Update: 8/18/2023: This story was originally published November 10, 2017. It has been updated throughout to reflect the latest information.
As the devastation in Maui became clear, it was clear also that World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit started by chef José Andrés, would soon be on the ground providing disaster relief.
In the days since August 8, the Maui wildfire has been declared the deadliest in the United States in more than a century, leading to more than 100 confirmed deaths. The town of Lahaina, the former capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, was almost entirely destroyed. Thousands of people have been forced to evacuate, and the recovery efforts are only just beginning.
Last week, World Central Kitchen arrived in Hawaii with food and supplies for first responders. Over the next several days, World Central Kitchen volunteers set up at food distribution locations on Maui and the Big Island, and within the first week of its arrival, the organization provided more than 16,000 meals to wildfire victims.
At this point, World Central Kitchen’s ability to mobilize following disasters around the wold is well established. But while the NGO, which aims to change the world “through the eyes of a chef,” may have first risen to wide public attention when it served more than 3.7 million meals in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, its work started years before. Here’s the backstory on the chef-led organization.
World Central Kitchen’s origin story
Andrés was inspired to found World Central Kitchen in 2010. After a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti that year, the chef traveled to the country to work with other nonprofit organizations to install clean cookstoves in the region. In 2011, he joined the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a UN foundation launched in 2010 by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as culinary ambassador. In an announcement of his new role he said that he “went to Haiti to assist in humanitarian relief efforts, and saw that the grinding poverty they live with day-to-day had been exacerbated by dirty cooking conditions in overcrowded and unsafe tent cities.” While in Haiti, he also fell in love with country and, naturally, wanted to do more.
At the time, Andrés was chairman of the hunger-fighting nonprofit DC Central Kitchen and on the boards at some other NGOs, but he didn’t see what he was looking for in the international development world — essentially, “an organization that really focused on empowerment and not just feeding,” according to current World Central Kitchen executive director Brian MacNair. Andrés approached DC Central Kitchen with his idea for a new nonprofit. “He said, ‘Hey, I want to start my own organization called World Central Kitchen, tipping my hat to DC Central Kitchen. It’s an empowerment organization,’” MacNair says. “I didn’t think he’d do it.”
After it became clear that Andrés was in fact serious about creating an international empowerment nonprofit, MacNair came on in 2012. He helped streamline World Central Kitchen’s mission to focus on four distinct areas: education, health, jobs, and social enterprise. But unlike other organizations that offer global aid, World Central Kitchen would answer these needs with chefs. “There’s a lot of chefs that are doing good work, but an organization on the ground, kind of like a chefs’ network, didn’t exist and still doesn’t,” MacNair says.
How World Central Kitchen works
In 2013, World Central Kitchen established its “chef network,” which now includes 140 professional chefs. The vision was for a kind of “chefs without borders” program where chefs would enact positive change, globally, using knowledge and resources related to their professions.
Initially, the majority of the organization’s work directly addressed either education, health, job creation, or social enterprise all over the world. It built working kitchens in public schools to ensure children are eating in school, thus encouraging them to go. World Central Kitchen promoted health by teaching food safety and installing clean cookstoves. And to create jobs, World Central Kitchen established culinary schools, which also boost the hospitality industry and stimulate the economy in the areas where it is active — starting with Haiti.
It has since established multiple ongoing initiatives in the country, including a culinary school in Port-au-Prince (now run by chef Mi-Sol Chevallier), a bakery and restaurant in Croix-des-Bouquets that generate revenue for an orphanage, and “Haiti Breathes,” a campaign to convert Haiti’s school kitchens from using solid fuels to liquid petroleum gas to promote cleaner air.
In addition to Haiti, World Central Kitchen has operated in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Zambia, Peru, Cuba, Uganda, Cambodia, and elsewhere. According to MacNair, the group responds to requests from nonprofits and government organizations to build school kitchens and conduct sanitation training, but it also supports smaller projects in line with its four goals on a case-by-case basis.
World Central Kitchen helped a group of women in the Dominican Republic market the honey that they harvest. In Nicaragua, it invested in a coffee roasting facility and has worked with fellow empowerment organization Fabretto to renovate school kitchens.
World Central Kitchen’s disaster and hurricane relief
In October 2016, when Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti, killing more than 900 people, World Central Kitchen was on the ground and distributed 15,000 meals from a mobile kitchen. This marked the beginning of the organization’s disaster relief efforts.
Those efforts continued in August 2017 when Andrés flew to Houston to feed people after Hurricane Harvey flooded the city. There, World Central Kitchen mobilized food donations and activated its network of chefs to feed people in need of support. But, it wasn’t until Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico that fall that disaster relief became the fifth part of World Central Kitchen’s official mission.
As with Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Andrés flew to Puerto Rico days after Hurricane Maria made landfall. Andrés and his network of chefs, which he acknowledged on Twitter with #ChefsForPuertoRico, established kitchens across the island, and the visibility of these efforts allowed World Central Kitchen to secure donations and private funding, crucial to feeding people left without food, clean water, and electricity. Although World Central Kitchen fulfilled a FEMA contract in Puerto Rico, it’s this private funding that allowed the group to continue to feed people through Thanksgiving of that year and well beyond.
“Puerto Rico just took us by storm,” MacNair said in 2017. “We grew 500 percent as an organization overnight.” World Central Kitchen has since hired staff to focus solely on disaster relief “because, clearly, we are chef relief now. We are disaster relief now,” MacNair said.
As extreme weather events and other climate-related disasters become more frequent, World Central Kitchen has grown its efforts across the world. Over the course of the past year, it has supported people after Hurricane Ian in Florida, flooding in Pakistan, wildfires in Spain, and now, Hawaii, to list just a few. “The most important is not to cook, but food distribution,” Andrés told CNN’s Anderson Cooper after Hurricane Dorian.
The nonprofit has also reacted to more manmade crises: In 2018, World Central Kitchen fed refugees in Tijuana, Mexico, and on January 16, 2019, it opened a pop-up kitchen in D.C. to provide free meals to U.S. government employees who went without paychecks during the partial government shutdown began December 22, 2018.
The nonprofit’s response to the shutdown, which World Central Kitchen dubbed #ChefsForFeds, didn’t end there. In a video posted to Twitter January 19, 2019 Andrés announced that World Central Kitchen would expand to serve furloughed workers nationwide. “We believe this is a national food emergency and we will be there for the American federal workers,” he said. And on January 21, Andrés announced that World Central Kitchen would also establish a resource center in D.C. to provide supplies like groceries, diapers, and pet food.
“This is our action to make sure nobody will be hungry,” Andrés said in the January 19 video. “President Trump, what are you doing about it?”
The World Central Kitchen team is consistently stationed at locations around the globe. In the wake of 2019’s Hurricane Dorian, the organization served refugees in Venezuela.
Reporting in after a long day on Abaco and visiting Green Turtle Cay, where all 550 people survived! We @WCKitchen brought hot meals and heard incredible stories....They need a few things, but otherwise are okay!! #ChefsForBahamas pic.twitter.com/sqrPmEbYmx— José Andrés (@chefjoseandres) September 5, 2019
The ongoing war on Ukraine saw World Central Kitchen take on another dimension to its disaster relief work. In the first weeks of the Russian invasion into Ukraine in early 2022, WCK teams fed refugees from a pedestrian border crossing in southern Poland. The effort marked the team’s first response in an active war zone. Eventually, the nonprofit established 4,000 distribution sites in Ukraine, as well as Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia, Germany, and Spain. And as Ukrainians have returned home the nonprofit has continued to provide meals and meal kits to those affected by the war.
World Central Kitchen growing pains and leadership shakeup
World Central Kitchen’s rapid growth has not been without pitfalls. In June 2023, it disclosed that an independent law firm had confirmed instances of fraud totaling several million dollars, linked to WCK’s presence in Ukraine and Turkey.
In a statement to Eater, a spokesperson for the company reiterated the message of the press release, saying: “While WCK recognizes nonprofits operating in major crises and active war zones are likely to experience fraud — as we recently saw reports of in Ethiopia — they remain committed to learning from their experiences and taking additional steps to improve operations as WCK continues to evolve into a more mature global relief organization.”
The revelations led to changes in personnel in both locations, according to the spokesperson, who said the organization has “implemented additional safeguards to combat fraud without slowing or hindering the WCK mission, including vendor and contractor verifications, an anonymous tip line, and improvements to partner monitoring systems such as a separate control team that supervises the invoicing and delivery of meals in Ukraine.”
This news followed a tumultuous year behind the scenes of the NGO. In May 2023, Bloomberg reported that Tim Kilcoyne, World Central Kitchen’s director of emergency relief was dismissed following an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment. News of the dismissal had reached employees in June 2022. Later that summer, longtime CEO Nate Mook left his position. A brief press release announcing the move said the board of directors and Mook “agreed to part ways.” In the same Bloomberg piece, Mook said, “the WCK board and I had differences over the CEO role.”
Andrés, meanwhile, has remained the figurehead of World Central Kitchen since it began, with the official title, per the organization’s website, of “founder and chief feeding officer.” On social media, he continues to share dispatches from WCK’s operations on the ground — currently, Hawaii — alongside news of his latest restaurant openings, such as a recent post on the honey-miso eggplant served at his new restaurant in New York City’s Ritz-Carlton Nomad.