José Andrés Talks Puerto Rico Relief, Robots and the White House at SXSW
Celebrity chef and humanitarian José Andrés is everywhere these days. (Don’t look, he’s behind you right now.) After making an unannounced appearance at the Oscars last weekend that made everyone do a double take, and cheffing at the American Masters Dinner in Los Angeles on Thursday to raise money for L.A. Kitchen—alongside Alon Shaya and Ludo Lefebvre—the chef participated in an hour-long interview at media extravaganza SXSW in Austin, Texas.
It’s probably the longest publicly available taped interview that he’s given since Puerto Rico, and you can watch it in full here. Held on Sunday and hosted by tech journalist Kara Swisher, the Michelin-starred Andrés discussed his non-profit World Central Kitchen, with whom he worked to deliver 3.4 million meals in Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria (and about which he's currently writing a book). As someone who has also been extremely vocal on Twitter against Trump (“You are full of shit, sir!”) and has used the #ChefsForPuertoRico hashtag to great success, Andrés also discussed the power of leveraging technology for crises.
“The biggest thing that happened to me in Puerto Rico is how we should be using more technology in moments of disaster,” he said. He never really cared about WhatsApp and talked about feeling bombarded with technology in general—but the chat app, which allows people from various countries to chat via wifi, not cellular data, was instrumental in connecting his volunteer base, he said. There were separate chat groups organized by people who were gathering fuel, or shopping.
“Everything was very quick, effective. There I saw the value of technology,” the chef said. (“Do you know of Slack?” Swisher asked. “I don’t know what the heck this is,” he said, at one point seeming to call it ‘Zack.’)
During his time on the island, Andrés went from feeding 1,000 people a day to the aforementioned total of 3.4 million. At peak operations, 20 separate kitchens were running concurrently, with the help of a total of 20,000 volunteers. Three of those kitchens are still running, still churning out 7,000 to 8,000 meals a day, Andrés estimated.
“It was unbelievable. But the most unbelievable thing was that we were not supposed to be there… we are not technically a relief organization,” he said. “...I was trying to go to the White House to the main room where they make decisions, but they did not let me in, so I don’t know what was going on,” he said jokingly. “I have a three-street radius I cannot get close to it.”
Despite his past criticism of the federal government’s response to the hurricane (among other issues), he was quick to defend individual responders he met on the ground in Puerto Rico.
“The first day we were there, we met people from Homeland Security and people of ICE… Those were amazing people,” Andrés said. “They saw we were making sandwiches and they were like, ‘José, can we bring sandwiches?’ And we were like, ‘Sure!’ Every morning, it was beautiful to see 40 humvees aligned in front of the restaurant filling up the back of humvees with as many sandwiches as they could take.”
“And the decision was not made at the top,” the chef went on to say. “The decision was made at the bar, at 11:30 p.m., with a rum sour. Sometimes you have to adapt. It was funny to me that I was able to meet those guys in the hotel they were staying at after 16 hour work days… we made the decision like that.”
“[Many meetings] may work for some people,” he said. “When you’re talking about hunger, and you’re talking about feeding people, when are you going to wait, three weeks from now? Thank you, don’t worry, you don’t have to feed anyone else. Everybody’s dead.”
Andrés also talked about how the experience had been touching for him at times. “I get upset when I don’t have hot showers in my hotel room, and I call down and [I say], ‘What the heck is going on? I am José Andrés, I need hot water!’ And all of a sudden you feel so stupid when you know you have an 80-year-old woman sharing her only bottle of water with the people around her… You start realizing… that others, they have it much worse than you,” said the chef.
The wide-ranging conversation also touched on food technology. "Will robots ever replace chefs?," it was asked. Andrés’s answer, surprisingly, was yes. He talked about visiting MIT’s Counter Intelligence lab, no longer active, which studied restaurant innovation and its intersection with AI.
Andrés talked about witnessing a robot who could “watch” someone cook a certain dish, and then have those same motions downloaded into it, and then replicate these exact same moves. “Already robots are doing big system productions,” Andrés said. “One day we’re going to have a robot named José, and frankly, I cannot wait so I can be playing golf.”