José Andrés he has made it his personal mission to run toward the fight since a catastrophic earthquake shook Haiti in 2010. Building his nonprofit World Central Kitchen, the chef and humanitarian has traveled the world with his team, supporting the organization’s mission is to provide food in response to disasters.
Andrés is in Austin this week for South by Southwest (SXSW) where he gave a keynote about World Central Kitchen. Recently, the organization has been on the ground in Central Europewhich provides hot meals to thousands of refugees in and around Ukraine has been affected by the ongoing warand arrived in Turkey and Syria just two days later two devastating earthquakes leaving millions of people homeless.
The Barcelona-raised chef immigrated to America at age 21, rising through the ranks of New York City kitchens before becoming the head chef of a Spanish tapas restaurant Jaleo in Washington, DC He turned the restaurant into a culinary destination, and then traveled back to Spain to star on what became one of the country’s most popular cooking shows, and, with his partner at ThinkFoodGroup, eventually opened more than 30 restaurants. The celebrated chef has been recognized for his work many times, including four Michelin Bib Gourmands, a two-Michelin-star restaurant, and a National Humanities Medal awarded by President Barack Obama in 2015.
After his session at SXSW, Andrés spoke with Eater about his work and the nonprofit’s recent announcement cookbook, The World Central Kitchen Cookbook: Feeding Humanity, Feeding Hope, which will be published on September 12. It will feature recipes from foods served during mission efforts, such as Ukrainian borscht and lahmacun flatbread, as well as recipes shared by chefs and celebrities, including Ayesha Curry, Michelle Obama, and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex. The author’s proceeds from the book will go back into the missions of World Central Kitchen.
Eater: You talked about the need to build longer tables, not higher walls. What do you mean by that?
José Andres: When America helped Haiti in the midst of an earthquake, we felt we had done something good. I am proud of the answer. But when we don’t do good the right way, it creates more chaos than not. In Haiti, we put hundreds if not thousands local farmers have no business because the amount of rice coming in from America and other countries is so large that the local farmers no longer have a market. They say we spent money in the country, ensuring that those farmers survive, continue to grow, and continue to thrive. What happened was that many of these farmers moved because of the lack of work, and immigrated to Central America.
A few years later, we saw what happened in texas when we had thousands of Haitians in a caravan at the border. That story began years ago. We create a problem. We can concentrate on building walls or we can build a longer table. Make sure that our help does not create more problems, by supporting local farmers — that would be the meaning of making a longer table. We can do the same in our own country. Everyone talks about walls in terms of separating countries, and we don’t realize that we have walls even in our communities.
To date, World Central Kitchen has provided more than 250 million meals to people in need. It does so under very different conditions: natural disasters and war zones. To what do you attribute that success?
What I love about going on these missions is that what we do is very specific. Let’s provide food and water to the people until the system is restored. Being focused is very important. One of the things that happens in very large organizations, government being the largest of all, is that there are so many things we have to work on that we have no focus. I’ve learned when I go to these emergencies that being focused allows you a certain level of success, because when we all put our best effort into a very specific goal, success is usually within reach.
In each new mission, you meet people in dire times of crisis and give them something simple, but necessary: a hot meal. How has your job changed your perspective on food?
I do more than cook. What I do is try to listen and make the best decision with what we have. What I learned is that when you have a lot of restaurants and people who want to cook, why not eat hot fresh food instead of a MR [Meal, Ready to Eat]? It’s not about liking a fresh meal, it’s that when you decide to cook, you have to make the whole community, which is very difficult. But it is that joint effort that gives people a common goal. They are part of the solution. They are not sitting in their homes waiting for reconstruction to begin or for their electricity to come back on. We are doing something to ensure that the goal of getting back to “normal” is reached faster and faster. Feeding people helps get the community back up and running. We bring hundreds if not thousands of people as part of our network, and when people see us moving, it makes them join the effort. When you see communities reactivating, and making decisions on their own, it’s very powerful.
How have things changed over the past decade for World Central Kitchen?
In any organization, as you get older, things change, like the way we serve food, and how hot the food is. Feeding in the middle of a hurricane in the Caribbean is not the same as in the middle of a snowstorm in Turkey; delivery by boat, by helicopter, or by amphibious vehicle is not the same. But what is the same from the beginning is that we make the best food we can with what we have.
You talked about the power of food as a storytelling device, as a way to share and experience each other’s cultures. How does it affect your work?
In the early days, people would eat anything. Sometimes, if all we can get is mac and cheese and hot dogs, that’s what we cook. But things will get better every day. Bringing hot food every day means people trust you more. The first day in Syria turned out to be a very chaotic situation. You don’t want to bring in the military or the police to begin with. The first few days you’re there will be a little chaotic, especially since people won’t have food for a few days. They are hungry and want to feed their families. When you come back on the second day, there is less chaos. By the third day, you will see smiles and people are less anxious. And if you come back on the fourth and fifth day, they’ll say, “By the way, we also need water,” “This family needs medicine,” or, “These families need baby formula.” Suddenly, you’re building bridges with community members you find trustworthy. You don’t go there, and just get down and leave. You are there for them. You didn’t come for pictures or because the journalists came. When the photographers and journalists are gone, we return.
You announced the World Central Kitchen cookbook. What do you want people to take away from it?
This will be a book that will lend itself to many more books in the years to come. Not everyone is a chef, and not everyone is a cook, but the heart of who we are is cooking with passion. I think it’s a good way to connect with people, the NGO that provides food in emergencies shares the recipes of the people that made the emergency response possible. I think that’s a great way to connect the people who follow us and our kitchen, with the people who have boots on the ground.
This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.