You can’t blame a New Yorker for assuming that a recently installed Marra Forni Italian brick oven is destined to produce an endless parade of gourmet pizzas when he sees it while walking through midtown Manhattan Hudson Yards’s Mercado Little Spain, the 35,000-square-foot food hall that opens on March 15. But he would be wrong.
“Only Italians would waste an oven like that on pizza. And I only say that with the utmost respect for pizza,” chef José Andrés says with signature, benign bravado and Spanish-inflected accent. “No! Those are for baby pigs. And baby lambs.”
Wearing blue jeans and a dark vest over a red-checkered button-down shirt, Andrés is surrounded by scaffolding, open air ducts, and construction workers busily drilling and driving beeping cranes in what is to become one of the main culinary attractions of the $20 billion Hudson Yards, a vast neighborhood of skyscrapers and public spaces, the largest private development ever built in the U.S. Yet he appears relaxed, clearly accustomed to being the, galvanizing force at the center of a storm. Based in Washington, D.C., the Spanish-born chef’s accomplishments in the kitchen have inspired an empire of more than 30 restaurants, from the double-Michelin-starred Minibar (recently voted the best restaurant in the capital by Washingtonian magazine) to the healthy fast-casual chain Beefsteak.
In 2015, Andrés locked horns with Donald Trump when he pulled out of a deal to open a restaurant in a Trump hotel in D.C. after the then-candidate derided Mexicans as “rapists.” Suits and countersuits flew and a settlement was reached, but Andrés has only increased his status as a progressive public figure with his World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit that he started after the horrendous 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Under his stewardship, the organization has become a nimble, go-to food-supplier for disaster victims around the world, from Puerto Rico to Indonesia to California. It’s not for serving snail caviar and nasturtium petals that Andrés was asked to present the best-film contender Roma at this year’s Academy Awards, where he passionately proclaimed that immigrants and women “move humanity forward.”
Nate Mook, the executive director of World Central Kitchen, addresses Andrés’s unique position as a high-profile humanitarian who has made his name serving meals that cost well over $1,000 for a table of four at Minibar. “He feeds the few but his dream is to feed the many,” Mook says.
But for a man who relishes overwhelming challenges, Mercado Little Spain may represent a life-changing one. “I don’t want to sound pretentious,” Andrés says, looking around intensely, albeit with an air of mirth. “This is the moment in Apocalypse Now. You’re in the cave and they found you. And I am Marlon Brando.”
Andrés refers to the immensity of the project, the number of artisans, cooks and food suppliers that he has corralled; nearly every finish, furnishing, and graphic has been sourced from Spain. And there is the astounding overall expense, north of $40 million, of creating Mercado’s three restaurants–Lena, dedicated to paella and grilled meats cooked over open flames; Mar, with exclusive, fine dining seafood like live scallops; and Spanish Diner, a casual, sprawling eating-and-drinking spot–along with two bars and an enormous space dotted with 15 kiosks serving a variety of tapas and retail. Think Spanish Eately, but mas. (Andrés gives credit to the popular Italian gourmet market for leading the way, but he contends the comparison is inaccurate. The Mercado’s emphasis will be on dining and creating a convivial space rather than selling retail.)
The expectations that come with bringing Spanish cuisine to New York City in such a big way have a deeply personal resonance for Andrés, who first fell in love with the city when he was a sailor in the Spanish navy and later when he was a cook at its Eldorado Petit in the early ’90s. That restaurant didn’t succeed, and when Andres moved to Washington, he swore to himself, “One day I will come back to New York with a very big project.”
Now that day has come, for both Andrés and his motherland, according to the chef who says he wants to pronounce “Spain is here in America.” “It’s very hard to transport cooking from other parts of the world without having a certain mass of food individuals from that region. There have not been many of us in America. I always felt very alone. There was a time when you couldn’t get a good Manchego cheese. Now, I feel supported.”
On March 15, one of the bars, two food kiosks, and a retail kiosk will open; the restaurants and other offerings will roll out in the following weeks. Joining Andrés are Spanish culinary royalty, Ferran and Albert Adrià, the former having reigned with El Bulli, which was considered to be the best restaurant in the world for many years, and the latter a successful restaurateur in his native country. The brothers are doing business in the United States for the first time as creative collaborators on Mercado’s overall space and menu concepts.
“When we have meetings, it was very hot and very exciting,” says Juli Capella, a Barcelona-based lead architect on the project. “These three men, these egos; you can imagine the intensity.”
Capella savored the creative energy poured into every decision, from the gazpacho ingredients to the more than 40 bespoke ceramic tiles, which Andrés wanted over trendy but cold stainless steel. Capella’s mandate was to make the Mercado, which means, “market” in English, really feel like an authentic one, made by “different hands,” as Andrés said. The layout of the space reflects the irregular grid of a Spanish village, with a main square at the center.
With weeks to go until the opening, Andrés excitedly talks about the dishes he will be introducing when a construction worker in a New York Giants hard hat approaches and says, “Excuse me, I just want to recognize you as a freedom fighter.” The two share an embrace and the man goes back to work. Andrés continues his train of thought, reeling off Spanish home-cooked meals like rice, eggs, tomato sauce, and sausage or potatoes with green beans, olive oil, and salt. To drink, there will be beer, wine, sherry, and horchata, a sweet drink made from Tiger nuts. And, of course, there will be excellent Manchego cheese.
“This is my last gift to the country where I was born,” Andrés says. “If I do this one well and it succeeds, it is probably the last project I will ever work on.”
He is known for backing up his grand statements so. . . really?
“I told you what I told you,” Andrés says. “I have more people to feed in other parts of the world.”