Despite the scarcity of meat, seafood and fresh fruit and vegetables, the Puerto Rican chefs who've joined José Andrés' hurricane relief efforts are committed to their goal of churning out 40,000 meals—every single day.
“In a few weeks, we won’t have any more plantains. We probably won’t have fresh fruit for a long time,” said Luis Rojas. “Banana trees are really fragile, and they’re completely gone—not even the roots are left.” Rojas is the manager at Paellas Y Algo Más, a Spanish restaurant that chef José Andrés is working with on the ground in Puerto Rico to help with hurricane relief efforts.
“As soon as we saw his call for action, we knew we had to help,” Rojas said. He spoke to us on the phone today, and our call kept getting dropped. “There’s only a couple places on the island to have a decent phone conversation now,” he said.
Rojas and Paellas chef Manolo Martinez-Bonnet have joined forced with Andrés with the goal of churning out 40,000 meals—every single day. 10,000 of those meals will be paella, which is Chef Manolo’s specialty; five or six other chefs will be cooking their respective specialties with whichever ingredients they can access.
Andrés, the Michelin-starred celebrity chef of Spanish origin, has become the face of disaster relief after flying to Miami when Hurricane Harvey hit and setting up shop solo to cook for victims. Now, he’s been in Puerto Rico last week doing the same.
According to Rojas, who’s been on the ground working with Andrés, fresh fruits and vegetables are getting harder and harder to find. Meat supplies on the island are also dwindling, with chicken thighs and pork fillets making fewer appearances in their dishes. “We’d kill for asparagus right now,” Rojas told us.
Today’s paella features broccoli. “Our paella may not be ‘paella,’ depending on how orthodox your definition is; we’re having to improvise,” he said. Another challenge has been finding any available perishables before they go bad—as generators run out and refrigerators fail—and cooking and distributing that food efficiently.
Currently, there’s still a good amount of fresh garlic and plantains and some dried Spanish chorizo, although those, too, are running out. “With every passing day, getting ingredients gets harder and harder,” chef Martinez-Bonnet said.
“We’re not feeding the whole island, but it’s not symbolic either. We’re taking the food to pediatric hospitals, nursing homes, first responders at the airport,” Rojas said. His team has also been able to get a few food trucks that, depending on the availability of gasoline—a real challenge, according to Rojas—can access other, harder hit parts of the island. “San Juan is bad, but if you drive out of the city to the farm fields, there’s nothing,” he said. “It looks like an atomic bomb hit it. Puerto Rico used to be a green carpet, so lush. Now, it’s all brown.”
The chefs had originally set up their distribution outside La Plaza del Mercado Santurce, a historic square that houses a farmer’s market and upscale restaurants. Now they’ve moved to the José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum, also known as the Choliseo, which is the main distribution center for the island.
Amidst it all, their six-foot wide paellas have become a kind of symbol of the community. “There’s so much destruction around, everything is falling apart. It’s nice to look at a beautiful plate of paella,” Rojas said. “At least, that’s something.”