Puerto Rican chef José Enrique. (Photo/Courtesy José Enrique)

Chef Spotlight: Jose Enrique on raising the profile of Puerto Rican cuisine

Vitals: At just 36 years old, Puerto Rican chef José Enrique has a national reputation as one of the country’s best chefs. Enrique presents the Puerto Rican cuisine he grew up eating at his grandmother’s table with an elevated twist by using locally-sourced ingredients and artisanal products. The chef-owner of José Enrique, brassiere Capital and coffee shop Miel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Enrique was named one of Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs” in 2013. In November, he will open his fourth restaurant: an eco-friendly eatery at the Gold LEED-certified El Blok hotel in Vieques, Puerto Rico.

Experience: Enrique began cooking after graduating from high school and at 19, with the encouragement of family friend and renowned Puerto Rican chef Wilo Benet, enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. His love of bold flavors took him to New Orleans, where he cooked at Riche. In New York City he learned the art of refined French cuisine at Café Centro. A stint in Florida made him “miss home,” Enrique says and utterly homesick. He returned to Puerto Rico on vacation in 2007 and during that trip to the capital city of San Juan, he spotted a vacant store front located next to a farmer’s market – a locale which he turned into his first restaurant, José Enrique.

On being named “Best New Chef” by Food & Wine: “I still can’t believe it happened – it hasn’t really settled in. A lot of people told me I deserved it, but I never expected anything like this to happen. It’s really beautiful. My family is proud of course, but at the end of the day, work is work. I’m just lucky that I love what I do and that I can be an ambassador for Puerto Rico.”

On his biggest influence: “My dad was a mechanic, but there was part of him that always wanted to be a farmer. He loved plants and vegetables, anything to do with agriculture. I remember as a kid, he’d take me to different farms and show me this type of mango, or show me how the hot peppers grew. That helped me develop a love of agriculture from a really young age. I think because my dad never got to do what he loved, he made sure to encourage me to pursue my passion – which turned out to be our shared love for really beautiful produce.”

Why he returned home to Puerto Rico after cooking in New Orleans, Florida and New York City: “Anyone from Puerto Rico will understand when I say that I really missed being away from home. It’s hard for me not to be here; there’s just something special about the air, the culture and the pace of life on the island. There’s a certain vibe here that I couldn’t stay away from too much longer.”

The reason why he’ll never find Puerto Rican cuisine boring: “I rely on the freshest produce to inspire my menu from day to day. Sure, there will always be some type of pork on the menu, but if someone just walked in with 15 amazing mangoes, then I’ll serve the pork with a fresh mango salsa. Or maybe a farmer just brought in some sugar cane, so I’ll make a rum sugar cane sauce for my protein. That’s how I approach the food I cook: it’s based on the Puerto Rican food we know and love, but with the best, locally-grown products money can buy. It’s a special twist that keeps things interesting.”

On the five ingredients he can’t live without: “Limes for brightness, culantro, peppers, salt and water. I cook with water all day long, which is something not many chefs do. Instead of using heavy stocks and sauces in a dish, I like adding a bit of water to retain flavor without adding a heavy component.  And I love avocado – there are so many amazing varieties here in the Caribbean. In just one week, I can go through eight varieties of avocado, all with a different profile and texture. It’s really cool.”

On the one dish he can’t make as well as mom: “I can’t beat my mom’s white rice. It’s the simplest thing, but at the same time, it’s not. It’s just white rice, water, a little olive oil, salt and sometimes tocino, but the key is the technique – knowing when to lift that lid. When it comes to doneness, it’s a very fine line with rice. Too soon and it’s hard; too late and it’s mushy – it has nothing to do with following a standard recipe. No matter what, my rice never stacks up to my mom’s!”

On moving Puerto Rican cuisine forward: “I don’t want to change the food of Puerto Rico – I just want to encourage farmers to grow the best produce they can. I try to use as many locally-sourced ingredients as possible so that the agricultural movement moves forward. Agriculture in Puerto Rico is just starting to grow again and I hope that as I start pushing for better ingredients, more chefs do too. I’d love to see more demand not just from restaurants, but from the customer as well – and if that can help make everyone more conscious about what we eat, I would be happy.”

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