Puerto Rico’s most celebrated chef, Jose Enrique Montes, has been on the front line of the island’s relief efforts following 2017’s Hurricane Maria. A finalist for a James Beard Award for five years in a row, Jose Enrique started providing food for the hungry masses immediately after Maria’s wrath ripped through Puerto Rico, opening his namesake restaurant’s doors in Santurce, San Juan, to the community.
A few days later, he was cooking alongside José Andrés, the celebrity chef behind World Central Kitchen, a disaster response non-profit that unites chefs with communities in need.
Marriott TRAVELER Español caught up with Jose Enrique to find out how he got started as a chef, what it was like to help feed Puerto Rico post-Maria, the one dish he can’t take off his menu, and more.
[NOTE: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.]
What inspired you to become a chef?
I loved to debate. I figured I could be a lawyer or something. Right after high school I went into college, and after two months, I was done. I had always loved cooking. Just the feeling of what cooking is and food reminds me of … it’s my family. It’s hospitality.
As a kid I would run into the kitchen and my grandma would be cooking, and she would sit me up on a little half-ladder, so I could see what she was doing. My uncle would come in and taste something, and she would say, “It’s not ready!” Everybody together having fun— that’s what cooking reminded me of. And that’s something I could do.
Did you have any favorite foods that influenced what you have at your restaurant?
I have rice and beans on the menu, and that’s something I would have since I was a child. It’s a staple, and I eat rice and beans almost every day. What I’ve done maybe which is a bit different is the flavors that I’ve known since I was a kid I’ve passed on to ice creams. I make my own ice creams here.
What are some of those flavors?
When I was a kid you had sesame lollipops. And that’s something I’ve translated into sesame ice cream. I would eat guavas a lot when I was a kid, so now it’s guava ice cream and guava sorbet. I mess around with all these flavors a lot.
Do you have a signature dish?
The one thing I can’t take off the menu? It’s a whole de-boned snapper, and a sherbet over mashed batata, which is like a yellow sweet potato, with a papaya and avocado mojo over the top. So like a little salsa of avocado, papaya, cilantro, red onion, tomato, tons of limes, and that goes over the top of the fried fish.
You’re known as a champion of local food. How much of your food is local? How has getting local food been challenging, especially after Maria?
When I started 11 years ago, most of my menu was imported because I had come from working in the States. Even though I have a market next to me, I would still have to get a lot of imported things. Through the years, that percentage has been changing.
If you pick a tomato today, and you pick it in your yard, then go to your kitchen, slice it, put salt on it, and eat it, it’s going to be amazing, right? Let’s say you pick that same tomato three days ago. It’s not going to be the same.
I’m saying tomato as an example, but it could be anything. So, for me here, that’s what I am looking for. I’m looking for arugula that was cut today. It’s beautiful. It’s going to be harder for me to chase it down. But once I have it here, it makes my life 10 times easier, because it just tastes 10 times better.
Any local fish that I can get, I’m going to grab it. I filet it. I put it on the menu. Ten minutes later, you’re ordering it. That freshness is what really pushes me to make the menu full of more local food.
Before Maria, some days I was up to 65-75% of the menu being local. It makes you cry, “Wow. We’ve done this.” After Maria, it got tough again. Most of the crops just flew away with her.
Last Friday we had local plantains, but right now they’re from Ecuador. Right after Maria, obviously the percentage of local food on my menu went down—20% local or maybe less, 10%, and then now, like right now today, I’m like at 50%. Which is beautiful.
World Central Kitchen has served over 3.6 million meals in Puerto Rico post-Maria. What was it like to get that first call from José Andrés?
Right after Maria, I had no power, but I had gas. And I had a couple things left inside the restaurant, and from what I could gather, I started making sancocho, a local stew, a blend of roots and tubers with chunks of beef and chorizo or any sausage you can find.
I reached out to all my friends — “Listen, I’m here, we’re here.” And they ended up coming here, and I started feeding people. I was on my second, third day, and I got a call from José Andrés. He tells me, “I’m going to be in your restaurant tomorrow night. Be ready.” All right, Chef.
He just came in and it was amazing to learn from him, the way he worked—he picked up the phone, started ordering massive amounts of food. I found a generator, and I started turning on all my fridges. And he started just pumping out food. He got a refrigerated truck. It was just crazy, and I’m like, what are we doing with all this food? He tells me, “Don’t worry, people need it.”
From there, it grew to hospitals to elderly homes to communities in need of food, and we were just giving it away or they would come and pick it up. Or José got in contact with food trucks, and they started delivering food. It just grew and grew and grew. It was beautiful.
Has your attitude about being a chef and the power of food changed?
You know, it has changed. I think mainly because in those times you realize food is something that you almost take for granted. Especially, when it’s hard for me to find food and trying to feed people that are hungry.
People coming up to your door saying, “Hey, Jose. How are you doing? Listen, I’m hungry. I don’t have food. I don’t have food for my child, and my wife is pregnant.” It’s heavy having your neighbors come in and say, “Is there anything I can eat right now?”
I remember when the news came out that World Kitchen fed more people in Puerto Rico than the Red Cross. That was a powerful moment to realize that chefs coming together had the power to help people so dramatically.
Yes, there was so much red tape. Can we just get rid of this red tape? Because people are starving. There’s people who are hungry, and there’s people who are thirsty, and I’m looking at 100 cases of water and I have the access of giving people who need that water, but you can’t give me those 100 cases because it needs to be documented.
It becomes, “No, I need food here now, and there’s people hungry now. We can’t wait.”