“It’s almost an unwritten arrangement between me and my wife. When she sees something happen, she packs my bag.” This is how chef José Andrés describes the beginning of his trip to Puerto Rico back in September 2017. The island had been battered by a Hurricane and his wife was waiting at home, “it’s the same small backpack every time I travel. I always dress the same way on these trips, in my fishing gear.”
Within hours of picking up the pack, Andrés was on a plane to the devasted Caribbean Island with a handful of dedicated staff from the World Central Kitchen: an NGO the chef started after the earthquake that smashed Haiti back in 2011. “We provide post-emergency relief,” he says, “going to poor countries and trying to bring food as an agent of change…. We partner with organizations already on the ground, we know what we want to do, we partner with their needs: we have bakeries, restaurants, schools. If you do a tour of all the projects we have, it’s fascinating.”
For Andrés, who describes himself as a “pragmatist,” the role of WCK is simple and his position always understated. He is a cook, he prefers this word over chef, and he is using his knowledge, his organizational prowess, his years of cooking technique and, perhaps most importantly, his role as a natural team builder and leader, to help feed people in need.
We saw the problem, what would happen if we would not act and what we could do if we did.
“Initially I got the best chefs of Puerto Rico helping but they had to take care of their businesses and their families, so I picked up the phone and I called cooks in America. I needed chefs with experience in high volume cooking, within 48 hours of making that phone call we had 12 people coming out to help.”
It’s a simple jigsaw for Andrés and one that he seems to enjoy piecing together. “There’s always a way,” he says, “I knew Puerto Rico was not going to be an issue. If I did not have electricity, I had to get generators. Did I know how to get generators? Yes! I knew I could get food. I knew I needed cooks, could I get cooks? Yes! I knew I needed to have distribution, did we have it? Initially no, but we found it.” Years of kitchen work has prepared him well for the constant checklist required on the ground."I guess I'm a good general," he says.
It's true. In Puerto Rico alone, Andrés and his NGO fed over 3 million meals. “I remember we reached 175,000 meals in one day,” he recalls, “with a crew close to 19,000 volunteers.” But it’s really not about the number for the chef, he doesn’t want to compete, he hates the comparison between his NGO’s actions and those of government organizations. It’s a simple pragmatic approach, “people were hungry and we knew how to fix that problem.” This is as deep as the issue needs to be for Andres. Basic humanity.
They formed an army of food trucks, opened 26 emergency kitchens serving 76 different municipalities and became the largest hot meal feeding operation on the island. They did this through catalyzing a local network of businesses, outside help from private companies, government partnerships and an army of volunteers. For Andrés, sitting at his computer flicking through pictures of the trip, it's all about connections with locals on the ground: the teenage boy he motivated to stay and help, "his father couldn't believe it, 'what did you say to him', he kept asking me." The young woman, herself shook by the loss on the island, who started handing out sandwiches and finished running her own kitchen. The army generals who rescued him and his crew when they got stuck in bad weather - "they were there for us because we were there for them".
We ignited the local economies, we began giving grants to local business that were helping us, we had 10 different food trucks that were working with us for more than 90 days, every day.
Andrés exemplifies the significant step outside the kitchen chefs have taken in the last few years, he is the 2018 James Beard Humanitarian of The Year, he was featured on Times 100 Most Influential List and, most recently, he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. He started back in 2011, a seed planter of the growing gang of chefs starting to have impacts well away from the plate.
For Andrés, it’s just cooking. The volume has changed, the location is different and the equipment is less shiny, but the act of hospitality, the beauty and nobility of nourishing, this remains the same. Wherever the location.
"The hardest part was leaving. I would live my whole life to do this. What’s beyond helping fellow humans? What is beyond that? That is my issue now."