Q&A with Star Chef José Andrés
"I feel deeply driven to do what I can to provide aid and relief in the best way I can, as a chef."— José
Even if you haven't tried his food, you've likely heard of José Andrés. The Spain-born celebrity chef got his cooking cred by championing tapas to American diners—he now has 30-plus restaurants across the U.S.—but his reputation stretches far beyond the kitchen. His social media clout hits well over a million followers and fans include Reese Witherspoon, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and President Obama. He was invited to throw the first pitch at Game 5 of the 2019 World Series in his adopted hometown of Washington, D.C. (over another local, the current president of the United States). And he was nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
What landed him on that short list was World Central Kitchen, which Andrés founded in 2010 to provide food and aid to the people of Haiti following a devastating earthquake. In the decade since, the nonprofit has become a team of veritable first responders, touching down after disasters both natural and manmade, from the California wildfires to the migrant camps of the U.S.–Mexico border to Puerto Rico, where WCK served 3.7 million meals to those affected by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
For his efforts, Andrés was honored as Humanitarian of the Year at the 2018 James Beard Awards and named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People that same year, alongside that Nobel nomination. We talk to the chef and WCK executive director Nate Mook about their work and what comes next.
World Central Kitchen brings meals to those affected by disaster, most recently in the Bahamas. What made you want to get involved in relief efforts?
JA: It started with my parents, who were both nurses. They taught me from a young age the importance of thinking about the needs of others. Later on, I learned about the efforts of Clara Barton, who created the American Red Cross. Her life was dedicated to providing relief to wounded soldiers during the Civil War, and she began her work across the street from where I opened my first restaurant, Jaleo [in Washington, D.C.]. I feel deeply connected to her life's mission and driven to do what I can to provide aid and relief in the best way I can, as a chef.
Logistically, how does WCK’s disaster relief work?
NM: For the recent hurricane in the Bahamas, we had a small team of 5 to 10 people who we positioned before the storm in order to immediately spring into action after the hurricane hit. Different members of the team have different roles—some focus on kitchen operations, others on procuring food, others on delivery logistics. There are so many moving parts that we need a variety of expertise in order to get hot meals to people in need as quickly as possible. We had 100 people working on the relief effort in the Bahamas every day.
How do you think kitchen work translates to disaster relief?
NM: Chefs are trained to work in intense environments and to work with what we have. Our [WCK] chefs are able to adapt to new settings, different equipment, novel ingredients—that's so much of what being a chef is. Our chefs have worked in high-volume settings: convention centers, large restaurants. But nothing can truly prepare you for cooking after a disaster, so we are always training new chefs on the ground in disaster zones.
José, you’re well-known for championing the role of chefs in the global issues of hunger and food policy. Why was that important to you?
JA: It seems obvious that chefs should have a seat at the table when we're talking about hunger and food policy. We are experts with a specialized understanding about how the food system affects us, from agriculture to nutrition to politics. When there's a question of medicine, there are doctors in the room; when it's a legal issue, there's a lawyer present. Why would you not have chefs around when the question is food?
How do you juggle your work at WCK with running a restaurant empire?
JA: I am fortunate that I have been able to surround myself with the best people—line cooks, chefs, managers, bartenders, and beyond—to keep the restaurants moving, continuing to put out great food, making our guests happy. I have full faith that both my restaurant group and WCK will always be doing incredible work, whether or not I am there!
What is your hope for WCK?
JA: Every year, the disasters facing the globe are getting worse. Our goal is to be wherever we are needed, to feed those affected as quickly as we can. We recently launched a Climate Disaster Fund, raising $50 million in order to be well-positioned to respond when there is need. As John Steinbeck wrote, 'Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there.'