It’s good to be chef José Enrique. The sugar sand beaches are never far from where his award-winning restaurants are found. This Sunday on Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted, chef José Enrique makes Gordon fall in love with this island paradise that has every vista imaginable, from mountains, rivers, woods, and beaches, to the most tempting local ingredients a chef could want.
And it’s a windfall resource Gordon notices immediately.
The island has many attractions, from Old San Juan, Santurce, the market, Rio Grande, El Yunque, Loíza, Piñones, Rincon, Vieques, Culebra and beyond, there is so much to see, do and eat in Puerto Rico.
Luckily for Gordon, Puerto Rico’s most famous chef José Enrique is there to help him have a most excellent adventure.
Enrique is a native son, a culinary renegade with a charismatic way of networking and a finalist for the James Beard Foundation award “Best Chef South” numerous times.
His first restaurant, José Enrique, opened in 2007. His restaurant, Condado, was listed in the top 30 best restaurants in the world by Food and Wine magazine and followed by the brasserie Capital and the coffeehouse Miel. In 2013 Jose Enrique was featured as one of the ten “Best New Chefs” across the U.S in the 25th Anniversary edition of the Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs.
Enrique and Gordon have solid on-camera chemistry, and this episode reveals it. José Enrique seems to know everyone. He calls upon a reliable network of local vendors who provide him with the finest in fresh Puerto Rican produce and proteins in the episode.
He easily could have been detoured in his career if not for faithfully watching a cooking show on TV as a kid. Chef José Enrique almost became a lawyer, but he leaned towards the culinary arts after high school. Enrique was schooled at one of the top spots, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York and apprenticed in kitchens in Florida and Louisiana with some of the best talents around.
Despite his good cheer and laid-back humor, the last few years have been brutal to Puerto Rico. After 2017’s Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma before that, the island suffered. José Enrique stepped up to the plate, joined by José Andrés of World Central Kitchen. The chefs fed thousands of people daily and made sure no one starved while the island hobbled back on its feet. And then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now, chef Enrique is back with style and has plans to expand his culinary reach, maybe even to the states.
In the episode, Gordon says Puerto Rico doesn’t get the credit it deserves, and after you watch this special Uncharted, you will agree.
Monsters & Critics spoke to José Enrique about his passion for Puerto Rico, cooking, and hospitality. We got a fabulous bonus recipe from the chef to share with you for an easy meal meant to inspire your interest in visiting him in person down in San Juan and to eat some more of his tasty food.
Exclusive interview with José Enrique
Monsters & Critics: Your episode with Gordon Ramsay showed off your fantastic chemistry together. Do you think you can get him to come back to Puerto Rico?
José Enrique: I do, honestly. I think he had a great time here. I think those parts I enjoyed were seeing him in action, and after watching him on TV and feeling him out, he’s always on the go. And I felt here at times well; maybe I can just sit back for a little bit. You know?
M&C: You sent Gordon on a lot of ingredient errands. He was rappelling for shrimp, jumping out of planes for coffee. You put him through the wringer. Did you have any preconceived ideas about Gordon before you met him? Was this the first time that you had met him in person?
José Enrique: It was the first time. I don’t even know how many Michelin stars he’s got, about 50, 60 Michelin stars? That level of cooking. That alone is like, wow. This is what I’ve been doing for 25 years of my life.
I’m just amazed that there’s somebody who can accomplish anything like that. But then, on top of that, becoming such a great TV personality, it’s just incredible. I’m getting to meet this person who actually does both things at the same time and with great dominance and talent.
M&C: You are such a mensch. Many people may or may not know that you stepped up after Hurricane Maria and fed so many in Puerto Rico. And dovetail that fact into the sense of your episode, how everyone in Puerto Rico relies on each other because you’re, you’re on an island. Then COVID, and it was like a 1, 2, 3 punch just as soon as you get back on your feet after Maria. Did you open all your restaurants?
José Enrique: Yes, in the Market. I’m on the beach, on the water, and then there’s a parking lot. There’s that other place I opened up, which is again an open outdoors-themed place where I’ve got a couple of little trailers.
We’ve got one where I do waterfront-style food. I’ve got burgers and a couple of other chefs in there doing their own things. So yeah, it’s right next door.
M&C: We’re coming out of COVID-19. A lot of people are vaccinated, and tourism is percolating. What would you say when you talk to people about the selling point? What about Puerto Rico that makes it more special than Cuba or makes it more memorable than the Dominican Republic?
José Enrique: Yes, we’re all in the Greater Antilles, right? These are all beautiful islands. But with Puerto Rico, it has this huge international airport where you can fly in. And for me, it’s easy and convenient. A few seconds later, you’re in a hotel or 20 minutes, 30 minutes, a nice AirBnB in the middle of the mountains.
So you’ve got that proximity of waterfront and such diversity, it’s beautiful, but we have the hospitality. Everybody just loves having people and showing them around, showing them a good time. It’s all part of that.
M&C: I appreciate how well you do farm to table. It is not just a slogan for you. You know the people who catch it and grow the food. How important is that for you to maintain your business practice, and if you train people or mentor people, talk about that philosophy that you have?
José Enrique: When you’re sourcing, things become a little bit harder, right? Then just having your regular produce, you’re ordering off a list. So when you’re sourcing it and talking to their farm, it’s just fate. It’s more like, ‘What did you harvest today, or what is beautiful today?’ And then you have to make your meal around that.
So for that side of it, it makes things a little harder as a restaurant. But on the other side, it makes things easier because the food so nice and good and freshly picked that all I have to do is season it.
I just add salt, lemon juice and try not to mess it up. You know? It’s funny, on one side, as a chef, it’s harder to source, and it’s harder to go after all the ingredients you want. But on the other side, it’s easier because I don’t have to doctor anything up. I have great products, and I’m actually trying not to mess it up.
M&C: Your food looks beautiful, so enticing the meal that you made with Gordon at the beach. In a past interview, you said that you learned a lot working in New York and that you like to go back frequently. And to me, you have like a New York accent slightly. Talk about your training in New York.
José Enrique: So I went to school in New York, Culinary Institute of America (CIA) upstate, but that year and a half, it started off my local New York started then. Because on the weekends, I basically would get on that train car to get where I needed to be. I lived in Astoria for a bit and then the East Village.
And it was such a beautiful time there for me because even though it was such a huge city, I felt taken care of by the people in the community where I lived, like that St. Martin and 2nd Ave area really took care of me. There are little sandwich shops and things like that.
I was by myself, and yet it felt like home even though it’s such a big city, I had my little corner of it, and getting to work there and getting to work with all these different cultures that have different values, you can work differently.
But at the same time, the work ethic would be that you have to be there. You had to rock your station; otherwise, you weren’t going to be able to pull it off to work at that restaurant. So it was just an amazing time for me.
M&C: What are your hopes for your empire in Puerto Rico? You’ve got several restaurants. Do you plan to expand within Puerto Rico or come over to the mainland and maybe open a place?
José Enrique: At one point, I had eight restaurants running around. I had two places that were the same concept. So the other six weren’t. They were all very different, and I loved that. Now I’m down to two, by my choice mainly.
I feel like I have projects popping up in Puerto Rico. I’m looking at something in Old San Juan, maybe. I would do something outside of Puerto Rico. I just feel like I’ve already been through it, and I’ve already paid [my dues] through having eight restaurants. And now, as a businessman, you make errors, and I made a bunch of them. I’ve learned from those.
So the second time around, I kind of have more of those bases covered. I would actually love to do something in the States or maybe Latin America or Europe. Who knows? We’ll see what happens.
M&C: Well, I’m in Idaho, and unfortunately, we are very short on Puerto Ricans here. Check out Boise.
José Enrique: (Laughs) I’d come into Boise. I’d make you a little Puerto Rican food lover. You know!
M&C: I already am. Are you kidding? For the people that are watching this episode, they see you and Gordon working. Is there something that you would want them to try in their kitchen and, you know, take a chance? Is there a recipe or a dish you can give us?
José Enrique: Yes. I think soup, it’s like one of those international dishes that’s just universal, and everybody has one wherever they are. I make this coconut soup and it’s based on fish, and it has roots and tubers.
But basically something out of that. And it gets a little coconut milk and then it stews, just add some lime and then add those flavors of tomato, pepper, garlic, cilantro, and then add that coconut and the lime. It gives it an authentic and excellent flavor. It’s a fun dish.
M&C: A lot of people try to escape where they’re from, and it’s the opposite for you. You came back, talk about why you didn’t become a lawyer like you had said you had planned to be in a previous interview, and you wanted to become a chef and stay in Puerto Rico?
José Enrique: As far as cooking goes, at some point, I figured out that I love hospitality. At some point, it clicked where I was just like, I mean, I love cooking obviously, but I love it as a whole. I love entertaining. I love giving, you know. Well, I figured it out. It just clicked. I really love making people happy.
I love having people down, and I love serving them wine and drinks and juices and presenting the food I made. I love that, you know?
Chef José Enrique’s recipe for Caldo Santo, exclusive to M&C:
4 cubanelle peppers
1 head of garlic
2 bunches. of cilantro
1/2 lb cassava
1/2 lb taro root
1/2 lb pumpkin
2 lb snapper filet (medium dice)
4 limes (juiced)
2 cups coconut milk
1.5 gallons water
salt to taste
6 oz olive oil
4 oz annatto oil if available
Chop onions, peppers, tomatoes uniformly in size, and mince the garlic. Add to a pot (2.5 gallons preferred) with olive oil and annatto, cook for 15 minutes. Cut tubers and pumpkin into large dice, add to pot with water, and season to taste.
Bring to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes. Add fish, chopped cilantro, coconut milk, and bring to a low simmer. After 10 minutes, the fish should be cooked through. Just finish with lime juice and add salt to taste.
Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted airs Sundays at 9/8c on National Geographic Channel.