José Andrés delivers food to Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. (Photos courtesy of World Central Kitchen)
José Andrés delivers food to Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. (Photos courtesy of World Central Kitchen)
In a video he recorded to accept the 2018 Humanitarian of the Year Award from the Catholic Business Network of Montgomery County, Maryland, chef José Andrés said he believes Jesus, who multiplied food in His miracle of the loaves and fishes, was the “best cook ever.” 

“He is like our hero in more ways than one,” Andrés told the group, which raises scholarships for students attending Catholic schools, at its Nov. 30 annual gala. He lives in Montgomery County, and two of his daughters attend Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Maryland, where another of his daughters was a member of the class of 2017.

It makes sense that Andrés, the award-winning chef who owns 31 restaurants around the country and abroad, would admire Jesus’s culinary feat, because the work that he did in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria is akin to how Jesus began with just a few loaves of bread and fish and went on to feed thousands, saying, “I do not want to send them away hungry” (Matthew 15:32).

Andrés arrived in Puerto Rico just a few days after Hurricane Maria made landfall in September 2017, while the majority of the island was still without power, water, food or gas. His friend, whose restaurant had lost power, had begun cooking all of the food he had stored and using it to feed the hungry people in the neighborhood. When Andrés arrived, they joined forces to cook and serve large quantities of a soup called sancocho.

Before long, the operation expanded to making sandwiches and other warm meals as well. More chefs joined in, calling themselves #ChefsForPuertoRico, and volunteers from the non-profit World Central Kitchen, which Andrés had founded to help out in previous disasters, also came to Puerto Rico to help. 

Eventually, they expanded from that one restaurant to several, and then moved their headquarters to an arena called El Coliseo, and later provided chefs and ingredients to community kitchens throughout the island, eventually totaling 25 kitchens. They grew from a group of about 20 volunteers to more than 19,000 volunteers, and from making 1,000 meals a day to making 150,000 meals in one day. In total, the operation served 3.6 million meals in the aftermath of the hurricane. Andres was recently nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize because of his work on the island.

Andrés, who is Catholic, seems to have taken a lesson or two from Jesus in how to operate such a large-scale multiplication. 

Like Jesus, who relied on the assistance of his apostles and food from a young boy in the crowd of people he was trying to feed, Andrés relied on the help of thousands of Puerto Ricans whom he empowered to feed themselves and their community. 

In his book from HarperCollins Publishers, We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time, Andrés details how the chefs who started as the core of the team were chefs from local Puerto Rican restaurants, how many local bakeries donated bread for the sandwiches, how local food truck owners drove routes around the island to distribute food, and how many Puerto Ricans volunteered to help out in their community kitchens.

“I only saw Puerto Ricans that cared for each other,” said Andrés during a Sept. 14 event at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the bookstore Politics and Prose. “I saw some of the best of the America I love there.”

Though professional chefs usually ran the community kitchens, in his book Andrés recalled the story of one pastor from an isolated church in the middle of the island who had heard about their food operation and sought them out to try to help. Because the chef was so persistent in wanting to open a community kitchen in his church, a member of Andrés’ team finally agreed. About 80 people from that church, ranging in ages from 7 to 70, volunteered to cook and deliver meals in their local community. 

“Churches are so important. They are the heart of the community,” said Andrés during the Sept. 14 event. “…This pastor was so persistent. He showed what a leader is – a leader is there to serve the people.”

In addition to empowering local volunteers to help with food distribution, Andres sourced most of the food locally, empowering local businesses to get back on their feet following the devastation. At the beginning of his operation, he opened a huge line of credit from the largest food supplier on the island. Toward the end of the operation, while they were trying to feed the most isolated people on the island, he ordered 120 chickens from a local business that had just reopened.

During the question and answer session of the Politics and Prose event, Andrés promoted this type of local engagement when he encouraged a young woman who asked how she could help to “find what you can do here in D.C., in your community,” and then show up and help. The name of his non-profit, World Central Kitchen, was inspired by DC Central Kitchen, which trains jobless adults for culinary careers while reducing food waste and providing meals to homeless shelters. 

Through local sourcing and distribution, Andrés found a way to feed people warm meals on a large scale for less money than it costs for the federal government to provide military MREs (Meal, Ready-to-Eat), which Andrés writes are “so heavily processed and preserved that they only have a distant relationship with food.”

“An MRE is a matter of survival,” he wrote. “A freshly cooked plate of local food is a meal you’re sharing with your family and community…it’s a plate of hope.”

This points to another lesson that Andrés may have learned from Jesus – the importance of treating each person with equal dignity. 

“Whether I am cooking for Washingtonians or refugees, my job as a chef is the same: to feed the many. Whether I am creating an avant-garde meal that deconstructs your idea of a familiar meal, or a giant pot of rice or chicken that fills your belly, I believe in the transformational power of cooking.” he writes. “…A plate of food is much more than food. It sends a message that someone far away cares about you; that you are not on your own. It’s a beacon of hope that maybe somewhere, something good is happening…It’s a message from every man and woman on my team saying we care, that we haven’t forgotten, and it allows those in despair to have a little bit more patience, for one more day.”

Andrés, whose restaurants like Minibar and Jaleo are frequented by some of the most influential people in the country, doesn’t see much of a difference between cooking for them and cooking for the devastated Puerto Rican farmer whom the news cycle left behind. 

The World Central Kitchen team is once again demonstrating this belief as they feed thousands of Central American refugees in Tijuana, Mexico who are waiting for their asylum claims to be processed in the United States. The organization set up in a former concert venue and has been serving about 3,000 meals per day.  Andrés and volunteers from his organization also recently fed people affected by the California wildfires.

Andrés is an immigrant from Spain and became an American citizen five years ago. During his Politics and Prose talk, he recalled how he left school when he was 14, and his family never went to restaurants, because they could not afford them. He honed his culinary skills by cooking at home out of necessity, and would later use those skills to feed thousands of people facing a similar need for food.

In reference to World Central Kitchen’s latest relief effort, Andrés told the Washington Post, “If you are a person of faith, you will argue this is the right thing to do.” 

Andrés concludes We Fed an Island with a scene outside of a local Catholic church, where people were eating barbeque and dancing to live music. Inside, a Puerto Rican flag hung behind a crucifix, and handwritten signs stuck to the wall told the story of how that community had survived the storm.

When Andrés stopped to talk to the church’s pastor, the priest asked him where his idea to come to Puerto Rico had come from, and Andrés wrote, “I was, for once, at a loss for words.” He told the priest that he did not have a plan, and, “My idea was just to feed the people.”

The pastor may have suspected that the chef’s idea came from the same person who once fed thousands of people on a mountain near the Sea of Galilee.