Chef Andrés brought his skills as a chef and inspired together to feed the people of Puerto Rico in their greatest time of need.
Back in Week 21 I wrote about Fred Rogers and his advice to “Look for the helpers.” And when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, in September, it became all too clear that some very special helpers would be required to respond to tremendous and unprecedented needs.
Enter Chef Jose Andrés, world-renowned restaurateur and hero-in-waiting. As politics and bad management hindered progress on the island, the Chef and his troop of workers swept in and did what they do best. Feed the hungry.
Although to the rest of us he seems like a natural at all this, he didn’t start out as a philanthropist. By 2011, Chef Andrés had earned a top reputation for his signature minibar and é restaurants in Washington DC and Las Vegas, as well as for a string of eateries (everything from steakhouses and seafood to casual dining and Spanish fare) across the US. He served as Dean of Spanish Studies at the International Culinary Center and taught a course in how food shapes civilization at George Washington University-–the school would have him as commencement speaker and award him an honorary doctorate degree in public service.
His first big foray into disaster relief came in that year, when he created World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit association of chefs set up to help Haiti recover from the earthquake that killed more than 220,000 of its people. After getting nutritious meals to the most needy, he went beyond the basics and educated Haitians about things like clean cooking fuels that don’t harm the environment.
The experience gave him some preparation on how to handle challenges. He arrived in Puerto Rico on September 25, 2017, just five days after Maria hit, devastating the island and wiping out access to food and water for many. He quickly learned that there was no one in charge and took $10,000 of his own money, as well as credit cards, to get the balls rolling. Soon Chef Andrés was feeding 50,000 people a day; FEMA, whose response to the crisis has been questionable, gave him money to prepare 20,000 meals over a week’s time, and a second contract for two weeks, before declaring they couldn’t give more.
Andrés would grow publicly frustrated with the bureaucracy and lack of urgency he faced from FEMA, but even as the agency pushed back on the criticism, he and his team continued their work. In fact, they delivered more meals than the experienced relief organizations—by opening bottlenecks they were able to get supplies to where they were most needed.
There would be no skimping on the meals they cooked. In an interview with 60 Minutes, he noted the difference between providing packaged MREs and fresh food:
“Americans should be receiving one plate a day of hot food. That’s not too much to ask in America. An MRE is very expensive for the American taxpayer. A hot meal is more affordable, it’s cheaper. It’s what people really need, it’s what people really want. They feel all of a sudden that you are caring for them, that America is caring for them.”
This notion of food not just as nourishment, but as a symbol of commitment, shines through Chef Andrés’ work. At the peak of the crisis he ran 18 kitchens across the island, leading his team in the effort to get meals to every resident he could reach.
He reminded interviewers more than once that those being helped were not just our neighbors—they are, in fact, U.S. citizens who deserve the full support of their country. And so he returned with World Central Kitchen in November for that most American of holidays to serve Thanksgiving meals to 40,000 people, including volunteers who have worked tirelessly since the storm.
Like many of the best Inspirers, Chef Andrés is quite effective in balancing his roles as a master organizer and eloquent spokesman with his job as a cook. He can talk inventory and supplies, then switch effortlessly to nutrition and human dignity. His hands are capable, his spirit seemingly ready for any challenge.
In a world where news—even the most tragic sort—is only relevant until the next headline, it is all too easy to lose track of stories and suffering. It’s tempting to remain wrapped in our own lives and challenges, with the presumption that surely, someone else will step in to help.
And so we count on those better angels among us to keep us engaged and be a voice for those without one. We look to the leaders who see a problem and move quickly to address it. Although not all of us have the expertise to make soup for a thousand, heroes like José Andrés can inspire us to dust off our own gifts and put them to good use.