How José Andrés Faces the Challenge of Feeding Millions


This article is part of a series on resilience in troubled times — what we can learn about it from history and personal experiences.

Before José Andrés won four Michelin stars for his cooking and before he made the cover of Time magazine as the chef who “wants to feed the world,” he served in the Spanish Navy. Service was mandatory back then, and he got a job cooking for an admiral. But what he really wanted was to serve on an actual ship. He eventually ended up on the Juan Sebastián de Elcano, the Navy’s training ship, and learned lessons that still serve him well.

“Just watching 300 people working together, doesn’t matter where the currents came from or the wind came from, the boat would always march forward,” he said recently from El Puerto de Santa María, Spain, where he was visiting a friend’s restaurant and helping to coordinate his team’s response to the coronavirus outbreak there. “Sacrifice, hard work, teamwork, belief in the person on your right and belief in the person on your left.”

It was that sort of group ethic that led Mr. Andrés, 50, to become one of the most celebrated and recognizable chefs in the world, and the founder of ThinkFoodGroup (and its 28 restaurants) and World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that has fed millions after disasters and crises in Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Indonesia, Mozambique, Haiti and the United States. Most recently, during the coronavirus pandemic, World Central Kitchen, based in Washington, has provided over two million meals in Spain and 16 million in the United States.

Resilience in the face of trauma seems to be one of Mr. Andrés’s specialties. This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

You seem to have endless energy and determination. Do you have a sense of where that comes from?

I don’t feel so endless of energy anymore. I realize I have boundaries like everybody. I left school when I was very young. The only way forward was to have determination, because if I didn’t look forward nobody else would.

In Spain, there is a classic book called “El Lazarillo de Tormes,” from the 16th century. It tells the story of these young people — they are called “picaresca,” people that have to be very witty to overcome any obstacle. I think this is in my DNA, to adapt to any circumstance. You make the best out of every situation, no matter how bad it is.

How do you set out putting a team together to support a large-scale project like World Central Kitchen?

For me, it was a simple reality that the restaurant community in America and around the world is very large, very deep. You will always find a restaurant, a staff, chefs — and that means connection to farmers and food companies and distributors, with access to gas, with access to refrigeration. That’s no matter where we are in the world. In an emergency, this is something very powerful.

That means that you may have an army that may have a hard time feeding their people, but if we are involved, we will not have a problem feeding a village. Because we know where the food is, we know where the water is, we know where the generators are, we know where the refrigeration is. That’s the beginning of World Central Kitchen, a firm belief in the food community in the world. This theory of mine is proving itself time over time.

For example, in Yokohama, when we began answering to Covid, Nobu Matsuhisa was one of the first chefs [we contacted]. Yes, I know Nobu well, but his people began helping us with questions we had. That allowed us to do tens of thousands of meals for the Princess cruise ship.

  • Updated June 24, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

Did working in and running kitchens help you discover the skills and stamina to run these large-scale programs?

Remember that over all kitchens, there’s a little bit of chaos. Cooks like me, we are naturals with chaos. It’s a Friday night and order after order keeps coming in. Fish with no garlic, and vegetables with no black pepper, and well-done steaks and “I don’t want mustard.” Then the system crashes, the computer crashes. Restaurants keep putting food out.

In March, you wrote an op-ed for The New York Times, and you outlined essential steps to your work feeding in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Are those steps the same for a response to the pandemic? Have you adapted your thinking with this new challenge?

Obviously every previous experience helps us for the next one, but two emergencies are never equal. I always say that the future of business, the future of N.G.O.s [nongovernmental organizations], are not those that only plan. If you plan too much and write page after page of the perfect plan, chances are that in the next emergency nothing will go as planned. Then the people who don’t have a written plan, what do they do? That’s why I sincerely believe that the best way forward for business, small, big, N.G.O.s and governments is to become experts in adaptation. Adaptation will always win the day.

At World Central Kitchen, we have one mission and one very simple objective: feed the hungry, bring water to the thirsty. Everybody understands that very simple, clear, profound message. At the end, we tell them: Adapt to the circumstances to achieve that.

In that same op-ed you wrote: “These challenges can seem overwhelming, but we believe the most effective solutions are often right in front of us.” I think there are a lot of people out there who sort of get paralyzed by these massive challenges. How do you personally overcome that feeling?

Hmm. Let me see. In Puerto Rico, there was no bread. On paper. But there you had four bakeries. But people are thinking about bringing bread from Florida. We were thinking about how to get generators to the bakeries so they could start producing bread. People that were trying to bring bread from Florida, a month later they were unsuccessful. People like us, talking to the owners of the bakeries and just trying to be part of the solution, we were getting bread in less than 24 hours locally. Do you understand what I mean? Sometimes very big problems, they have very simple solutions.


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