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Associated Press
In this Oct. 13, 2010 file photo, Spanish chef Jose Andres takes part in a news conference in New York. The Spanish government is awarding Andres its Order of Arts and Letters medal for enhancing and sharing the best of Spain with the world. He is the first chef to win the award after architects, linguists and those who have preserved Spanish art.

WASHINGTON — Spain is awarding one of its highest culture honors to a chef who made his name with restaurants in the United States.

The Spanish cabinet agreed Friday to award U.S. restaurateur Jose Andres the Order of Arts and Letters medallion, according to Spain's Embassy in Washington. It's the first time the prize, created in 2008, has gone to a chef. Andres, 41, joins the ranks of top artists, linguists and architects recognized for their contributions to the country.

Andres, who grew up near Barcelona, has built a small food empire in Washington and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs that is extending to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. His eatery Jaleo, created in 1993, is credited with popularizing small dishes, known as Spanish tapas, in the United States. His more recent restaurants explore other cultures as well.

Andres said chefs are more popular than ever, thanks to TV. He hosts the PBS series "Made in Spain" and beat Bobby Flay on TV's "Iron Chef."

On Spanish television he hosts "Vamos a Cocinar," which airs across Latin America.

"Still, we've never been really part of the cultural world," such as art and literature, Andres said. "I don't even see this as an award to myself but as (recognition) our culinary world can contribute to the culture of the world."

Spain also will award the medal to New York City psychiatrist Luis R. Marcos for his study of bilingual mentally ill people and to journalist and writer Barbara Probst Solomon at a ceremony in New York on Nov. 30.

Past honorees include Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, Chinese translator Dong Yansheng, singer Joan Baez and the International Committee for Salvaging Spanish Art Treasures during the Civil War.

Guillermo Corral, cultural counselor of the Spanish Embassy, said Andres' contributions through food were clear.

"He has completely changed the image of Spanish cuisine in the U.S.," Corral said.

Andres has engaged with the art world as well, creating menus for Washington's museums and theaters. Andres said he has an "artistic heart" when it comes to food.

"I don't open restaurants to make money," he said. "I open restaurants to tell a story."

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His newest creation — called China Poblano, with a fusion of Chinese and Mexican tastes — is slated to open next month with a dash of history at the $3.9 billion Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas hotel-casino resort.

Andres said the idea came when he was thinking of the Pacific Ocean shipping routes that King Philip II of Spain created in the mid-15th century to carry riches from Asia to Mexico and then on to Europe.

"I'm kind of telling that story of that moment that maybe parts of China and Mexico were mixed," he said, calling the eatery an "homage to that moment in time."