This past year was a busy one for José Andrés. The celebrated chef continued to expand his restaurant empire with a trio of openings in Los Angeles and a new rooftop bar in New York. He partnered with Capital One to bring exclusive dining experiences to cities across the U.S. He renamed his nearly 30-year-old ThinkFoodGroup to José Andrés Restaurants. And later this month, the chef will star in a new series, “José Andrés and Family in Spain,” wherein he takes his American-born daughters on a gastronomic and cultural tour through his native country.
But while Andrés’s accomplishments in a single year are the sort that most chefs can only dream of achieving over the course of a whole career, another endeavor eclipses them all, at least on a personal level—namely, his work with the nongovernmental organization (NGO) World Central Kitchen.
“Besides my family and friends and my business and being a proud Washingtonian, this has become for me one of the most special things I’ll ever do in my life,” Andrés said on a virtual forum hosted by D.C. law firm ArentFox Schiff in December.
Indeed, the chef’s humanitarian work has come to rival his culinary mastery over the past decade. So when the conflict began in Ukraine nearly a year ago, Andés and World Central Kitchen (WCK) leaped into action. First serving refugees at the Polish border but eventually moving into war zones in southern Ukraine.
From the chef’s point of view, he and his peers in the restaurant industry are ideal allies in disaster relief.
“Obviously, it’s the core idea that there are restaurants everywhere, that things may happen everywhere. I don’t need to own 10,000 restaurants across America [that are] ‘strategically’ located in case something happens. The restaurants are already there. I don’t need to own 10,000 food trucks across America or all around the world. They are already part of the community,” Andrés said. Think about it: America is a gigantic restaurant. There’s no reason why, at any moment, food should become a problem—even for a day.”
The origin of WCK can be traced back to 2010. Andrés and his family were on holiday in the Cayman Islands when a 7.0-magnitude hit Haiti, immediately killing thousands, leveling buildings, and throwing an already resource-strapped country into chaos. Moved by the tragedy unfolding less than 600 miles from his idyllic vacation spot, Andrés flew to Haiti to help in any way he could. It soon became apparent that, as a chef, he was uniquely qualified to aid in recovery efforts.
“When Haiti happened it was like, let me go because I’m sure there’s something I can do,” he said. “I went there, and with the help of a Spanish NGO, I began cooking in a few places where people had lost their homes and were temporarily staying in these tent cities. That’s where WCK began.”
Andrés also took inspiration—both in name and mission—from another nonprofit, one where he’d been regularly volunteering since the 1990s.
“DC Central Kitchen showed me how food could be an amazing tool for food people. Folks like me and restaurant people who feed the few—we could also be part of feeding the many,” he said. “In the end, no problem is solved alone. The problems need to be solved in a more 360-degree view.”
This perspective has only strengthened over the years and through the course of multiple humanitarian relief trips. Andrés noted that while government groups and NGOs might have the best of intentions, some have become too big and mired in red tape; their efforts are often hindered by their own girth.
Smaller groups can move quickly and change tack as necessary. And although World Central Kitchen has grown over the years, it remains nimble and flexible, which Andrés believes is key in crises.
“I’m very happy this organization is still going but has enough experience [now]. People have been in many different situations,” he said “As I always say, adapting is more important than planning. If you overplan, you freeze under eventualities and under mayhem. When you enjoy adaptation, every moment is an opportunity to serve.”
And serve he has. Since 2010, WCK has had boots on the ground in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Zambia, Peru, Cuba, Uganda, the Bahamas, Cambodia, and multiple states in the U.S.
Along the way, Andrés has recruited others to join the cause. In the early days, he would be the one to get the ball rolling and mobilize fellow chefs and restaurateurs. Now, it’s a more organic process—something he credits, in part, to the pandemic. It was a time when foodservice united to help one another and the communities they serve.
“It’s not just me anymore. At this point, we all call each other,” Andrés says. “This creates, over the years, a network. Not only in emergencies, but in the good times, right? You go to other cities and you always know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody else.”
In its dozen-odd years of operation, World Central Kitchen has generally arrived in the aftermath of hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. Ukraine, however, presented a different challenge altogether. Initially, the nonprofit installed itself at the Polish border to help refugees fleeing the country. But as the conflict stretched out, WCK moved into Ukraine, mostly in the southern provinces.
“Ukraine is the war that shouldn’t be happening. And that’s why we’re here,” Andrés said.
The chef said that sometimes he felt foolish wearing a bulletproof vest.
“I do it so if the insurance people see me, at least they don’t raise my insurance,” he joked. In truth, the reason for feeling foolish is two-fold. For starters, he’s serving people who don’t have such protective gear. Secondly, he’s not near the active conflict zones, though on this point, there’s a strong argument that the violence can quickly escalate and spill into cities and towns across the country.
In April, one of WCK’s partner restaurants, Yaposhka, was bombed during airstrikes in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Nearly 20 people, including three WCK volunteers, were injured and two killed in the airstrikes. Andrés recalls how one volunteer was eager for her burns to heal enough that she could return to WCK.
The chef recognizes the impact his own celebrity has in not only bringing media attention to these humanitarian crises, but also galvanizing more chefs and foodservice professionals to join in his cause. And though Ukraine has not been at the forefront of the news the way it was in the spring, Andrés and WCK’s efforts are one way to keep the war in the spotlight. Last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy honored him with the Order of Merit for his work; as of November, WCK had served 180 million since the invasion began.
Andrés plans to return to Ukraine in January. A so-called “helicopter” mentality, wherein aid groups drop ready-to-eat meals and consider it a job well done. Instead, Andrés brings a chef’s mentality to humanitarian aid: continuing to serve and to do so at an exceptional level.
“You go one day and you show up the day after and you show up the third day and the fourth and the fifth. In the process, you see how locally there are enough resources and people that can help you provide aid,” Andrés said. “This is a great way to lift up the communities after a catastrophe.”