José Andrés Isn't Slowing Down

We caught up with the humanitarian during his recent visit to Ukraine, where World Central Kitchen has served over 150 million meals.

José Andrés World Central Kitchen
Photo: Courtesy of World Central Kitchen

After opening four restaurants at the Conrad Los Angeles last month, José Andrés interrupted his summer holiday to return to Ukraine. The chef met with president Volodymyr Zelenskyy in front of international press, in hopes of bringing renewed attention to the Ukrainian cause and the continued work of World Central Kitchen, Andrés' NGO, which has been providing essential humanitarian aid since Russia invaded the country in February.

After eleven days of logistical meetings and family meals, while departing for the nearest open border, Andrés picked up his satellite phone and spoke to us about where he's been and where he's headed.

"We have 550 restaurants and thousands of chefs here in Ukraine, and we've served over 600,000 [daily] meals," Andrés said. "Sometimes life requires these moments where I'm using food in another way. This opportunity helped me realize I can engage restaurants and chefs and food in another role and fulfill my maximum possibility."

WCK began serving free hot meals to refugees within 24 hours of the Russian invasion, first setting up along Ukraine's border with Poland, where, earlier this year, Landmarc chef Marc Murphy and actor Liev Schreiber prepared a Passover meal for displaced Ukrainians that included borscht for 1,500 and a literal ton of brisket.

The chef argued he can achieve just as much abroad — developing dishes and opening restaurants via WhatsApp — as he can in the kitchen. He credits this feat to longtime collaborators like veteran Bazaar chef Holly Jivin and newcomers to his team like Carles Tejedor.

"I've spent 30 years in the United States just building teams, and even when I am in my restaurant, I feel like I'm directing," Andrés said. "I love that in my restaurants, the chefs have become orchestra conductors; we don't touch all the instruments, but we make sure we keep all the musicians working, replaying all the dishes we worked on over the years."

Of course, he still takes the stage when the opportunity arises: The day prior, Andrés was invited to brunch at the home of a Kiev chef. He arrived with an Iberico ham. "It was good Sunday cooking; these guys love pork, they love octopus, and I even made polpo a la gallega." (The dish is a hallmark of Mercado Little Spain at Hudson Yards, where Tejedor now serves as executive chef.)

Still, there are setbacks. On April 17, days after Schreiber posted a video to Instagram from the border, Russian missiles struck Kharkiv in central Ukraine, injuring four WCK workers and destroying one of the NGO's kitchens. In June, another Russian missile struck a train delivering critical resources to a WCK kitchen on Ukraine's eastern border.

José Andrés World Central Kitchen
Courtesy of World Central Kitchen

Schreiber's appearance helped generate headlines in Vanity Fair and on the Today show, but Andrés noticed that "the story was falling down on the news," prompting his recent return. He hoped to devise a strategy for the winter, when his time will be divided with new restaurant projects opening coast to coast, in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and New York.

In discussing his efforts, Andrés was adamant about crediting other chefs who also feed communities in need.

"I feel chefs have all, in one way or another in the last few years, gone beyond their own restaurants, taken on food issues that go beyond their restaurants," he said. "Restaurants all across America now address homelessness, feeding veterans, putting food in schools. But when people come to one of my restaurants, I want them to have a good time, and you won't see any mention of causes, because a restaurant is a sanctuary for celebration, for a good meal with friends."

And, one day in the future, Andrés hopes to witness that again for himself.

"I've been cooking since I was 15, and now I'm 52," he said. "That's a lot of years, and I have a lot of years ahead of me. I want to make sure that when I get to 70 and 80 years old that I have the excitement of cooking from when I was younger. I wish I can be anything close to Mick Jagger, a force for sure, but you will see me in my restaurants when I'm older.

Andrés trusts that diners are savvy enough to understand when they visit his restaurants, he can't alway be there. "A director makes a movie and you can own the movie forever, a painter makes a painting and you can own the painting forever, but cooking is much more complicated, like a concert, but, like Mick Jagger, you can only serve so many people per concert."

I want to make sure that when I get to 70 and 80 years old that I have the excitement of cooking from when I was younger.

As diners have begun returning to restaurants and concerts alike, Andrés is headlining more impressive venues, not just on the main stage but on every stage.

In addition to being the sole restaurateur at the Conrad Los Angeles, Andrés has also taken over food and beverage operations at the new Ritz Carlton Nomad in New York City, where guests can choose between New York's first outpost of his eastern Mediterranean brunch staple Zaytinya and a forthcoming location of Bazaar; drop into the lobby lounge for a Greek pilsner and plate of fire-roasted baba ghannouge; or order a falafel burger and Basque cheesecake via room service.

Andrés is grateful to partner with hotels of late. He's grown so road-weary that checking in can feel like a homecoming, but even those opportunities are hard fought.

In 2015, Andrés clashed with former president Donald Trump, when the then-candidate made disparaging comments about Mexican immigrants, leading the chef to pull out from plans to open a restaurant at the Trump Hotel at the landmark Old Post Office Building. In March, Trump left the hotel, which reopened in June as a Waldorf Astoria. Later this year, Andrés will plant his flag there with a location of Bazaar six years in the making.

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