“This is the part of the day most people don’t ever get to see,” says head chef Josh Hermias, as he ushers me into Minibar by José Andrés, the what-you-see-isn’t-always-what-you-get wonderland of molecular gastronomy and avant-garde cooking. It’s the shining crown jewel of the Spanish-born, James Beard Award-winning chef’s restaurant empire, which includes D.C. standard setters Jaleo, Zaytinya, and Oyamel, China Poblano in Las Vegas, Miami’s Bazaar Mar, and others.
On this late August afternoon, Minibar’s open kitchen, the counter surrounding it where will guests will sit that evening, and the semi-private dining area off to the side – dubbed José’s Table – are all ablaze with activity. (Not much can happen in the incredibly compact, unexposed back area of the restaurant, as there’s only room enough for a small counter, two ovens, an impressively tiny walk-in freezer, and the washing station). Approximately a dozen staffers are getting ready for tonight’s epic epicurean experience when 24 diners will enjoy a 26 to 28-course tasting menu. Hermias estimates it takes in excess of 140 man-hours just to make the six-hour dinner service happen. A crew of half a dozen begins working at 7AM; the last team member doesn’t go home until 3AM the following morning.
Clad in black aprons over white shirts, the cooks are currently prepping an array of components. Wending our way through the kitchen, we see chicken skins frying, chocolate eggshells being poured, and the legs of langoustines being snipped off with a small pair of scissors. One staffer shaves mounds of black truffles. Meanwhile, the orchids that decorate the space during dinner service rest in the window to get some light.
As we’re walking around, a cook presents Hermias and me with slices of super juicy watermelon to approve for use. The rosy wedges will be infused with tequila and Grand Marnier, and then served on a salt block. “It’s like a margarita,” says Hermias, who gives them the thumbs up, “but instead of a salted rim, your plate is the salt.”
A dry erase board catalogs all the work that needs to be done today: 30 marinated rabbits, 26 blowfish, 105 cauliflower leaves; the list goes on. A nearby chalkboard bears a quote from recently departed chef Michel Richard, “People love to get something that looks like one thing and tastes like something totally different. That’s truly magical.”