Photo By Aaron Clamage

Chef for the World

José Andrés is out with a new book that tells of his groundbreaking efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane María ravaged the island last year. In “We Fed an Island,” he recounts how he and his army of volunteers dealt with red tape, disorganization, outright incompetence and a U.S. president “who seemed to have no idea what his role was”  to help displaced residents, cooking some 100,000 meals a day throughout the island and bringing supplies to others so they could feed even more people.

Shortly after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the Washington, DC-based chef had founded the nonprofit World Central Kitchen which works to combat hunger and uses food as “an agent of change.”  He had arrived in Puerto Rico shortly after the hurricane because there was “no plan” to feed the people and ended up opening the world’s largest kitchen within in a week of arriving. Cooking meals was his way to help island residents deep in the throes of what has been described as a real humanitarian crisis. In total, he helped make more than three million meals, surpassing even efforts by the American Red Cross. “We solved the problems as they popped up as chefs do,” he writes. True to form, a portion of the proceeds from the book will be donated to the World Central Kitchen’s Chef Relief Network.

José Ramón Andrés Puerta was born in Spain and his culinary trajectory followed a path of training and working in restaurants – including a stint in the Spanish Navy as an admiral’s chef.  Arriving in the U.S. in the early 1990s, he was soon helping to transform a moribund part of Washington, D.C. near Chinatown with the opening of a tapas restaurant, Jaleo. Other restaurants soon followed as his “small plates” concept caught on such as Zaytinya, offering food from the Middle East, and Oyamel, which explores the diverse cuisines of Mexico. His empire expanded to now include establishments in Philadelphia; Los Angeles; Las Vegas; Miami’s South Beach; Dorado, Puerto Rico; and Mexico.

While he has won numerous awards for his culinary skills, his community work and social activism has been getting a greater amount of attention, particularly of late. His Twitter handle says, “We all are Citizens of the World. What’s good for you, must be good for all. If you are lost, share a plate of food with a will find who you are.”

José Andrés is not afraid to jump into a situation he feels he can help in – such as Haiti and Puerto Rico – and also speak out even if it means creating controversy. When then-candidate Donald Trump in 2015 called Mexican immigrants rapists, drug dealers, and criminals, José Andrés pulled out of a deal to open a restaurant in the new Trump International Hotel. Both sides last spring settled a lawsuit over the matter and the chef – who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2013 – continues to criticize the president. In a Washington Post article earlier this year, José Andrés slams the Trump Administration for its decision to end the Temporary Protected Status program for immigrants from certain countries, writing, “Let me be frank: The administration is throwing families and communities into crisis for no good reason. This is not what people of faith do. It’s not what pragmatic people do. It’s not what America was built on.”

What propelled José Andrés to become a household name outside of foodies were his multiple tweets during the height of his efforts in Puerto Rico. “Your lack of support to Puerto Rico cost the lives of people in the thousands! No Latino should vote for you ever again, and any Republican or Democrat that supports you should be voted out of office. You talk of God? God will punish you...”

In another tweet, José Andrés posted a photo of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Puerto Rico, with the caption “The most inefficient place on earth.” José Andrés’ work in Puerto Rico has been described as nearly Herculean by some who say they remain amazed that he was able to so quickly provide help while the island struggled to recover. He received the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 Humanitarian of the Year award earlier this year, and received a standing ovation at the Academy Awards ceremony. “When the Trump Administration failed to show real leadership, José Andrés was there to feed the people of Puerto Rico after Maria’s  devastation. He is in every way deserving of this award,” says New York Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, a native of Puerto Rico.

“Even though chef José Andrés is not from Puerto Rico, he helped feeding thousands on a daily basis. We here are very grateful to him and consider him part of us,” island resident Charlyn Gaztambide Janer tells LATINO. “He didn’t have to do it, but he did it with all his great heart! God bless him always for having such a great heart.”

And while José Andrés continues his community activism by providing food and assistance to those affected by other natural disasters such as fires in California and the volcanoes Guatemala, he continues to tweet with a recent criticism of the Trump administration’s controversial immigration policy of family separation, “you want to throw people out like dirty paper towels? Illegally Cage children? Not  following the rules and laws of our democracy?  I’m an immigrant! Stop destroying the America that We the People love! Come and get me....#IamanImmigrant.”

The renowned chef has been quite outspoken, but he has brushed aside suggestions that he take his community activism to another level and run for office. But sounding like a politician, José Andrés says that being involved is important and that he is already doing his civic duty with the work he has undertaken.

Patricia Guadalupe