En español | There is a traditional Spanish saying that goes like this: "Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres." “Tell me who your friends are and I'll tell you who you are.”
José Andrés, renowned chef, entrepreneur, author and humanitarian, is a man who rubs elbows with presidents, industrialists, scientists and statesmen, and who stands with the hungry and homeless. But his close friendship with the late chef, activist and TV host Anthony Bourdain may reveal the most about this modern Renaissance man.
I know how much Bourdain loved Andrés, because Bourdain told me so himself, in an interview a few months before his death, in June 2018: “[José] is just as driven, just as emotional, just as genuinely concerned, as he appears to be. He can't help it. He's a good man.… He's like superhero level.”
Andrés, who turned 51 this year, lives his convictions. In 2010, he founded World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that responded after a massive earthquake devastated Haiti and killed tens of thousands. The goal from the start was to provide food relief and longer-term resilience.
World Central Kitchen's network of thousands of volunteer chefs also provides education and empowerment — for example, by helping Haitian families replace toxic solid cooking fuels with cleaner, healthier solar power and natural gas. “Pragmatic hard work, boots on the ground — these are the things that make good ideas succeed,” Andrés says. “We believe a plate of food can be the beginning of a better tomorrow.”
By the time deadly Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, Andrés and his group were able to deliver nearly 4 million meals to those in need. Where people are hungry, whether in the wake of a volcanic eruption in Guatemala; a hurricane in North Carolina; a cyclone in Mozambique; the border crisis in Tijuana, Mexico; the political collapse in Venezuela; or tsunamis in Indonesia, you'll find World Central Kitchen feeding them — over 25 million meals so far.
This work has brought Andrés multiple honors, including a National Humanities Medal and a James Beard award for Humanitarian of the Year. Plus, he is a restaurateur whose company employs 1,600 people and owns 28 restaurants and two food trucks in nine cities (including two two-star Michelin Guide honorees, Minibar and Somni).
Andrés is a tall, imposing person, with a trim white beard and a sturdy physique. The intensity in his dark-lashed blue eyes is unchanged from the expression you can see in a photo of the slim 20-something who trained with chef Ferran Adrià at El Bulli, the legendary temple to molecular gastronomy near Barcelona, Spain.
At El Bulli, Andrés began his long career of inventing shocking and beautiful eating experiences. Many years later, he fed 60 Minutes’ Anderson Cooper a caramelized popcorn that caused the anchor to breathe out smoke, like a dragon. “What just happened?!” Cooper exclaimed, looking like a kid who just got off a roller coaster.
Talking with José Andrés is an exhilarating experience; his energy and charisma seem to blast you right back in your chair, like in the old Maxell cassette tape commercial. But in the end, what one comes away with is the sheer force of his humanity, in combination with a steely pragmatism. As he wrote in We Fed an Island, his best-selling account of World Central Kitchen's disaster relief efforts in Puerto Rico, “There's a world of difference between wanting to do good and knowing how to make it happen.”
A family of caregivers
Andrés comes from a family of caregivers; both of his parents were nurses — and good cooks. “My mom could do anything with leftovers,” he notes. And after the death of his father, Mariano, nearly two years ago, he tweeted a photograph of the family patriarch tending a massive pan of paella with this caption: “He loved cooking for everyone.… If more people showed up, he told me, just add more rice.”
In 2013, Andrés became a U.S. citizen, but he didn't leave his Hispanic roots behind. He's a superstar in his native country; he starred in a popular Spanish cooking show, Vamos a cocinar con José Andrés, from 2005 to 2008. On one episode, he invites you to smell the diced chorizo and potatoes he's frying in a pan with a bit of rosemary.
"¡Qué maravilloso!” he shouts feelingly, and one can only agree. Later, his pal Ana shows up with a bottle of red wine. What a meal! Deep-fried egg, the chorizo and potatoes, toasts spread with the soft Spanish sausage called sobrasada (because you definitely need some sausage with your sausage) and a squat tumbler of red wine for each. Breakfast of champions.
Food, family, caregiving and community are tightly interconnected in Hispanic cultures. I suggest to Andrés that these cultures also teach responsibility for parents and grandparents, and he agrees. “Family is a very important part of who we are,” he says. “Nuestras abuelas, nuestros abuelitos ['Our grandmothers, our grandfathers'] — there's a big respect in that. But I sense that in many American communities, like in the Navajo Nation, the elders are loved and protected as well. I think that's something we need to keep on embracing. Like my friend [hunger activist] Robert Egger always says, ‘Wrinkled people and wrinkled food,’ right?”
By “wrinkled food,” Andrés means produce that seems past its prime. “It doesn't look picture-perfect,” he explains. “But sometimes it's the most delicious food, because it's ripe.” He pronounces this word in a way you can almost taste, conveying lusciousness. “I think that Hispanic people, we understand that. We need to make sure we understand that wrinkled people and wrinkled food are beautiful.”
Andrés has been married since 1995 to Patricia Fernandez de la Cruz, with whom he lives in Bethesda, Maryland. The two have three young-adult daughters: Carlota, Ines and Lucia. In interviews, José and Patricia tease each other good-naturedly, as long-married couples often do. When Bethesda magazine asked him how long he and his wife had dated, he said, “We are still dating.”
The age of 50, he says, is when he began to feel his mortality: “I've covered half of my life! But this is clear to me — that you learn that you know nothing as you grow older. You are only wiser when you know how much more you have to learn.” He laughs. “And then … the clock is ticking!"
"I see my daughters more and more like my friends, as they grow older and I grow older, and that's a good feeling,” he adds. “The beauty of families is that they will be celebrating when you do good and they will be supporting you even more when you don't. And they don't need to be blood family, because with some people, the connection is so strong that they're the people that you know you will count on.”
Responding to the pandemic
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, World Central Kitchen is providing more than 300,000 meals per day to people in need throughout the U.S. Those over 50, who've been the hardest hit by the coronavirus, have been a big part of the organization's overall outreach. “Some of the first places where we began were homes for the elderly, from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans to Chicago,” Andrés says. He points out that older people living independently may not have family members nearby, so the hardships they face may not be only financial ones.
"We're partnering with AARP, which provides solutions for programs like SNAP [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] and the other forms of food aid used by seniors,” Andrés says. “These programs are digital so that the elderly can order online and receive their meals at home.” (AARP is currently helping World Central Kitchen provide meals for older people in Washington, D.C.; the Bronx, New York; and Oakland, California.)
In addition to offering direct relief, World Central Kitchen has responded to the pandemic by focusing on developing a rescue plan for the beleaguered restaurant industry. In tandem with a group of lawmakers, Andrés helped craft a bill designed to simultaneously feed people and save restaurants. The FEMA Empowering Essential Deliveries (FEED) Act would authorize the federal government to pay 100 percent of the cost for state and local governments to partner with restaurants to serve food to those in need, as well as support businesses and farmers fighting to survive the pandemic.
Major provisions of the FEED Act were included in the HEROES Act coronavirus relief bill, which had passed the House of Representatives and had been sent to the Senate.
This approach reflects the difficulties World Central Kitchen encountered in trying to feed the Puerto Rican victims of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Andrés’ memoir, We Fed an Island, is largely concerned with institutional and governmental failures and how to address them — moving aside the bureaucratic obstacles facing those who are coordinating large-scale relief efforts. He says nothing has changed since the book was published.
"The perception is that FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] is in charge of coming up with smart solutions to feed people in emergencies. I understand; they need to be a contract agency.... We are not supposed to be leading, but sometimes we are the de facto leading agency. In the Bahamas, we evacuated, with our helicopters, 40 or 50 people, almost all of them seniors. We are cooks, and we're the ones evacuating the elderly to the hospitals?” He laughs. “I'm very proud we did it, but I'm also very upset. Because had we not been there, who was supposed to be there?"
"So how will it be possible,” I ask, “to get the biggest institutions and governments to embrace these ideas?”
He says he is very hopeful about the FEED Act. But more is needed. “There's no reason why a school lunch program shouldn't be a way to feed not only children but families,” Andrés points out. “There's no reason why restaurants that were closed in the middle of a pandemic emergency shouldn't be feeding the local populations. There's no reason why we should be throwing away food as garbage at farms and have farmers losing their livelihoods at the same time that we have long lines and people going hungry in other parts of the country.”
More immediately, the question of seeing the independent restaurant industry — small businesses that employ millions of people — through the pandemic has consumed Andrés’ attention. So, in June, he recorded an Instagram Live conversation with Anthony Fauci, M.D., White House public health adviser, about how restaurant owners should think about reopening their businesses over the summer.
Andrés demonstrated his executive genius point by point, getting Fauci's specific recommendations: What kind of masks should restaurant workers wear? Should they wear gloves and, if so, when? How should hand sanitizer be distributed? Should there be screens between the tables?
"These details,” he told Fauci, “will be good to have you tell us — one way, so we can all do the same.” (Fauci advocated cloth masks and very frequent handwashing, among other measures.)
An eventual return to normal
As grave as the crisis has been, Andrés is remarkably confident that life will eventually go “back to normal.” The imaginative world of beauty and fun, of exploding popcorn and spherified olives, will return as before.
"Humanity, we — unfortunately, we forget quickly, the good and the bad,” he notes. “What I hope we will not forget is what we learned from the failures in the system. And that will give us the opportunity to fix it."
In one episode of Bourdain's show No Reservations about the closing of El Bulli — the revolutionary restaurant where Andrés began his career — he and Bourdain shared a dish of creamed morels served in a soft sheep's-milk cheese torta.
"I could snort this right up my nose and into my brain.” Bourdain sighed.
"It's legal,” Andrés observed mildly. “You can sniff cheese and morels."
Watching this exchange, I was reminded again of how this humanitarian's professional life began in a rarefied atmosphere, preparing elegant, innovative cuisine. It's a very strong contrast to the larger problems that occupy him now, I suggest to him.
"At the end of the day, it's holistic, you know,” he replies. “What good does it do me if I have the best restaurant in the world and three blocks down the road, I've got hundreds of people who don't have anything to eat? It feels awkward. And it's OK to feel awkward if I'm trying to — hopefully, in the long run — do something to make sure we don't have this situation.”
Whether running a culinary empire or delivering bowls of beef stew to the hurricane-ravaged citizens of Puerto Rico, Andrés embodies the idea of caring for people by feeding them thoughtfully and well. It's a matter of sharing with others that rarest and most delicious thing: life itself. And there are a lot of ways to share it.
"When I retire, or when I die, I want World Central Kitchen to be an agent of change,” he says. “And what I've been always trying to do is just execute as well as I can, to prove that what people thought was not possible is possible. And that, therefore, we can act."