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One afternoon in the Bahamas, storm clouds patrolled the horizon and a breeze stirred the turquoise water into a chop. I bobbed at the surface in scuba gear, peering down through my mask, watching as an unusual predator glided along the reef, yellow-finned and wielding a spear. It was chef José Andrés, and he was out for lionfish.
Extravagantly striped and frilled with venomous spines, lionfish are familiar denizens of saltwater aquariums that have become an invasive plague on Caribbean reefs and across the Eastern seaboard. No one knows exactly how the fish, native to the Indo-Pacific, first came to these waters—the leading theory is that some were carelessly released by aquarists beginning in the 1980s—but once established, they began growing and reproducing and gobbling down other species at a fantastic rate, drastically unbalancing sensitive coral ecosystems. “In their stomach,” Andrés said, “you’re gonna find baby lobsters, baby crabs, little octopuses. They eat everything. They are my type of people.”
Not only do lionfish eat basically everything they can, causing up to a 79 percent reduction in how much native fish survive to adulthood, but each female can release more than 2 million eggs a year, which drift long distances on ocean currents before hatching. Lionfish now range from Venezuela to Belize to Rhode Island. In the Bahamas, recorded populations have reached hundreds of fish per acre.
Studies have shown that recreational spearfishing derbies and persistent hunting can control lionfish numbers and reduce their harm. Andrés and other ecologically minded chefs are trying to expand the market for lionfish by getting people excited about eating them and dispelling the misconception that, because of their stinging spines, their mild, flaky white meat is poisonous. “They are super delicious,” Andrés says. “Fried, they are great. In a stew with potatoes, they are my favorite.” Lionfish is officially on the menu.
From our dive spot, the turreted pink towers of the Atlantis megaresort were visible in the distance. Its luxury enclave, the Cove, is home to Fish by José Andrés, the 31st entry on his roster of restaurants, which run the gamut from Washington, D.C.’s avant-garde, Michelin two-star Minibar to food trucks peddling sandwiches. Fish’s signature offering? Locally speared, whole-fried lionfish, stripped of its spines but with showy tail intact, accompanied by tartar sauce and lemon wedges, with a share of the proceeds to benefit the Blue Project Foundation, Atlantis’s ocean-and-reef-conservation nonprofit. Andrés has also served lionfish at restaurants in D.C. and Miami, and he’s not alone in seeing the potential: Whole Foods sells the fish in Florida.
On the boat ride out from the marina, Andrés had been quiet, a little grumpy. He set up his dive rig and then stood staring at the wake, his back to the entourage he didn’t particularly want: handlers and PR reps, a camera crew, a local spearfisherman known as Captain Allan, and me, his interviewer and dive companion. Tentatively, I sidled up and shouted a question over the engine noise. How had he gotten into diving?
Andrés fixed me with his appraising, bright blue gaze. He has the vibe of a benevolent Tony Soprano: authoritative and watchful, with a physical burliness that can seem swaggering one moment and self-protective the next. But he can be gregarious, too, and emits, in flashes, a bon vivant’s bottomless gusto for enjoyment. “I always wanted to do it,” he said, “but it was something I didn’t have time for. Everything I do, I do very intensely.” When the timing was finally right, he got started in the Cayman Islands and is now a certified advanced open water diver. “It’s a good thing to do with friends,” he added a little wistfully, alluding to the absence of such people on our crowded boat.
But Andrés is at least as famous for his generous spirit as he is for small plates and frothy Salt Air margaritas, and he is never without friends for long. When I’d dallied too long at the surface, he swam up and signaled for me to descend. As we dropped toward the seafloor, he busied himself tightening the straps of my buoyancy vest and reminding me to equalize my ears, repeatedly asking, via sign language, if I was okay.
This was kindness on a smaller scale than, say, the more than 3.6 million hot meals Andrés and his non-profit World Central Kitchen have distributed in Puerto Rico since the devastation of Hurricane Maria, or the ongoing poverty-fighting programs—all centered on food—that he’s established in places as far-flung as Haiti, Zambia, and Nicaragua. Nevertheless, he’d noticed an opportunity to help and did just that.
I’m okay, I signed back. Not everyone gets to have her gear adjusted by the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 Humanitarian of the Year and one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. “If you know and you don’t do anything, then you don’t really care,” he said later of his philanthropic work.
Once down to the reef, we turned our attention to our mutual enemy, the lionfish. Captain Allan, diving in plaid shorts and a white cotton undershirt, clicked his two spears together to get my attention and pointed at a mass of stripes and frills. The lionfish was barely moving and almost comically elaborate, like a regular fish that had been partially put through a paper shredder. Nervously, I pulled taut the rubber band that would launch my spear, took aim, and shot. The three prongs harmlessly brushed the lionfish’s spines, and the animal barely had time to puff up in annoyance before Captain Allan dispatched it with a few quick jabs from above.
That was my one (whiffed) shot, but Andrés, too, came up empty-pronged. In nearly an hour of bottom time, our little pack of hunters spotted only two lionfish, and Captain Allan got them both. There simply weren’t many around, which was a good sign for the reef.
As the boat turned for home, the lionfish went on ice, bound for the restaurant. I asked Andrés if, when he’d started out as a teenage cook in the Spanish navy, he ever thought food would lead to activism.“Everything that everybody does in life is activism,” he said. “You wake up in the morning and you walk to your local bakery to buy something—that’s a form of activism.
It might seem uneventful, but you are actively deciding that you want to support a bakery, that you like the bread, and you want more and more businesses like that. So everything is activism. You vote with your plate. Even if you are not aware, you are voting with your choices.” Order lionfish, in other words, and you are casting a vote for native species, for reef health, for diversification of menus. He hastened to point out that his own choices were far from perfect and expressed discomfort with the amount of praise he’s been getting lately. “I always say I am a sinner. I’m not the most local guy, but I am very outspoken about local. I’m not the most seasonal guy, but I am very outspoken about seasonal. What happens is, I try to be more pragmatic.”
Pragmatism, to an extent, is unavoidable when one is the proprietor of more than 30 restaurants. After pointing out that he can more easily get tuna from Japan than lionfish from local waters, he said, “Everything has a value. Everything has to find its price—what people are willing to work for, what people are willing to pay for—and the restaurant is in between. They have to make money. The processes are complicated.”
But the hope is that Andrés’s high-end example will spur a broader demand and expand Bahamian cuisine beyond conch, which has been depleted by overfishing. “If you can be activating local scuba divers and fishermen,” he said, “when other seasons end, they can change focus. It’s got to be a good thing for the reef.”
Back at the marina, Andrés waved in my direction and made a general announcement: “She is my friend now.” He wanted to know if I was hungry, if I wanted a cocktail. As we walked the long way back through Atlantis, Andrés—in board shorts and Birkenstocks, a green scarf knotted around his neck––plied me with conch salad, a rumrunner, and a sample of Tortuga rum cake plucked from a kiosk. Rain showers came and went, and here and there we paused to admire Atlantis’s aquatic habitats. (“So majestic,” Andrés said with a soft Spanish accent, as he watched a manta ray.) He said there would be a rainbow, and, soon after, one appeared, as though the sky itself were saying “Yes, chef.”
As we contemplated sea turtles swimming around a shallow pool, I asked what was next for him. He gave a one-shouldered shrug. “I don’t fight life. I follow life,” he said, and walked on.
The morning after a glitzy dinner at Fish for local luminaries, I ran into Andrés at the Nassau airport. It was very early, and he was carrying a Starbucks tray crammed with five cups. “What are you drinking?” he asked. Nudging the tray in my direction, he answered his own question. “Cappuccino.”
Taking one, I asked whom the others were for.
“I don’t know. The crew. Whoever.” He laughed, sheepish. People he’d never met might want coffee, and he was ready to help. As I boarded the flight, I passed him in his window seat, still with a lapful of caffeine. “Have another!” he commanded. I was his friend, I was clearly still sleepy, and he was going to fix this situation. Who am I not to follow life? I took another.
José Andrés is a partner of the The American Express® Global Dining Collection which is a benefit for Platinum Card® Members offering special access to reservations and experiences with some of your favorite chefs. To learn more, visit americanexpress.com/globaldiningcollection Terms apply.