José Andrés Fed 3 Million People in Puerto Rico, But Wishes It Had Been More

"I think leadership is 51 percent empathy. With empathy, you can gain the hearts of anybody, if you mean business."

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Oct 11 2018, 8:15pm

Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

When I sit down with chef José Andrés and his co-author Richard Wolffe at a restaurant in lower Manhattan’s Brookfield Place, Andrés seems a little weary. Just a few days prior, the pair’s book, We Fed An Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time, debuted, and it’s been a whirlwind of press interviews and promotional stops. He’s still his usual genial self, though. He sees my camera sitting on the banquette next to me, reaches over, and proceeds to take a series of selfies, then sets the camera back down and folds his hands on the table as if to say he’s now ready for seriousness, for my first question. “I’m going to use those in this story—you know that, right?” I ask. “Well, of course, that’s why I took them for you,” he says. And so we’re off.

It’s been just over a year since Hurricane Maria made landfall and ravaged the island of Puerto Rico for 16 straight hours. In the immediate aftermath, Andrés’ non-profit, World Central Kitchen, sent a team to help feed anyone they could reach. What happened next became the stuff of internet virality and nothing short of a social movement. In the end, WCK activated over twenty thousand local volunteers all across the island, to prepare 3.7 million meals. What Andrés experienced in Puerto Rico, working with massive NGOs like the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency itself, taught the chef a lot about how the traditional approach to humanitarian disaster relief moves like a rusty old robot. As he and Wolffe detail in their book, they observed this apparatus to be inflexible, with dangerously slow reflexes. What follows are his thoughts and recollections when we asked them both to reflect on those lessons.

On the power of social media to organize without traditional means of communication:

José Andrés: We saw one restaurant that was open and serving roast chicken, so we stopped. It was a big line. But this was great because, there were not a lot of places that were open. And this happened a few weeks later, in Morovís. And there many things happened. We saw the line for the roast chicken, could smell the smell, and we could see that things were slowly coming back. To have been able to receive a shipment of chicken, even with no cell [towers]—things were happening. We heard a group of teachers that were eating in that restaurant, they were saying that they were cooking from their [school’s] kitchen, serving some local people. That for me was very important because early in the days [on the island], we did a video with the secretary of education … saying, “If you’re in a kitchen and you’re listening to this message—cook! Open your kitchen and cook and feed anybody you can nearby.” … Sometimes because they saw that, and sometimes because somebody was already taking the initiative because they couldn’t wait at home. And that was very good news.

On the importance of intelligence gathering as part of a massive feeding operation:

Richard Wolffe: [Andrés] would say at the time, 'the food is not just food, right?' [Distributing] it is a way to get intelligence about what’s going on. So rather than staying locked in the bunker of the convention center [in San Juan] where all the government workers were, you have to get out. And so, this guy, because of who he is, we’d stop in, say, the simplest dive bars, and just talk to people. Or he’d see a restaurant and be like, “Oh, how’s it going? What have you got?”

Andrés: You know, learning on the road.

Wolffe: Where are people hungry? You know, the women at the chicken place where it turned out they were cooking in schools—no one at central command knew if that area was being served. So you have to get out there, you have to talk to people. And also, it spoke to this idea that we weren’t there permanently, right? … The point was to wind it down quickly.

On what they learned in Puerto Rico that helped them better prepare to serve in North Carolina during Hurricane Florence:

Andrés: What I learned was: be ready. If you’re ready, you can adapt and regroup. The WCK team ... moved into Wilmington and Raleigh, North Carolina four days before [the storm hit]. And the kitchens were already functioning before the hurricane came, feeding first responders. … Everybody is trying to be safe, the hurricane’s coming, people are leaving, people are nervous. Somebody has to come from outside and be like what we are—food first responders. And take care of them while the locals are trying to take care of themselves and their families. I take care of my team, and we take care of the first responders. And we were bunkered in a good place, you know, we’ve done this before. Our job is not totally without risks. We’re going into it knowingly. Like a fireman. Some people might say, “Why do you put your guys in danger to feed people?” Sometimes, the places you go have risks. We go to the places at the heart of it. That’s what we do.

What we did differently was: we were there before [the storm]. We had supplied for five kitchens already, we knew the kitchens, we had a refrigerator truck full of food, generators, gas. That’s what we learned. Not for one kitchen—for two, for three, for four. That’s something I’m very proud of. And it was all supported by the local community—local chefs, local food distributors.

On turning the traditional wisdom of food relief efforts on its head:

Andrés: If you are an outsider, and you come, and you have to learn the whole entire system—cities are fascinating, and they have a way of working. … It's something that requires a lot of time and years. But when you come and you’re serving the local community, and you partner with the community leaders and you work as one, you are already accessing information by working with them that will make you successful would take you months or years to learn. So that’s what we are getting very quick at. Not like we are masters at it. They are masters—sometimes they don’t realize. I would say, “Shit, I wish we had a bakery for bread,” and someone says, “oh there’s a bakery down the road, and I know the owner.” Good! Go talk to the guy, now! Why is the bakery closed? They don’t have a generator. Okay! Let’s get you a generator! That’s why it was so important for us to learn in North Carolina to arrive early and work with the local community, not impose from the outside.

Wolffe: That was a radical change from traditional disaster relief. You come in, you bring everything with you, you spend literally millions— millions of dollars on MREs produced over here—which is fine. But wouldn’t it be better if you spent the money in the local community? That’s a radical change—I mean, it sounds haphazard and it sort of is, that’s the adaptability [Andrés] brings to it. The mindset of, “We’re going to fly everything in because we’re the good-functioning, outside, civilized outsiders, and you are the 'natives' about to go crazy,”—that’s the mentality of [traditional relief efforts]. To say we are going to trust local intelligence, stand up a local economy, spend the money wisely—it should be pretty basic, but it’s not. It’s not what happens. Everything comes from outside.

On the semantics of relief aid and being a small NGO:

Andrés: [The Red Cross was] paying us for the meals delivered to the shelters that they ran [in California during the 2018 wildfires]—maybe I would not say “paying,” but “contributing” to the cost of our functioning. But the terminology to me is very important. Because it’s more than semantics. You are contributing to the work that we are doing because you are raising money that you cannot even know how to spend, and you are putting that money at the service of the American people. Even if its not through “Red Cross” specifically, because you have the bigger fundraising arm. …The semantics for me are very important, because otherwise people don’t understand. It is not about getting the contracts for the sake of getting the money, the contracts, I just wanted to feed people.

On how it feels to hear the Trump administration deny the staggering death tolls estimated for Puerto Rico:

Andrés: I think it shows the total lack of empathy of this leader that we have. I think leadership is 51 percent empathy. With empathy, you can gain the hearts of anybody, if you mean business. By not recognizing the number—compared to Carolina, what, we have hourly death tolls. Hourly. And you may say, “Well the Puerto Rican government failed.” Sure, they were destroyed! They had no communications. It was not all their fault. … Sixteen hours on the island—entered as a hurricane, left as a hurricane. I’m sure it was more than forty dead. I’m sure it was more than a hundred. …They fail Puerto Rico in not recognizing the number. You just took away the reaction and the response that was supposed to be coming from the federal government. This so-called “this was nothing compared to Katrina” approach. I’m sure [Trump’s] lack of empathy and leadership made many people die who shouldn’t have.

On what he wishes they could have done better:

Andrés: If I was the Red Cross, I would put their teams [under WCK control]. I would make better use of them. And with the resources that they have, I could have done so much more.

Did I ever dream that maybe the governor officially put me in charge of all feeding operations? Yeah. I mean it. When I think about it now, yeah, I wish they had. More people would have been eating faster, water would get out there, we would be hiring people locally, we will activate the economy in the process of helping people. …The money would have stayed in the island, to bring it back. That’s the dream that I had. So I failed. Because we only did three million meals.

MUNCHIES: Oh chef, I don't think anybody thinks you failed.

Andrés: I wish I did ten or twenty, or the thirty million meals that FEMA requested. Because they knew that was the need.