We’ve been spending our second annual Fantasy Travel Week speaking to chefs about where they dream of traveling this year — as in, which beaches they plan to visit during the cold months of winter. But what if a chef lives just mere minutes from some of the world’s most beautiful beaches? Chef José Enrique has been at the helm of his eponymous restaurant in San Juan, Puerto Rico since 2007. He plans to open up a second establishment — on the nearby, picturesque island of Vieques, a short plane ride away — next month. It’s certainly been a good life for the man who was just honored as a semifinalist for a James Beard Award (Best Chef: South) for the second consecutive year, becoming the first Puerto Rican chef to receive the prestigious nomination. He stopped by our offices to discuss the island’s blossoming dining scene and his upcoming travel plans.
Do you get mainly locals at your restaurant? Tourists?
It’s mainly locals. We get a lot of tourists as well, but since we’re really off the beaten path, we get mostly “foodies.” It’s great because it’s tourists who are interested in just sitting down and eating good food.
Your upcoming restaurant is certainly going to be “off the beaten path.” Who’s going to be eating there?
Over there, I think we will get more tourists. We’ll get a lot of people from New York, Washington D.C. and Boston during vacation seasons. As the season dies down, we’ll see a lot of Europeans.
Have you traveled anywhere lately for culinary inspiration?
I’ll go to places for two nights and just eat, eat, eat! This year I did a surf trip in Nicaragua, which quickly turned into an eating trip. You always see these little products that you take with you and use at home.
Do you make it to New York a lot?
I’ll go around six or seven times a year, just to eat.
Any Puerto Rican restaurants you can recommend in NYC?
I like La Taza De Oro in Chelsea.
Any restaurants in New York that have impressed you recently?
I like Pearl & Ash – good wine and great food. The night before that I went to All’onda, which rocked.
Where do you want to travel next for food?
That’s a huge question because I want to go everywhere! But right now, I really want to go to the Maldives. I’ve never been to that area, so hopefully it’s my next trip. I’m going to Medellín, Colombia at the end of this month – I’ve been to Bogota before and I think I had the best service of my life there.
What’s the dining scene like in Puerto Rico?
I think for a while, there was “really fine dining” and then “not at all.” It was either really high end or you were going in quickly and grabbing something to go. There was no middle ground. I think now there is a lot in the middle and that’s great. There are places that have the best of products, but without the poshness, and I like that a lot.
Is the country being recognized as a culinary destination?
Little by little, yes. The food in Puerto Rico is fun! You have coast all over the place, but you drive 20 minutes inland and suddenly you’re climbing up a mountain, with a different type of food. You’ll have roasted pork all over the place there, whereas on the coasts, you have fish everywhere.
What was it like to be recognized as Puerto Rico’s first-ever James Beard Award semifinalist?
It was ridiculous! I want people to come into my restaurant and be happy and comfortable. I never looked for anything like that, and it’s amazing to be recognized for something that you love doing. The awards help out the country itself a lot too, in terms of its gaining recognition.
Did more people start coming into the restaurant after that?
It did bring more tourists. But the locals are always there and have been since we opened.
You invited all of last year’s Food & Wine: Best New Chef recipients to Puerto Rico. What did you guys do there?
I wanted them to get a taste of San Juan. We did an event there and then I had a little party that night – my dad and I made a whole roasted pig at my house that had been killed that morning!
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