"I don't want to be like, 'I have to do only Puerto Rican food.' I'll do whatever I want," says Jose Enrique.
That's not to say that you won't find distinctly Puerto Rican dishes like rice and beans, tostones (fried plantains) and "Grandma-style" beef stew at his eponymous San Juan restaurant. But Enrique refines them, often with nontraditional techniques.
"I mess around with the components and the textures, but the flavor profile stays the same," says Enrique, a 2013 Food & Wine Best New Chef whose fourth restaurant at the El Blok hotel in Vieques is slated to open this spring. "It's a way of updating things."
Consider his fiery hot sauce (see the recipe). Instead of fermenting the chiles in water, Enrique confits a mix of sweet and hot peppers (Cubanelle, habanero and Serrano) for hours in olive oil with fresh tomatoes, onions and garlic. Then he purées them with reserved oil.
"You actually get two different sauces in one," says Enrique. "When you pour it out, it'll separate a bit. The oil won't have that salt or that sweetness. It'll be more heat."
"But when you go for that vegetable purée it'll contain all that sweetness," he adds. "You can go back and forth, and it's just beautiful." So beautiful, in fact, that Enrique suggests pouring a pool of the stuff directly onto a cutting board and sopping it up with a hunk of crusty bread he then sprinkles with crumbly queso del país, a fresh country cheese.
"I don't need all these glitzy, glammy things. This sauce is really old school, and it's just done right," says Enrique. "Sometimes that's all you need."