The star chef and humanitarian tells us about his work with World Central Kitchen and the new documentary that captures it
José Andrés is late. He’s meant to call at 10 a.m., but morning comes and goes with no word. No one likes being stood up, but, in this case, it’s impossible to be upset. Andrés, the 52-year-old Spanish chef most famous for bringing tapas to America via his empire of restaurants, is in Kyiv, where his organization, World Central Kitchen, has been making and distributing more than 15 million meals throughout eight countries in the region. The day before we’re meant to talk, one of the relief kitchens in Kharkiv is struck by a missile. Four workers are injured, though thankfully none die.
I’ve known Andrés for a number of years. As a habitué of food conferences and a roving restaurant critic, it’s hard not to know—and remember—the man. He’s a force of nature, with a slew of successful restaurants. There’s Minibar, a 10-seat fine-dining counter with two Michelin stars in Washington, D.C., but also Beefsteak, his vegetable-forward fast-casual chain. At various hotels, you can find his freewheeling Bazaars, with their potato espuma and “Say When” caviar service. In New York, there’s the sprawling Mercado Little Spain, a love letter to his home country. And in the next year alone, ThinkFoodGroup, Andrés’s company, is opening a New York outpost of his D.C. hot spot Zaytinya, as well as three restaurants—San Laurel, Agua Viva, and a branch of his (very good) steakhouse, Bazaar Meat— in Los Angeles. He was even tapped to create a menu for the astronauts at the International Space Station. (He made chicken and mushroom paella.)
Even so, I’ve never seen Andrés as he’s depicted in the new documentary We Feed People, directed by Ron Howard and available now on Disney+. For the last 12 years, since he founded World Central Kitchen, he has traveled the world, hopscotching from hurricane to tornado to flood to war zone, helping to make and deliver more than 70 million meals. And for the last two years, Howard’s crew has followed him. The film shows the organization being at once extemporaneous and carefully thought out. By mobilizing existing kitchens, avoiding bureaucratic red tape, and recruiting local volunteers, WCK has been able to deliver lifesaving aid where larger institutions cannot. It takes chutzpah and an outlaw’s gumption, and the man at the center of it all—advocating, yelling, hugging, crying, and, of course, cooking and feeding—is Andrés.
Finally, a few days after our first phone date, I get word that Andrés is available. It’s 10 p.m., just before curfew in Kyiv, when I hear his voice over a crackly line. He’s hoarse, his accent seemingly made stronger by fatigue, but he’s as persuasive and passionate as ever.
Thank you for taking some time to talk during what is no doubt a chaotic situation. Where are you right now? Describe what you see.
I am outside the door of my hotel somewhere in downtown Kyiv. It’s late at night, 40 minutes before curfew. People are hurrying to their homes and hotels. The buildings are very dark, as they have been for the last 50-plus days, since the country has been at war. Two hours ago, I was in Bucha, where I heard these amazing screams of happiness when some, not all, of the power came back on. I was there two weeks ago, hours after it was liberated from the Russians. Going back, even though I’ve known the people there for two weeks and they’ve known me for two weeks, they feel like family. So there are a lot of emotions today.
What is your operation like there?
World Central Kitchen Chefs for Ukraine has around 400 restaurants in the Ukrainian mission, which includes not just Ukraine but the neighboring countries. Remember, we’ve been on the border of Poland since 12 hours after the war began. We are delivering today to more than 2,000 homes. We are in more than 80 cities and doing 300,000 meals a day. We are also distributing 7 million pounds of food on top of the meals. Today, I was delivering a mix of hot food to places that for different reasons cannot cook and 25- to 30-pound bags of food for a family of four, so they can have one plate [for each family member] for three or four days. I’ve been very busy, but we are an organization with every single leader with boots on the ground. That is a message: If we want to solve problems, we need to have the people in charge with more boots on the ground.
One of the innovations of World Central Kitchen’s model is that you empower local chefs, restaurants, and kitchens that already exist wherever you’re active. You utilize available resources as opposed to, say, shipping in MREs.
We don’t have a formal plan. We embrace the complexity, and we embrace adaptation. We have multiple ways to respond, because no two emergencies are equal. When you plan too much and you train your teams to plan, the one time something happens it is beyond those 1 million plans—people are so focused on following the plan that they freeze in the adversity.
How do you balance the danger to your staff—and yourself—with trying to complete World Central Kitchen’s mission?
I mean, when we were in Venezuela, when we were in the helicopter in Abaco in a hurricane, or on the streets of Kharkiv, we were putting ourselves in danger. You’re never going to solve the problems humanity faces if you don’t put yourself in danger. This is the reality. If anybody tries to fool themselves that they’re going to solve hunger in the world with a speech? That speech might be beautiful, but if it isn’t followed by actions, it is just words that go down an abyss of nothing. Am I putting myself in danger? Yes. But there are millions of people working in WCK who are giving voice to the voiceless, to those who feel alone, not only in Ukraine but in Yemen and Ethiopia. I’m here to be next to those people, to give voice to the voiceless.
But you also have to be alive to do that.
I am alive. Not every Ukrainian left. Take a look at the kitchen that was just bombed in Kharkiv. They decided to reopen in a new location. Even the wounded said, “We’ll be back as soon as we can.”
How do you balance your career in fine dining—of, say, unlimited caviar service at Bazaar Meat in Chicago or olive oil and chocolate bonbons at Minibar—with the extreme, desperate situations you find yourself surrounded by while working with WCK?
Listen, I used to go to my hotel, and I would call the concierge [complaining] because, for example, I didn’t have hot water. Then you find yourself in this situation, for instance, in the early days of [Hurricane] Maria in Puerto Rico: You are in a place where people are celebrating that there was rain—even when they lost their homes, when they were getting wet—because rain meant they didn’t have to drink from a dirty pond. That puts everything in perspective, that in my life I b**** for not having hot water. Life is about perspective and proportion. Of course, I enjoy my family and cooking at home and my two Michelin Stars—one day, hopefully it’ll be three—and caviar and Champagne, but I do not believe one is against the other. One thing is not in a fight with the other. We can embrace both. The world cannot be fed with caviar and Champagne, but if we all do a little bit of our part to try to understand what the voiceless are going through, what the poorest of the world are going through, the moment we understand that, maybe we have a chance.
Does your experience with WCK ever make it back to your restaurants? For instance, do the menus ever reflect what you’ve cooked for people around the globe—say, beans in Haiti or borscht in Ukraine?
No. I don’t see it that way. Many people say “José, why don’t you put anything about WCK in your menus?” I say, “Because when people come to my restaurants, I want them to come to my restaurants.” That said, during the pandemic, after being on the ground in Oakland [serving passengers and crew members on the quarantined Grand Princess cruise ship] and seeing how big it was going to be, we left with a plan, and the plan was to close our restaurants and turn them into community kitchens. We developed a health protocol, which we’ve shared with thousands of other restaurants. So, in that way, the two so-called arms connect.
Your wife, Patricia, and your daughters Carlota, Ines, and Lucia, are a big part of the documentary. Your daughters, in particular, talk about missing you. So when are you going home?
I don’t know. I’ve been back and forth. I was in Miami when the war began and arrived two days later in Poland. I had to leave Ukraine to film my television show in Barcelona, but I came back to Ukraine with my daughter Ines, who wanted to be part of the response. I cannot say no to my daughter. I want my daughter to be at a long table, not behind a tall wall. If I put my daughter behind walls, and the people on the other side of the walls aren’t doing well, eventually those walls are going to be torn down, and my daughter would not do well. If I build longer tables, where everyone does well, that’s the legacy I’m leaving for them.