Last September, Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico, catastrophically destroying all 3,515 square miles of land, leaving its victims without clean water, food, power and gas. Four days later José Andrés, James Beard award-winning chef, founder and chairman of World Central Kitchen, and owner of The Bazaar at SLS South Beach and Bazaar Mar at SLS Brickell, jumped into action the best way he knows how—with food. With Andrés' help, 100,000 meals a day and more than 3.6 million meals total, were cooked for those in need.
Extraordinarily inspired by the people of Puerto Rico and their incredible triumph, Andrés is launching a book, We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time. Annotating his meetings, messages, and conversations, and painting a portrait of how a network of community kitchens activated real change, Andrés writes, with co-author Richard Wolffe, of the power of hope, faith, courage, and strength in the face of disaster.
José, congratulations on your recent book release, We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time. Tell us about it!
JOSE ANDRES: Thanks! We Fed An Island is the story of how the people of Puerto Rico came together to feed themselves… it was truly one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. Thousands of volunteers worked with the #ChefsForPuertoRico team from World Central Kitchen and showed how strong the island is. It is really an incredible story, you have to read it!
As hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last fall, you arrived on the island four days later and fed victims in crisis. Paint us a picture of this experience.
JA: When we arrived on the island, it was like nothing I have ever seen before… the island was flattened by the hurricane. We were up against something very, very big—the ATMs were down, the grocery stores had no food, the lines for gas were impossible. But we started small, and within weeks we were cooking more than a hundred thousand meals a day. If you start small and act with the urgency of now, you can do big things.
What did you make for them?
JA: We made simple, comforting, warm meals—things like stews, rice dishes, vegetables. There is a classic Puerto Rican stew called Sancocho; we made many, many bowls of warm Sancocho!
What was your most memorable moment included in the book?
JA: One of my favorite stories is about Eliomar Santana, a pastor in a church in Naguabo, across the El Yunque rainforest from San Juan. He had come to us looking to volunteer, and even though he is not a chef, his community turned their church into a working kitchen. They were feeding homeless people, others who couldn’t access their SNAP benefits. It was really uplifting to see the work he was doing with his small community in the mountains.
What suggestions could you give to others who are looking to address crisis situations in the future?
JA: To me, I think one of the most important things for organizations getting involved in crisis situations is flexibility and an ability to adapt. There is too often so much red tape in the way that individuals within organizations aren’t able to change their thinking and act outside the box. Don’t take no for an answer—when you knock on the door and no one answers, knock down the door!
How was your passion to advocate for food and hunger initially sparked?
JA: My earliest memories of learning about the importance of volunteering and humanitarian work was from my parents, who were both nurses. They taught me so much about service, and the importance of giving to others at critical times. Later on when I moved to Washington, D.C., I met the amazing Robert Egger, who founded DC Central Kitchen. He helped me understand that food has the power to change the world.
Dedicating 2018 to the theme "RISE," how do you plan on changing the world and continuing to rise to the occasion in the future?
JA: We all, every one of us, can rise to the occasion every day in our own communities. We can volunteer our time, donate money, speak up and give our support. Right now World Central Kitchen is seeing need in many parts of the world for food relief—we have been active in the Carolinas, in Indonesia, and now in Florida for Hurricane Michael. We have had so much support doing disaster relief over the last year… it really is incredible.
How can locals who are looking to volunteer work with you?
JA: We are always looking for volunteers and donations when we activate kitchens—you can follow our Instagram and Twitter feeds, to hear about what we are working on. But most importantly, you can volunteer in your own community, in Miami and around South Florida. There are so many amazing organizations to be working with, so just get out there and start volunteering!
Do you have plans to expand globally?
JA: We are already global! In the last year alone, World Central Kitchen has activated in Indonesia, Guatemala, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, California, the Carolinas, and now Florida. And my restaurant group, ThinkFoodGroup, has more than 30 restaurants and will be opening a new location of Jaleo, our first restaurant, at Disney Springs later this year. We are always growing, always expanding, so stay tuned!
You once mentioned that hot food restores dignity. Explain!
JA: A hot plate of food to me is so much more than just calories… it is comfort, it is home, it is family, it is community. Many of our best memories are made over a warm meal. In disaster situations, the thing that people need the most is to be treated with respect and dignity. This doesn’t come from a cold, sterile MRE; it comes from being served real food, a warm meal.