José Andrés has made it his personal mission to run toward the fray since a catastrophic earthquake rocked Haiti in 2010. With the formation of his nonprofit World Central Kitchen, the chef and humanitarian has traveled the world along with his team, supporting the organization’s mission to provide food in response to disasters.
Andrés was in Austin this week for South by Southwest (SXSW) during which he gave a keynote about World Central Kitchen. Most recently, the organization was on the ground in Central Europe, providing hot meals to thousands of refugees in and around Ukraine impacted by the ongoing war, and arrived in Turkey and Syria just two days after two devastating earthquakes left millions of people displaced.
The Barcelona-raised chef immigrated to America at 21, rising through the ranks of New York City kitchens before becoming the head chef of Spanish tapas restaurant Jaleo in Washington, D.C. He made the restaurant a culinary destination, and then traveled back to Spain to star in what became one of the country’s most popular cooking shows, and, alongside his ThinkFoodGroup partner, eventually opened more than 30 restaurants. The celebrated chef has been recognized for his work many times over, with four Michelin Bib Gourmands, a two-Michelin-star restaurant, and a National Humanities Medal awarded by President Barack Obama in 2015.
After his SXSW session, Andrés spoke with Eater about his work and the nonprofit’s recently announced cookbook, The World Central Kitchen Cookbook: Feeding Humanity, Feeding Hope, which will publish on September 12. It’ll feature recipes from meals served during mission efforts, like 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 proceeds from the book will go back to World Central Kitchen’s missions.
Eater: You spoke about the need to build longer tables, not higher walls. What did you mean by that?
José Andrés: When America went to help Haiti in the middle of an earthquake, we felt we did good. I was proud of the response. But when we don’t do good in the right way, it creates more mayhem than not. In Haiti, we put hundreds if not thousands of local farmers out of business because the amount of rice that was coming in from America and other countries was so massive that the local farmers had no market anymore. We were supposed to spend money in the country, making sure those farmers made a living, kept planting, and kept improving. What happened was that many of these farmers ended up moving because of a lack of jobs, and immigrating to Central America.
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 created the problem. We could concentrate on building walls or we could build longer tables. Making sure that our aid did not create more problems, by supporting the local farmers — that would have been the meaning of building longer tables. We can also do that in our own country. Everybody 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’s been able to do that under wildly different conditions: natural disasters and war zones. To what would you attribute that success?
What I like about going into these missions is that what we do is very specific. Let’s provide food and water to the people until the system comes back. Being focused is very important. One of the things that happens with very big organizations, the government being the biggest one of all, is there are so many things we need to be working on that there’s 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 objective, success is usually within reach.
With each new mission, you’re meeting people during intense times of crisis and providing them with something simple, but necessary: a hot meal. How has your work changed your perspective on food?
I do more than cooking. What I do is try to listen and make the best decision with what we have on hand. What I’ve learned is that when you have plenty of restaurants and people willing to cook, why not do a hot fresh meal instead of an MRE [Meal, Ready to Eat]? It’s not about the fanciness of a fresh meal, it’s that when you decide to cook, you require the entire community to commit, which is very difficult. But that combined effort is what gives people a common goal. They are part of the solution. They’re not sitting in their homes waiting for reconstruction to start or their electricity to come back. We’re doing something to make sure that the goal of going back to “normal” is reached quicker 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 on the move, 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 last decade for World Central Kitchen?
With any organization, as you mature, things change, like the way we deliver the food, and how hot the food is. It’s not the same to be feeding in the middle of a hurricane in the Caribbean as in the middle of a snowstorm in Turkey; it’s not the same to deliver by boat, by helicopter, or by amphibious vehicle. But what has been the same from the beginning is that we do the best food we can with what we have.
You’ve spoken about the power of food as a storytelling device, as a way to share and experience each other’s cultures. How does that factor into your work?
In the early days, people will eat anything. Sometimes, if all we can get a hold of is mac and cheese and hot dogs, that’s what we’ll cook. But things will get better every day. Bringing hot meals every day means people trust you more. The first day in Syria became a very chaotic situation. You don’t want to bring the military or police at the start. The first days that you’re there are going to be a little bit of chaos, especially because people didn’t have food for days. They’re hungry and they want to feed their families. When you come back on the second day, the chaos is less. On the third day, you see smiles and people are not so anxious. And if you come back the fourth and the fifth day, they’ll say, “By the way, we also need water,” “This family needs medicine,” or, “These families need baby formula.” All of a sudden, you are building bridges with members of the community who see you are reliable. You are not going there, and just dropping and leaving. You’re there for them. You didn’t come for the photos or because the journalists came. When the photographers and journalists are gone, we keep coming back.
You announced the World Central Kitchen cookbook. What do you want people to take away from it?
This is gonna be one book that is going to lend itself to more books in the years to come. Not everybody’s a chef, and not everybody’s a cook, but the heart of what we are is cooking with feeling. 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 that follow us and our kitchen, with people with boots on the ground.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.