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DINING – Garden Café Espana at National Gallery of Art

Jose Andres - Garden Café Espana at National Gallery of Art

Jose Andres - Garden Café Espana at National Gallery of Art

Ah, the pleasures of Spain in the summer. The art, the beauty, the splendor. The Prado, the Alhambra, the Guggenheim in Bilbao, shopping, touring, lunch with a pitcher of sangria lingered over with friends and family. How we wish we could be there! How we wish the economy hadn’t tanked and we could renew our acquaintance with Picasso, Dali, Miro, El Greco and Luis Melendez. Who you ask? None other than the great 18th-century Spanish still-life master whose works are currently featured in a comprehensive special exhibit, “Luis Melendez: Master of the Spanish Still Life” at the National Gallery of Art’s east wing.

All these iconic Spanish artists and more can be viewed this summer in the Gallery at yet another show in the Gallery’s west wing, “The Art of Power: Royal Armor and Portraits from Imperial Spain.” Spectacular armor from the Spanish Crown, on loan from The Royal Armory in Madrid, accompanies portraits of Spain’s greatest rulers sporting the same armor. The pantheon of artists represented in this exhibition, include: Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Diego Velazquez and Alonso Sanchez Coello.

But I wanted particularly to delve into Melendez’s rich oils, a paean to the foods of Spain, that were commissioned by Emperor Charles V to represent the terroir, the seasons and the four elements of Earth, Wind, Fire and Air. These food “portraits,” with their luscious figs evocative of fecundity, and plump grapes conjuring Spain’s great wines, triumph summer’s harvest, and beckon the viewer to sample its culinary bounty.

In these pictorial treasures you can almost feel the summer’s heat radiating from the freshly picked cantaloupes, savor the crunch of the bread’s hearth-baked crust, taste the mellow nuttiness of the goat cheese. Oranges from Seville drip with the morning’s dew and tiny pea tendrils encircle artichokes awaiting papery-skinned garlic to be crushed and added to the steamy pot. Wooden-crated chocolate pairs with a whisk, and a copper chocolate pot on display promises a sweet libation on a cool evening.

All this is prologue to the marvelous menu created by award-winning chef Jose Andres with the Gallery’s Executive Chef, David Rogers, now featured in the Gallery’s Garden Café Espana where you will want to breathe life into the beauty you have just witnessed.

Andres, acclaimed PBS-TV chef of “Jose: Made in Spain” and author of two cookbooks, has recently opened the Bazaar, a triumph of a restaurant, in Los Angeles. He is the chef/owner of THINKfoodGROUP, which includes such restaurants as Jaleo, Café Atlantico, Zaytinya, Oyamel and minibar by Jose Andres. In an interview with Andres this week I asked him about his experiences, adventures and memories about food and how he felt being chosen to create this menu.

Jordan Wright: Can you give me one or two of your earliest food memories? Taste, preparation and the sensation you experienced? Perhaps you remember a first recipe you prepared as a child or how you helped in the kitchen with preparation, perhaps peeling oranges or chopping the garlic?

Jose Andres: I think food is very powerful in its ability to evoke memories, to evoke feelings. As a child I think I recognized this very early. Both of my parents cooked at home, they are both very good home cooks, and so I remember the kitchen always being a warm place of full great aromas, the steam from pots on the stove, noise from pots and pans. My mother Marisa made a flan that while perhaps not technically perfect was pure magic. I was never happier than when I would see her gather the eggs, milk, sugar and start preparing flan. Even today that flan is magic, a spoonful of that recipe has the power to take me back to her kitchen in Santa Coloma de Cervello. You can try a version of my mother’s flan at Café España. My earliest memory would be helping my father with the paella. He would make me tend the fire. I would gather wood and sticks, start the fire, and when the coals were ready, spread them out. This job used to annoy me because I wanted to cook. I was just burning stuff and I got all dirty and smoky. I wanted to stir, chop … anything. What I didn’t realize was this was the most important job: controlling the temperature. Once you master time and temperature you are really cooking.

JW: As the most acclaimed chef in America for Spanish cuisine can you discuss your feelings about being chosen by the National Gallery of Art to create the menu for Café Espana and the challenges it presented?

JA: For any Spaniard, there is tremendous pride to be connected to exhibitions that bring our art and culture to the world and for any Washingtonian, it is a tremendous honor to be associated with the National Gallery of Art which for me is one of the best museums in the world. It is a great privilege for me to be able to be a sponsor, to have my name and Jaleo’s name associated with the “The Art of Power” exhibit and the Luis Melendez show. It is a tremendous honor. When they asked me to create the menu for Café España, I jumped at the chance. The challenge was to bring authentic Spanish food to a museum setting. I say challenge but it was actually quite easy, the Gallery was very open to all our ideas, even using the 1611 cookbook, Arte de Cocina, as the source of some the recipes. Two of the recipes — Empanada de pollos ensapados and Pepitoria we added to mark the opening of “The Art of Power” — are also from this book.

JW: In Luis Melendez’s paintings, there are depictions of many of the classic ingredients of Spain: luscious figs, cherries, melons, pomegranates, artichokes, Iberian hams and chocolate. Can you tell me the ingredients that will forever define Spain for you?

JA: There are so many. I suppose olive oil is the number one for me. It goes in everything. It is an oil but also a way to add flavor, to add body, to add richness. And the varieties of olives used to make oil mean that you can achieve so many different flavors from soft, almondy arbequina to peppery, sharp picual. Pimenton would be another. It is a unique spice, made from peppers grown in Extremadura. They are smoked and ground into a powder. It is a unique flavor. To call it paprika doesn’t capture it. It is its own thing.

JW: What herb best defines Spain for you?

JA: Fresh herbs are used a lot in Spanish cooking. It would be hard to limit myself to just one so I’ll give you a few. Definitely fresh thyme. It goes into an olive mix called Setas al ajillo. We make a great onion soup at Jaleo that is flavored with thyme and served with a poached egg. Also, I’d have to say, bay leaf and rosemary.

JW: You’ve have said that many of the classic recipes you use in your cookbook, “Made in Spain,” come from your wife Patricia’s cooking. Did you draw upon any of these for the Garden Café’s special menu?

JA: The gazpacho served at Café España is based on her family’s recipe. She comes from the south where they are experts in cold soups. I grew up in Asturias and Barcelona and had never really had gazpacho before we met. I like to joke that I married her to get the secret. Gazpacho is the perfect refresher on a hot summer day and I thought all the summer visitors to the Mall would appreciate that.

JW: Can you tell me about working with Executive Chef David Rogers of the National Gallery of Art?

JA: David was a huge help to us. He was the one who helped us translate what we wanted to do to the museum setting, to make it work so his team could do the menu every day. He has a ton of experience in working with outside chefs to do these special Café menus and he has helped make Café España a success.

JW: What ingredients for the menu were special ordered from Spain? Olive oils, Seville oranges, saffron, chorizos, cheeses, honey, chocolate, pimenton? Where do you recommend our readers buy these in the Washington, D.C. area?

JA: David had to source a ton of Spanish products from purveyors in order to execute the menu: hams, olive oil, boquerones, picos, cheese, chorizo, pimenton, especially pimenton. Thankfully more and more purveyors are carrying Spanish products or dedicate themselves to Spanish products so it’s not such a struggle like it was even ten years ago. Many more supermarkets carry Spanish products. You can find olive oil, saffron, cheeses and more at Whole Foods, Harris Teeter and other supermarkets or online shops like

For questions or comments write to [email protected].

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