After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20, an eerie silence enveloped the island. Without power and cell phone towers, the extent of the devastation would not be known to the outside world for days, and the lack of reliable communication made coordinating relief efforts difficult. Then on September 25, five days after the storm made landfall, Washington, D.C.-based chef José Andrés Tweeted that he and his nonprofit organization World Central Kitchen were “on our way.” In the following weeks, no one government authority, non-government organization, or political leader would emerge as a more vocal and boots-on-the-ground champion for Puerto Rico than Andrés.
Since landing on the island, the WCK team and Andrés — previously best known for his temples to molecular gastronomy and, more recently, Beefsteak, his fast-casual attempt to sell Americans on vegetables — have served more than three million meals to residents still struggling to return to normalcy. There have been giant pans of arroz con pollo, vats of corned beef and sausage stews, and thousands of ham sandwiches; more than 12,000 pounds of turkey, served with corn, potatoes, and cranberries, were on-hand to celebrate a proper Thanksgiving.
“The calories are obvious, but this is a message of hope,” Andrés told CBS News correspondent Anderson Cooper earlier this fall, revealing the core to his philosophy: That to feed people is to offer moments of comfort and humanity, an act that’s needed more now than ever.
More than a chef, Andrés is a connector. In Puerto Rico, he linked U.S. food distribution companies with kitchens on the ground, facilitating donations. He united a growing army of volunteers with communities in need, fostering #ChefsforPuertoRico’s growth as a community of its own. And through his Twitter feed, he connected the island’s residents with those around the world, amplifying their stories and asking, frankly, why relief efforts have not been better.
In that act, Andrés has emerged as a sharp critic of government institutions, becoming a mouthpiece for residents’ frustrations. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, he says, gets too caught up in red tape to effectively tackle the on-the-ground problems. “We need to make sure next time, we are not negotiating contracts,” Andrés told Cooper, holding the organization accountable to its failures on the island. “[To make sure that] next time, the federal government is ready to do what they’re supposed to do... The people of America don’t deserve anything less.”
Andrés, it should be noted, is no stranger to humanitarian efforts. World Central Kitchen was founded after the 2010 Haiti earthquake; it’s still active in feeding efforts there, and Andrés was also on the ground after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. Elsewhere, WCK funds social enterprise projects (like a sustainable bakery and restaurant in Haiti), culinary training programs (a culinary school in Port-au-Prince), and builds kitchens in schools to ensure its students have the best atmosphere in which to learn.
For the chef, it’s all part of an ongoing mission. “What makes you belong is the hard work,” Andrés wrote in an Eater op-ed last year, describing what encompasses the American experience. To Andrés, that hard work manifests in a desire “to improve your community, to improve the lives of the people around you, to say, ‘I am here to make a difference.’”
More than 70 days since the hurricane struck, nearly one third of Puerto Rico’s citizens are still without power; some will continue to live without electricity until February of next year. In a year with enough natural disasters and political acrimony to foster in many Americans an acute sense of helplessness, Andrés’s actions served as a rallying cry: the idea that one person can absolutely make a difference.