your daughters (ages 12, 14 and 17)?

A: Sometimes I feel like the more physical things we own, the less free we are. Making money somehow is easy - saving money somehow is very difficult.

So don't really spend the money on the things that are that one more thing you're going to be selling at your garage sale. Time is money and every day the clock is ticking and every day we have less time. So I will say that I want to die rich of experiences and moments. I don't want to die rich with an immense quantity of belongings.

(Editing by Beth Pinsker)



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