Chef José Andrés to Students: Be an Agent of Change, One Plate at a Time

The internationally renowned chef served the first course of his “World on a Plate: How Food Shapes Civilization” at GW on Monday, giving students a taste of the many intersections of food and society.

January 16, 2013

Jose Andres

By Kurtis Hiatt

It was with a confession that José Andrés made his debut in front of more than 200 George Washington students on Monday.

“Hola. How are you?” he said. “Two hours ago I was at the dentist and I was thinking about what excuse I had to cancel the entire class.”

Cold feet? Who knows. He charges on.

“So I’m watching CNN on the TV above me, with the dentist performing his craft. And I see a CNN show on food waste, showcasing why after a new study there seems to be proof that 50 percent of the food Earth produces today goes to waste.” He pauses. “After that moment, I thought, Well, maybe we should do that course after all.”

The students—enrolled in the first-ever “World on a Plate: How Food Shapes Civilization” class, which President Steven Knapp said is “one of the most exciting initiatives to have emerged from the work of the university’s Urban Food Task Force”—were no doubt relieved Mr. Andrés decided to show up.

“Everything around us can be related to food,” continues Mr. Andrés, the internationally renowned chef and owner of ThinkFoodGroup, which includes area restaurants Jaleo, Zaytinya and Oyamel. And in each instance—from its role in world hunger and obesity to national security and international aid—food is the solution, not the problem, he says.

The students—or food movement “soldiers”—will play an integral role in food issues, Mr. Andrés believes. Maybe it will be as a public health official. Or fast-food restaurant owner. Or, as many in the room were likely thinking, as a policymaker. The students, along with the university’s unique proximity to policymakers, are the reason Mr. Andrés wanted to bring the course to George Washington, he said.

“You may be the next president of the United States,” says Mr. Andrés, whom Dr. Knapp hailed in an introduction to the class as a “staunch supporter and friend of GW” and his special adviser on food issues. “You may be the ones who are going to be creating the laws and the change that we need in the food system 30 years from now to make sure that food is not the problem.”

But before he gets ahead of himself, the task at hand: A 1.5-credit hour class, and a semester of learning to do. And sure, that means homework—research papers, video projects and the like—but it also means a lot of fun.

Consider the first assignment: Round up a group, have a food experience in a new-to-you restaurant or neighborhood and write about it. Other assignments include creating a business plan for a food-related company, shooting a video that showcases a cooking technique, analyzing your personal relationship with food, documenting the history of a food item and diving into the public health debate surrounding a food controversy.

Each assignment is related to the theme of the week. And the week’s themes run the gamut. After Monday’s opener, “How Food Has Shaped the World,” there’s 11 more, including “Food as an Industry,” (Are there problems with mass production?); the “Science of Food,” (Why do we love roasted chicken?); “Food and Politics,” (How about those crop subsidies?); “Food and Public Health” (What foods make us fat?); and “Food and Culture” (What role does food play in a country like Haiti?).

Swooping in to help out will be more well-known guest lecturers, including Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel series “Bizarre Foods”; Harold McGee, author of “On Food and Cooking”; Alice Kamps, who curated the National Archives exhibit “What’s Cooking Uncle Sam?”; and Christopher Kimball, founder of Cooks Illustrated. A handful of GW’s own will also lend their expertise.

Mr. Andrés won’t be at every class, but he’ll don his chef’s hat for class three, the “Craft of Cooking.”

He’ll definitely talk famous chefs, like Auguste Escoffier—(“Who knows Escoffier? Great, only five of you.”)—regardless of whether the students care, because, he says, they’re “unbelievably important in the way we eat today.”

He’ll also, of course, fork over some wisdom on the techniques of his craft.

“Do you want to see a recipe? Come on, tell me yes,” he pleads with his students, a boyish grin spreading across his face. “Don’t tell me you are bored already.”

But first, he says, a story.

He clicks to a new slide. “This is cheese. Who likes cheese?”

He clicks to another, this one of almonds. “And who likes this?”

“So you like this”—click—“and you like that. You know what my mother does when she has guests at home? She puts the cheese on the table, and she puts the almonds on the table. That’s it. That’s the dish. And everyone is like, Wow, you’re such a good cook. So if I don’t do this, she goes, Ah, man, you are trying to do something different. So guess what? I have to do the same dish. I’m a professional chef but if I move away from this, I am something strange.”

Set-up finished, Mr. Andrés reveals what the “craft of cooking” really means.

“Let’s play the video! Are you ready for this? Almonds and cheese,” he says, with a flourish.

He narrates the video. Almonds are fried, blended, then transferred into a machine that makes sorbet. Then the twist. “Here, we get liquid nitrogen.” The rounded part of a ladle is dipped into the puree; the puree forms a film. Then it’s dunked into the liquid nitrogen to freeze immediately to form a miniature bowl.

“We changed the almond,” he proclaims, his excitement growing. “Why? Because the almond tells me, José, I want to be changed. I am tired of being the almond I am all my life.”

Next, the “espuma,” or foam. Cheese and milk come together and, with the help of nitrous oxide, make a mousse. The cheese takes its place inside the delicate almond bowl. The video ends.

“Ladies and gentlemen, cheese with almonds. Do you like it?”

Applause. Yes, they liked it.

One of the students sitting in on Monday—and tweeting Mr. Andrés­­—was Daniel Wein, a political science major concentrating in public policy.

“José Andrés is obviously not a professor by training, and that was refreshing in his first class,” said Wein. “His enthusiasm readily comes across in his lectures, and I can’t wait to continue to watch as he makes the classroom his own.”

Tyler Calder, an American studies major and political science minor, said she also appreciated Mr. Andrés’ passion and enthusiasm.

“But above all else, I loved that by the end of the class, I felt moved to effect change,” she said. “I viewed his lecture as a call to action, so I’m excited to see how GW students use this opportunity to learn from him in our ultimate goal of making change through food.”

That’s just what Mr. Andrés would want to hear. As he closed his first lecture on Monday, he left students with their charge.

“We are in this world for a reason. We can be passive, observant, of what’s happening. Or we can be people who decide to say, I have to be part of the solution, and I’m going to do something about it,” he said. “Food is an amazing mechanism to change society in ways we don’t even know today.”

Or, in other words: Be an “agent of change, one plate at a time.”

To watch video of the class as it progresses, visit the course website and follow #GWJoseAndres on Twitter; 131 tweets have already come in.