If all José Andrés ever accomplished in his life was notoriety for introducing tapas to Americans, building a restaurant empire and having multiple culinary awards, his legacy as an innovative chef would be assured. But over the past few years, Andrés has transcended his professional achievements to become an outspoken advocate and humanitarian, exemplified in his leadership in mobilizing relief efforts in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria through his nonprofit, World Central Kitchen. Founded in 2010 following the earthquake in Haiti, World Central Kitchen brings together chefs and other professionals in the food service industry to develop solutions to combat hunger due to natural disasters and poverty. During the year that Andrés and World Central Kitchen were in Puerto Rico, 100,000 meals per day were served to the locals.
I had the good fortune to attend a conversation between Andrés with Washington Post food writer Tim Carman on his experience in Puerto Rico as chronicled in his new book, “We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time,” co-written with Richard Wolffe. During the evening, Andrés shared his thoughts on how relief efforts could be improved. His motto for dealing with the situation in Puerto Rico as in life, “embrace complexity with simple solutions.”
- Leverage local resources. The first question Andrés is always asked, “How did you manage to bring in so much food so rapidly to Puerto Rico?” The answer is he didn’t. Instead he went to the largest food supplier on the island, who happened to hail from the same town in Spain as Andrés did, and purchased food supplies through a line of credit. Andrés also made use of any facility with a kitchen, be it a restaurant, stadium, church or school cafeteria. “If there was a kitchen, we had a restaurant.” Andrés noted that there were six functioning bakeries on the island. Instead of waiting for bread to be delivered, the bakery provided freshly baked bread used in the sandwiches that volunteers assembled.
- Bribe people. Gas and diesel fuel were in short supply and in big demand in the days following Maria. In order to prepare meals, Andrés, in his words, “bribed” people with food in exchange for fuel to cook and distribute the food.
- Get rid of MREs (Meal, Ready-to-eat). According to Andrés, “the classic MREs are useless” in feeding the masses during a prolonged relief effort. The reason? MREs do not meet the nutritional needs across the entire populations. Andrés offered the elderly as an example of a group that should not consume MREs for long stretch of time stating that a diet of MREs would put “there lives in danger.” Cooking fresh meals is what’s best, more nutritious for the population.
- Do not let relief efforts get bogged down by bureaucracy at the government or NGO level. Andrés observed that NGOs tend to manage by committee, meaning that no one person is ever in charge. Andrés’ solution? To appoint a leader and empower people to develop and implement solutions. Also, Andrés expressed his disappointment that FEMA adhered to its burcratic process of having relief workers participate in a contract bid, delaying the distribution of food, water and other life-sustaing resources. “’Emergency’ should not be in the name of the government agency if it’s not going to react to and emergency situation,” observed Andrés.
- Call on private business to partner on a solution. Andrés commended local Virginia-based food supplier, Cuisine Solutions, for contributing sous vide-prepped meats to the relief efforts in Puerto Rico.
Andrés also had strong opinions on what makes a leader, dispensing advice that seemed directed at our current U.S. president with whom Andrés had a falling out during the presidential campaign in 2016. According to Andrés, a leader is someone who is there “to serve his people.”
“Fifty-one percent of leadership is empathy,” observed Andrés. “If you don’t have empathy, you can’t be a leader.”
Noting that President Trump had given himself and his administration a 10 on how relief efforts were handled in Puerto Rico, Andrés humbly stated that he rates himself a five for only feeding 100,000 per day.
“Had I fed the millions of people per I had hoped to, then I would have earned a 10,” reflects Andrés. “Instead I give myself a five because I fell short of that.” In total, Andrés
As a U.S. citizen for the past five years, Andrés commented that he had never been prouder to be an American or of the American people.
“I saw the best of the America I love in Puerto Rico,” said Andrés. “I believe in America more than ever because I saw how America is full of wonderful people.”
For more on Andrés and the efforts of World Central Kitchen in mobilizing relief for Puerto Rico, read We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time. Proceeds from his book will go towards his nonprofit, World Central Kitchen.