World Central Kitchen Founder José Andrés on His Work During the COVID-19 Pandemic — and the Importance of Community in Times of Crisis
I first met José Andrés in January 2014 at the Cayman Cookout: a beachside celebration of food and wine headlined by marquee names in the culinary world at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. At a Sunday champagne brunch, Andrés was working the room — a skill that comes easily to the gregarious, Spanish-born chef and humanitarian — and spent time posing for pictures with his fans, myself among them.
I wish I could say my second conversation with Andrés — which took place over the phone in late April, seven weeks after our editorial team started working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic — was as joyful and lighthearted. But it certainly gave me a deeper, more lasting impression of the Washington, D.C.–based restaurateur. In 2010, Andrés founded the global nonprofit World Central Kitchen to feed communities affected by natural disasters . Today, he and his team are providing meals to thousands of frontline American workers and individuals experiencing food insecurity due to the worldwide health crisis.
Here, some excerpts from our recent discussion.
Jacqui Gifford: What was your inspiration for starting World Central Kitchen?
José Andrés: "I cannot point to one thing alone. The story comes in at different places. My mom and dad were nurses, and I spent a lot of time around hospitals as a child. Later, when I was a cook in the Spanish navy, sailing around the world, I went to countries like Côte d’Ivoire and the Dominican Republic. That was the first time I saw extreme poverty in a way that did not exist in Spain. I was on vacation in the Cayman Islands when the 2010 earthquake happened in Haiti. People lost everything. I began helping, cooking in some of the camps."
What have some of the most rewarding moments been?
"In the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian we quickly ramped up a big operation. We needed helicopters to deliver food, and eventually we had so many going back and forth between Nassau and Marsh Harbour that they began doing emergency relief, transporting the sick. With what we were doing, I felt a little part of my parents was there."
How do you see the role of WCK changing in light of the current crisis?
"We are here to cover the blind spots of the system. We have partnered with out-of-service restaurants around the country, more than 1,000 of them, and I am very proud to be able to put them back to work helping feed the community. It’s a smart solution, but it’s also practical. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. You already have a restaurant industry; the restaurants take care of people, and we keep them from going broke."
You just distributed more than 25,000 meals in Baltimore. What has your day-to-day been like?
"Well, I have many hats on right now. First, making sure my family and friends are okay. Second, making sure that my employees are taken care of, and positioning my company to reopen. Third, being vocal — calling for others to recognize that this is a humanitarian crisis, and asking for more funding for organizations that we are working with, like Feeding America. And then, fourth, trying to shape policy for restaurants and the tourism industry."
Talk to me about the power of travel to open hearts and minds.
"It is important for us to travel, to meet people who seem different from us. You realize that they aren’t that different. We are all together on this planet, and we need to be working together more. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we have an amazing opportunity to get to know who we are and where we live. To look at things through another lens and appreciate the beauty of the planet we have."