The celebrated chef and restaurateur is taking a proactive stance in the coronavirus crisis.
José Andrés is no stranger to facing adversity head-on. Where some meeker souls may cower in the face of hurricanes, hunger, and government gridlock, the iconic chef has a tendency to leap into action, oftentimes ahead of the proverbial cavalry. And it’s with the same, steadfast approach that Andrés is working to stem the fallout caused by the coronavirus.
The acclaimed chef and restaurateur closed all of his restaurants in New York City and Washington, D.C., this past Sunday, March 15. Two days later he reopened eight of them as community kitchens.
“We’re going to have to be thinking of of the box and adapt to the circumstances. So what I’m doing with my restaurants in downtown D.C. is a test of how restaurants can become this community kitchen where people can get a meal and make sure we are a part of the solution,” Andrés said in a video he posted to Twitter Monday—the day in between the restaurants closing and the kitchens opening. He is standing outside the original location of Jaleo—the flagship concept of the chef’s ThinkFoodGroup—which has been serving Spanish tapas for 27 years.
Now all three D.C. area Jaleo locations, as well as American Eats Tavern, upscale Mexican restaurant Oyamel, and Middle Eastern–leaning Zaytinya will offer to-go meals for $7 from noon to 5 p.m. daily. The price can be reduced or altogether waived to help those who find themselves financially insecure, and at the same time, other patrons can purchase meals on behalf of others. It’s the same system for Mercado Little Spain in New York’s Hudson Yards; a concept that marks its first anniversary this month.
“More than ever, the food industry together, we’re going to be playing a big role in the weeks and months to come,” Andrés said on the Twitter video.
His decision to shutter ThinkFoodGroup’s restaurants preceded announcements by mayors Bill De Blasio and Muriel Bowser of New York and D.C., respectively, that all restaurants, cafés, and bars would be restricted to carryout and delivery—essentially off-premises business with no dine-in option. While many restaurant owners and operators agree that the decision is necessary, it does little to diminish the blow of such a mandate, especially for full-service concepts whose business is so intertwined with the in-house dining experience.
Salaried ThinkFoodGroup employees work as volunteers at the community kitchens, and all employees are receiving at least two weeks of paid leave.
As an established restaurateur with multiple concepts and even more accolades, Andrés is in a unique position to steer the conversation and lead the industry, by example. But beyond inspiring fellow chefs and restaurateurs to follow suit, Andrés allows for the possibility that community kitchens like his might become a necessity, depending on how the pandemic unfolds.
“I’ve made it very clear that what I’m doing here is the blueprint for what maybe will have to happen if things get very bad,” he said at a press preview for the kitchens, as reported by The Washington Post.
As grim as a worst-case scenario may be, there’s perhaps no chef better suited to pilot a community kitchen program prior to a massive rollout. In recent years especially, Andrés has been recognized just as much for his hands-on philanthropy as for his restaurants. He founded World Central Kitchen, an international nonprofit that provides food to those in need following natural disasters. That work has taken Andrés to Haiti, Puerto Rico, Texas, and the Bahamas. Closer to home, he serves on the board of D.C. Central Kitchen and was one of the first restaurateurs to help furloughed workers with free meals during the month-long government shutdown.
“World Kitchen has proven every time that we can adapt to every circumstance: from fires to volcanoes to political situations to earthquakes, to typhoons to tsunamis to places where there is nothing left, like the Bahamas,” he said at the press event.