Chef José Andrés is considered a visionary for his humanitarian and hunger-relief work in some of the world’s most stricken regions. For Andrés, the solution is simple: start today.
When Cyclone Idai, one of the most devastating tropical storms to hit Southern Africa, reached Mozambique in March, more than 400 000 people were displaced and 1,8 million were in need.
Spanish-born chef José Andrés arrived with his humanitarian project World Central Kitchen (WCK), setting up relief feeding stations and activating #ChefsForMozambique in the capital city, Beira.
The efforts in Mozambique have since tapered to a partner project with local schools.
Receiving the inaugural American Express Icon Award at the 2019 World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards in Singapore, for his far-reaching work with hunger relief and combatting food insecurity, Andrés said, “We don’t wait, we show up. Sometimes big problems have simple solutions. If you’re hungry today, you need to eat today, not next week.”
With almost three-dozen restaurants under his ThinkFoodGroup umbrella, including the Michelin two-starred Minibar by José Andrés, and Catalan restaurant Somni, Andrés remains an active leader in on-the-ground disaster relief.
Pursuing The Humanitarian Dream
Andrés left Spain in 1991 with $50 in his pocket to pursue the “American Dream”, taking with him lessons he learned from his father in the Asturias in north–west Spain, and his mentor and friend chef Ferran Adrià of the now-shuttered elBulli (considered by leading chefs to be a temple to molecular gastronomy).
“Ferran’s attitude was that he was going to share everything he learned with everybody. And this planted a seed for me: we can be generous beyond our fancy restaurants,” he said.
Established in 2010, initially as an educational and job–training non-profit after the earthquake in Haiti that wrecked the island’s infrastructure, WCK transformed into a disaster–relief organisation when Hurricane Matthew ravished Haiti in 2016.
It was during this time, and in stark contrast to U.S. president Donald Trump’s approach to the Puerto Rican disaster and his derogatory comments about immigrants, that Andrés and WCK began to receive more of the world’s attention.
Unafraid to engage the president on political and moral matters, Andrés, who was twice awarded as one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World for his humanitarian work, makes his stance clear on his popular Twitter platform.
Disaster Relief and Ending Poverty
In the subsequent years since Andrés established WCK, assisting teams have travelled to countries like Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Indonesia, Colombia, and most recently the Bahamas.
WCK responded to 19 disasters in 2019 (to date), serving 10 million meals to the destitute. Andrés urges people to scrutinise their motives, “I learned from [activist] Robert Egger that people do not want our pity, they want our respect.”
William Drew, content director for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, credited Andrés for his fearless leadership and using his talent for the greater good.
“Not only has José brought fantastic, forward-thinking Spanish food to the US, but through WCK he has helped feed millions of people denied access to nutritious food as a result of natural disasters,” he said.
During his address, Andrés, who is charmingly self-deprecating, paid homage to the Spanish cooks who preceded him: “Everybody thanks me for bringing Spanish cooking to America, but actually there were many before me. The truth is, Spanish was the only cooking [style] I knew.”
Inspired by Clara Barton, the American nurse who founded the American Red Cross and treated soldiers of all affiliations during the U.S. Civil War, and Egger (whom he calls a “true food fighter”), Andrés says that unless we emancipate women and girls, we have little chance of ending poverty.
In his address in Singapore he showed side-by-side images of Puerto Rico and Haiti to demonstrate the impact of deforestation.
“There are young girls in many countries who do not go to school because it is their job to search [for] and collect wood. If women are the ones who are feeding the world, and they are, we owe it to them to provide good, clean energy to cook. Who controls the fire, controls the pot,” he said.
The WCK operates to rebuild the economy of affected regions by creating sustainable models of employment (volunteers are paid) and agriculture – produce is sourced from smallholder farms.
Unlike others who provide dried, pre-packaged foods, WCK serves local produce as far as possible and uses recipes that recipients are familiar with.
Puerto Rico provided Andrés and WCK with a learning moment – with 85 per cent of food imported, the organisation believes that this makes the island particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.
Produce From Plow To Plate
In his bestseller, Puerto Rico, We Fed an Island, Andrés outlines the challenges and successes in what has become a model for empowering communities crushed by natural and manmade disasters.
WCK’s ‘Plow To Plate’ programme aims to increase food security in Puerto Rico by providing funding, training and networking opportunities to smallholder farmers and businesses that support home-grown agriculture.
Fast Company reports that WCK has set up a Climate Disaster Fund aimed at raising $50 million toward disaster response efforts. Funders, they report, have already raised $5 million.
In Singapore, Andrés stressed a lesson he learned from Eggers that charity should not be about the redemption of the giver but rather about the liberation of the receiver.
“Are you doing this because it makes you feel good, or are you really thinking about the people you are trying to help? I believe the only way forward is if we liberate the receiver,” he said.
Words by Ishay Govender-Ypma