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Chef José Andrés' inspiring story of going to Puerto Rico

Chef José Andrés' inspiring story of going to Puerto Rico
José Andrés serving up food in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. (World Central Kitchen)

José Andrés wears his heart on his sleeve, whether that sleeve is part of an immaculate chef’s jacket or a stained T-shirt worn in the middle of a disaster zone.

The Spanish chef, 49, owns and operates restaurants in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Florida and Puerto Rico. He has hosted television cooking shows, including the PBS series “Made in Spain,” and taught at Harvard, but increasingly his focus has been on humanitarian work. First in Haiti, where the chef founded the nonprofit NGO Central World Kitchen to provide meals following the 2010 earthquake, then in Puerto Rico, where Andrés emerged as one of the leaders of the relief efforts after the 2017 hurricane devastated the island and other organizations — and the U.S. government — were slow to respond.

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Andrés’ heart is very much on display in his new book, “We Fed an Island,” which publishes Tuesday on the late Anthony Bourdain’s imprint at Ecco. There’s a lot more on display as well, including the many people who pitched in to help Andrés in his mission to bring food, water and hope to a ravaged population.

Volunteers at one of the massive sandwich lines at El Choliseo in Puerto Rico.
Volunteers at one of the massive sandwich lines at El Choliseo in Puerto Rico. (World Central Kitchen)

Co-authored with Richard Wolffe, the Guardian columnist who also co-wrote Andrés’ cookbooks and his two PBS series (as well as three books about Barack Obama), “We Fed an Island” isn’t just a memoir, or even a memoir with message — it’s an impassioned call to action. Bonus: Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the forward.

Four days after Hurricane Maria hit the island of Puerto Rico, Andrés was on one of the few commercial flights into San Juan, with a colleague and as much cash as he could get from ATMs on short notice. Given little help by other aid organizations — Andrés is scathing in his assessment of FEMA and the Red Cross, as well as President Trump — the chef instead turned to locals, as well as his own friends, colleagues and cooks.

“There’s something fundamental about food, about preparing, cooking and eating together,” Andrés writes. “It’s what binds us; it’s how we build community. Eating isn’t functional. Food relief shouldn’t be either.” So Andrés documents his efforts, the supplies he manages to source from area businesses, the volunteers who join him, the distribution centers and kitchens that he and his team get up and running, and the meals that they provide — eventually cooking 100,000 meals a day at over a dozen kitchens across the island.

José Andrés in 2011 at his Washington restaurant Minibar.
José Andrés in 2011 at his Washington restaurant Minibar. (Associated Press)

Threaded through these achievements, Andrés and Wolffe also provide context, contrasting the thousands of sandwiches and vats of sancocho, a traditional stew, that Andrés and his teams provide, with the MREs and red tape that are a too-frequent alternative.

“Food disaster relief is not just a question of results and accountability,” writes the chef, his frustration as close to the surface of his narrative as his emotions. “It’s a moral necessity.”

It is hardly a coincidence that the publication of this book comes almost exactly on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s landfall. “We Fed an Island” is meant to be both an object lesson and a reminder of how much work there is yet to be done in Puerto Rico. Only recently has electricity been restored to most of the island, and the death toll is still being calculated after months of being, by most accounts, seriously under-reported. Andrés’ book is thus not just an account of what happened, but a plea for what has yet to happen, and it reverberates with his frustration and anger at how his adopted country’s government failed to help its own citizens (Andrés, who was born and raised in Spain, became an American citizen in 2013).

With schools closed after the hurricane, feeding children became a priority.
With schools closed after the hurricane, feeding children became a priority. (World Central Kitchen)

Andrés’ extraordinary work in Puerto Rico was a very public project, but it was also part of a deeply personal journey. The chef stepped out from behind the kitchen doors years ago, hosting his “Made In Spain” television show, writing cookbooks and teaching courses, then moving from education to activism. Andrés became involved with DC Central Kitchen in Washington and L.A. Kitchen in Los Angeles, both nonprofits that combat hunger and food waste. His scope has become increasingly global, and his World Central Kitchen has mobilized in response not only to the natural disasters in Haiti and Puerto Rico, but to the catastrophic wildfires in California.

Andrés has not been alone in this trajectory. As chefs have gained global recognition, some have used their fame and resources to open the discussion of food far beyond what’s being served at their restaurants. Italian chef Massimo Bottura, whose Osteria Francescana has been called the best restaurant in the world, founded the nonprofit Food For Soul to fight food waste, and has opened a series of community kitchens. Danish chef Rene Redzepi of Noma founded the nonprofit MAD Symposium as an annual global forum to address contemporary food issues. And American chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill has taken his WastED pop-up project, which serves and champions reclaimed food, across the globe. But it is Andrés who has effectively changed the game.

Book jacket for "We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time" by Jose Andres.
Book jacket for "We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time" by Jose Andres. (Anthony Bourdain / Ecco)

His efforts have not gone unrecognized — the chef was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2015, was given this year’s Humanitarian of the Year Award by the James Beard Foundation, and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in both 2012 and 2018. His book, however, will have more effect than any awards or accolades. “We Fed an Island,” for all its righteous boosterism, is a tremendously valuable first-hand account of just what disasters look like — both the ones that nature visits upon us and those that we and our governments visit upon ourselves. It is both cynical and immensely optimistic, and it is ultimately heartwarming, as it shows just how much a handful of hard-working folks can do when they ignore the naysayers and get to work.

And we are going to need Andrés, and many who follow in his footsteps, with their food trucks and temporary kitchens, their ATM cards and vats of stew. Because, as the chef notes at the end of his book, “There sadly is always another disaster around the corner.”

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“We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time”

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José Andrés

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Anthony Bourdain/Ecco: 288 pp., $27.99

See José Andrés at the L.A. Times Ideas Exchange on Wed Sept. 19 at 7:30 p.m. at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles

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