Road Trip Through Southern Spain with José Andrés, Eric Ripert and Diego Luna
A French chef, a Mexican actor and a Spanish force of nature walk into a bar.
A kitchen, actually, a shoe-box space tucked into the back of Venta El Toro, a rural bar in the white hills of Andalusia, where Maruja Gallardo suddenly contends with eight strangers huddled around, cheek by jowl, watching her fry eggs. But these aren’t any eggs: slow-cooked in olive oil, more poached than fried, with buttery whites and yolks that melt like a Spanish sunset. Gallardo perches them atop a nest of fried potatoes goosed with all manner of pig: frizzled pieces of blood sausage, browned lobes of liver, stewed shoulder and burgundy ribbons of Ibérico ham that sweats its acorn-sweet fat onto the heap.
And these aren’t just any strangers crowded into this kitchen. Among them: Diego Luna, the Mexican actor behind the coming-of-age masterpiece Y Tu Mamá También, who played, more recently, the dashing fighter pilot in Star Wars: Rogue One; Rupert Friend, the British-born actor best known for his stirring turn as CIA agent Peter Quinn on Homeland; and Eric Ripert, the revered chef of Michelin three-star temple Le Bernardin in Manhattan.
Check out the full menu from their travels here: 12 Essential Recipes from Southern Spain
There’s only one person capable of uniting these disparate forces around a single pan of sputtering eggs: José Andrés, the hard-charging captain of 27 restaurants around the world, he of golden heart and iron appetite and boundless love for all things Iberian. Born in Asturias and raised near Barcelona, José had to go to America to fall in love with Andalusia. In 1993, on the dance floor of Washington, DC’s Café Atlántico, he met his wife-to-be Patricia, a native of Algeciras. Since then, they’ve spent their summers on the Costa de la Luz, eating and drinking and sharing their slice of southern Spain with friends and family.
So while this group may seem unlikely to you and me, to José, it’s just another step in a lifelong journey to show the world why Spain matters. In his mind, the more unlikely the group, the deeper his efforts to spread the gospel of España will penetrate. In the years I’ve known him, we’ve butchered pigs in Salamanca, made cider in Asturias and thrown snail feasts in the Catalan countryside—but it’s the south of Spain that continues to tractor-beam him back.
Andalusia is the second-largest and most populous of Spain’s 17 regions, with a diversity of terrain (snow-topped sierras, high-mountain desert, retirement-worthy coastline) that creates a complex ecosystem of microcuisines that would take a lifetime to fully appreciate. If you’ve traveled to this part of Spain, it’s likely been to Seville or Granada, staggeringly beautiful cities, but José’s interest lies in the lesser-traveled areas beyond the tourist track, places where he can eat and drink away the days wandering from one perfect little tapas bar to another.
The idea started simply: José and a couple of pals on a trip showing off the best of Andalusia’s less well-known corners. But José can’t be limited to three amigos, or five, or fifty. Everywhere he turns he finds friends, lifelong or just made, people who want to be swept up in his slipstream, and he wants them, too, whether they make blockbuster movies about world-destroying superweapons or flamenco music outside the village watering hole. And so it is we find ourselves elbow to elbow in a tiny kitchen with actors and chefs and writers, making egg after magical egg disappear.
But this journey doesn’t begin with an egg. It starts with a chicken—a rotisserie chicken from El Asador de Nati in Córdoba, where José and I stop to fuel up for the long journey ahead. Nati, one of many traditional Spanish roast chicken spots, is special for so many reasons—for its stellar version of salmorejo, the thick, cold tomato soup that hails from Córdoba; for the bowls of braised oxtail that shreds into large, succulent strands; and, of course, for those gorgeous bronzed birds. But also because owners Paco and Nati Morales have a long legacy in Córdoba, not least the emergence of their son, also named Paco, as one of Spain’s brightest culinary stars.
A few miles down the road, the baby-faced younger Morales runs one of Andalusia’s most exciting restaurants, the Michelin-starred Noor, a tribute to the food and traditions of Al-Andalus, the Islamic empire of the Middle Ages that made Córdoba its capital. From the geometric, medina-like design to dishes that seamlessly balance ancient flavors and modernist techniques, Noor celebrates the sensuality of Andalusia—the patterned tiles, the voluptuous curves, the notes of cinnamon, the stain of saffron. Wandering the narrow ivory corridors of Córdoba, we step into tapas bars for wedges of crispy-sweet baby romaine bathed in garlic-infused olive oil and half-moons of custardy fried eggplant drizzled in dark honey.
Properly fortified, José and I push south to rendezvous with the rest of the crew who have just flown in for the main course—a full-throttle 72-hour feast in and around Cádiz, the southwest corner of Spain that may be the country’s most underappreciated destination. Chief among the Cádiz jewels is Sanlúcar de Barrameda, a sun-drunk town teeming with sherry bodegas and exceptional seafood-centric tapas bars. At Casa Bigote, we belly up to a long bar and drink manzanilla and eat plates of slow-simmered squid and the crispy » fried fish known as pescaíto. Diego and Eric, fresh off red-eye flights across the Atlantic, attack the spread with gusto. “I’ll follow José anywhere,” says Diego. “But I’m glad he took us here.”
We head upstairs to Bigote’s more formal restaurant, picking up another three friends on the 45-second walk from bar to dining room, where José presides over every detail of a four-hour lunch down to the peeling of the langoustines: “Start with the head, then gently remove the feet and the tail. Now suck out the brains and eat that with the sweet flesh.” (Traveling with José means surrendering a voice in virtually every decision, from radio station to crustacean extraction.) Afterward we eat white shrimp carpaccio, a rack of roast tuna ribs, salt-roasted collar of sea bream. This is a hint at what’s to come: an endless barrage of superlative seafood.
Casa Balbino may be the most quintessentially Spanish bar in all of Spain: black-and white bullfighting photos, surly bartenders, tiny waxy napkins, glasses of gazpacho dispensed from a slushy machine. Above all, Balbino pays grand tribute to the Cádiz area’s greatest food legacy: the art of frying. We eat a bit of everything, most of it coated in flour and fried in olive oil: custardy sea anemones, crispy chunks of dogfish marinated in vinegar and cumin, a whole fried lobster. But the star of Casa Balbino, the dish that keeps José awake at night when he’s back home in Bethesda, Maryland, is the tortillita de camarones: tiny white shrimp encased in a lacy, greaseless batter that nearly levitates off the bar but packs a punch of the sea. Diego’s so excited by the scene that he FaceTimes his kids in Mexico City. José follows suit with his wife: “I promise you we’re not having that much fun.”
Just after 1 a.m., we settle onto stools at Bar Conejo for a nightcap: bowls of garlic-bombed snails washed down with rum. A night of serious eating and drinking has the conversation flowing freely, and Diego succumbs to our requests for Star Wars scoop: “I figured the director would make me speak with an American accent, but in the end, he let me speak English the way that I speak it.” Later, we wobble our way back to the hotel, leaving a trail of cigar smoke in our wake.
The next day, as we head to the restaurant Aponiente in El Puerto de Santa María, we’re worse for wear, but eager to meet Ángel León, whom the Spanish press call Chef del Mar because he’s turned an old grain mill into a sea-powered laboratory. There, he fashions cured “meats” from seafood, detonates dishes with depth charges of iodine and phytoplankton, and reimagines classics like duck à la presse with creatures from the sea. After 20 courses of aquatic innovation, we land upstairs in the restaurant’s R&D room, where León presents us with glasses of melon juice and kills the lights. In the darkness, the juice sparkles green-blue with bioluminescence. “It took us five years to learn how to capture the light of the sea, and we finally found the secret: crab dust.” We drink to the chef, to the sea, to José’s ever-expanding crew.
After two days of deep dives into the ocean treasures of Cádiz, the team looks a bit shipwrecked. Even Eric, Poseidon of the kitchen, pleads for a break. We pack into our little red Alfa Romeo, bodies buzzing with plankton and crab light, and move inland, to Vejer de la Frontera, one of the so-called pueblos blancos—white towns—of Spain. We stop at roadside restaurants to eat slices of pork cooked in its own paprika-spiked fat. We devour those magical eggs. We wander the cobblestoned corridors of this hilltop village, drinking sherry and eating cured meat off every available surface.
José takes us to Castillería, down a quiet road in the shadow of Vejer, set in an open-air oasis. This is Juan Valdés’s ambitious meat-centric restaurant, based on animals he chooses himself from farms around the country. José orders the full menu, from lightly aged grass-fed beef from Galicia to a nine-year-old Portuguese ox aged until its funk hints at Cabrales cheese. At one point, somewhere between the fifth and sixth steak, the amigos nervously lock eyes, wondering how we’ll survive all this food—as the chef, too busy slicing meat to notice, rains coarse crystals down on the next slab like a Spanish Salt Bae. A bottle of 2004 Vega Sicilia Unico, one of Spain’s most powerful wines, calms any concerns about the current binge.
Our meat-and-potatoes adventures prove nothing but a bridge between one watery exploit and the next. For our last push, we relocate to the coast, to Zahara de los Atunes, where José and his family spend every summer, staying at Antonio Hoteles. We set up shop at the hotel’s Restaurante Antonio, where José may as well be the proprietor, given the way he moves from kitchen to bar to dining room, shaking hands and kissing babies.
He sets to work on a dinner that showcases the full spectrum of Spain’s love of the sea: dominoes of raw, fat-rippled tuna belly caught a few hundred yards from our table; crispy fried red mullet; and a salt-baked sea bream served with nothing but an emerald drizzle of spicy virgin oil.
As the plates pile up, I’m waiting to see who will be the first to crack—which of these big shots will wave the white napkin of surrender and beg José for a Pepto-Bismol and a bed. But it never happens. Eric smokes Cohibas and sips rum and talks about his Buddhist leanings. Rupert devours everything José puts in front of him and muses about his post-Homeland future. (Next up, he’ll appear in the movie The Death of Stalin.) Diego, who never met a food topic he didn’t want to discuss, is all-in from start to finish: every bite, every sip, every meandering midnight conversation.
On our last evening together, José takes us on a hike up a bluff pinched between two perfect beaches, to the foot of the Zahara lighthouse. Off in the distance, the white hills of Tangier mark the entrance to Africa. He’s come prepared: a cooler filled with ice and tonic, a bottle of gin, a wicked smile. He rubs the glasses with lemon peel, drops in a few green buds of wild juniper he picked on the path down. “Don’t worry—only slightly poisonous,” he says with a wink and a cheers.
Rupert jumps from rock to rock, hopscotching toward the setting sun. Diego takes a panorama shot, smiling and shaking his head, stunned by the trail of sardine bones and fino bottles we’ve left in our wake. “How did we survive?” he asks.
Squinting into the amber light, we spot the house Eric wants to rent next summer. One by one, the questions disappear, the discussions drift off, the stories fade, and for the first time in three days, we sit in silence, the only sound the whip of the wind and the song of the sea, each of us lost in the thought of what it’d be like to have one more day together in this glorious place.
Finally, José breaks the silence. “So guys, next year Asturias?”
Check out the full menu from their travels here: 12 Essential Recipes from Southern Spain