OurLocalCommons

The chef and humanitarian talks about the American Dream, why Guy Fieri deserves more credit, and what he learned in Puerto Rico.

Andy Wang
April 05, 2018

Twenty-five years ago, long before he became one of the world’s most famous and important chefs, José Andrés volunteered his time at D.C. Central Kitchen, an organization that turns recycled food into meals for the local community and gives culinary training to the unemployed.

Andrés, who at 23 had opened Jaleo in Washington, D.C., would peel potatoes alongside ex-convicts and think about how lucky he had been in life. Andrés was a young Spanish immigrant who wouldn’t become a United States citizen for another two decades, but he already knew he was on the right side of the American Dream.

“Sometimes, you feel like you bought the right lottery ticket,” he tells Food & Wine. “Sometimes, you feel like other people weren’t even given the opportunity to buy a ticket. It’s a very humbling experience.”

On May 1, during a blowout event at The Wiltern in Los Angeles, Andrés will continue to show the gratitude he has for all that America has given him and his family. So much of what he does, including the work of his World Central Kitchen hunger-relief nonprofit, is about giving back to communities and shining a light on the power of food. The May 1 event, part of the month-long Los Angeles Times Food Bowl festival, is called Changing the World Through the Power of Food and will feature a discussion with Andrés, food critic Jonathan Gold, actress Zooey Deschanel, and others. Sous chefs from L.A. restaurants will also be on stage, preparing food that could be scaled to feed thousands of people during a disaster situation. Then Andrés and the chefs will feed the crowd.

The event will benefit L.A. Kitchen, which feeds the hungry in Los Angeles and was started in 2013 with Andrés as the founding board chairman. L.A. Kitchen's founder and president, Robert Egger, and Andrés are longtime friends. In 1989, Egger was a young nightclub manager who founded D.C. Central Kitchen, where Andrés would later become chairman emeritus. That’s how all this began.

World Central Kitchen and L.A. Kitchen recently teamed up to feed victims of California wildfires. This, of course, happened not long after Andrés and World Central Kitchen served more than three million meals in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. World Central Kitchen, which was launched after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, also showed up in Houston last year to feed victims of Hurricane Harvey.

“Food can be an active agent of change, one community at a time,” Andrés says. “I’m not doing [the May 1 event] for the party. I’m not doing it to have a good time. We’re doing it because it’s a great way to bring awareness and to raise money for a great organization. Sometimes, it feels like $1 is multiplied by $100 because L.A. Kitchen is so efficient and effective. There’s no waste. Every single dollar matters”

Andrés wants to expand his humanitarian efforts. He’s discussing future relief programs with people including food-TV stars Andrew Zimmern, Guy Fieri, and Robert Irvine.

“We’re actively talking about organizing a more cohesive unit,” Andrés says. “So that when something small happens, we can help communities activate themselves. And when something very big happens, we’re a big cohesive force.”

Fieri, who recently made barbecue for California wildfire victims, is somebody that Andrés sees as an important voice for the United States and what it should represent.

“My buddy Guy Fieri, he doesn’t get enough credit,” Andrés says. “I like his show because sometimes he really showcases the forgotten places of America. I love that he’s able to give those places a voice.”

It’s people who aren’t as high-profile as Andrés and Fieri that are the point of all this. Andrés shouts out Bryan and Jennifer Caswell, who participated in Houston relief efforts after Hurricane Harvey destroyed their restaurant, Reef. (The Caswells are working to re-open it.)

“I was very happy and proud to join them,” Andrés says.

He mentions the heroes of Operation BBQ Relief, which has fired up its grills after multiple natural disasters.

“I think we need more software and less hardware,” Andrés says of effective disaster relief. “Ideas and adaptation will always triumph. It’s very hard to prepare for every scenario at the same time. The only scenario we need to prepare for is total disaster, total chaos. If we have total chaos, what will we do to make sure no American is hungry or goes without water? If you answer that question, you will handle anything well.”

Consider Puerto Rico, for example.

“We mobilized thousands of people,” Andrés says. “That was not a small thing. But in the end, when you can feed 100, you can feed 200. Then you realize you can feed 2,000. Then you realize you can feed 4,000. That’s the good thing about chefs. When people are hungry, we can’t do 100,000 meals the first day, but give us a few days. We can ramp up tomorrow.”

Andrés knows he’s fortunate to have a restaurant group with the infrastructure that allows him “to disappear from his restaurants” when necessary. He’s happy his partners haven’t screamed at him about it yet. But it’s important to understand that he’s still running a huge business while trying to improve the world, one meal at a time. He’s still focused on making restaurants like Minibar in Washington D.C., é in Las Vegas, and his new Somni in Los Angeles world-class destinations. He still thinks a lot about Michelin stars and world’s-best lists. He’s competitive like that.

Sometimes, he wishes all he did was run his high-end restaurants. But as much as he enjoys caviar bumps, he knows that his life can’t just be about rarefied dining.

“I wish I could go home and not have to be involved in thinking about feeding people who are hungry, children who don’t have anything to drink,” Andrés says. “I wish I didn’t have to go home and think about DACA and the Dreamers that some people want to kick out of the country. I wish I didn’t have to be thinking about people who work the farms of America and how they’re ghosts of the system and we don’t let them be part of the American Dream. But the reality of the day is we cannot be building walls. I came to realize that and joined the fight. I still want to be the best chef in the world. I’m going to keep working hard on that. But at the same time, I will not be fulfilled if I’m not trying to give back to America and the community and the world that gave so much to me and my family.”

Andrés has three daughters and knows he’s part of an industry that’s built on the backs of immigrants.

“We’re not going to create a better America and address the problems of the world by building walls,” Andrés says. “I’m very selfish. I do this for my daughters, so they can have as good of a life as I’ve had.”

What Andrés dreams of is an America where the hospitality you find at great restaurants is extended to all people during their worst circumstances.

“In the end, restaurants want to provide safe, happy moments to our guests,” Andrés says. “But we need to be aware that, in the moment of need, we have a unique talent that could influence the lives of many.”