The Current·Q&A

Why an award-winning chef now dedicates his life to feeding people in disaster zones

José Andrés made his name as a food innovator in famous restaurants in Spain and the United States, but these days you’re more likely to find him in a disaster zone trying to get food to people who need it.

José Andrés and his organization are serving 300,000 meals a day to people affected by war in Ukraine

In this March 31, 2020, photo made available by World Central Kitchen, Chef José Andrés, right, and Nate Mook discuss meal distribution to first responders in Washington, DC. (Mike Jett/World Central Kitchen/Associated Press)

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José Andrés made his name as a food innovator in famous restaurants in Spain and the United States, but these days you're more likely to find him in a disaster zone trying to get food to people who need it. 

Andrés is an award-winning chef, and in 2010 he founded an organization called World Central Kitchen. Since then he has served more than 15 million meals worldwide after hurricanes, during the pandemic, and now during the the war in Ukraine. 

A new documentary about Andrés and his organization is now being shown at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. Andrés spoke to Matt Galloway on The Current about his work and the film We Feed People, directed by Ron Howard. Here is part of that conversation. 

The amazing thing about the work that you do, and you see this in the film, is that in some ways it seems really simple. People are hungry, you make food and then you feed them. Was that at the heart of what you're trying to do? Is it that simple? 

I will have to tell you, that it's complicated, but it's not. I mean, there's over 7 billion people that somehow manage to cope anywhere. Even in the places that there is a scarcity of food or a scarcity of fuel, the amazing thing about humans is that we are able to overcome any challenge. 

For cooks, cooking is the easy part. What we do that I believe is different is that we look for the people in need. 

One of the happy moments, even in those hard situations, is getting in the car or getting on the helicopter or the truck and going to find those communities one by one, bringing food on the first contact and telling them one very simple thing. We find the leaders in those communities and we tell them, we cannot do this without you. But I promise you one thing. We'll come back tomorrow and we'll come back the day after until everything goes back to normal. 

The food is always there. We bring it with us or we find it locally, and then we find the people in need. But at the end it is locals taking care of locals. In Ukraine, Ukrainians are feeding Ukrainians.

Tell me about Ukraine and the work that's going on there. Your organization is helping to create something like 300,000 meals a day. Given where else you've worked, what's the most difficult thing about the work that you're doing Ukraine right now? 

So we landed 12 hours after the war begun. We began in Poland, which was an ideal place for us, safe. We began taking care of the refugees. The people of the World Central Kitchen in the next two, three, four days, we were already spanning all across the Polish border.

Andrés said he feels it's important to be next to people in times of crisis and make sure food and water aren't on their list of concerns. (Francisco Seco/The Associated Press)

Before we knew, we were in the other country surrounding Ukraine — Hungary and Moldova and Romania. And before we knew we were not only in those countries, but we were also inside Ukraine. 

Why we do it? Because when the worst of humanity seems to be happening, the best humans show up to take care of fellow citizens. That's what we've been doing. 

And for me, it's been an honour to be next to the Ukrainian people, because they are amazing people that fight for democracy and liberty, not only on their behalf, but on behalf of all of us. 

We saw on the 17th of April, one of your kitchens was destroyed by a missile strike. Some of your staff were injured as well. And from social media, the sense was that you got straight back to work. What is it like doing this work, knowing that it's dangerous work? 

For our organization, we've been in difficult situations before when we [go] near a volcano and we decided to bring food to a little town full of elderly and children that cannot leave that town because there is too many elderly, because there are no roads, because there is no plan to evacuate them, but we feel we have to be next to them. That's risky. 

When we are sitting in the border of Colombia where there are guerrillas, or inside Venezuela, where we are not necessarily seen as friends, that is risky. 

Obviously this is a war where there is a missile at any moment, where sometimes you forget that you are in a war zone because you want to be feeding the people, because we are next to the people that are risking their lives to see people, especially the elderly. 

And we are doing whatever it takes to try to bring about that kind of gesture that the food brings, which is we care, we see you, we are not going to leave you alone. We are not going to let you go through this alone. 

A view shows buildings destroyed by the shelling, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Borodianka, Kyiv region. Andrés says he knows there is danger involved in what he does, but it's worth it. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

Let me ask you about the personal cost of that. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when you were in Puerto Rico and you essentially collapse because of exhaustion, because it's so much. What was going on in that moment for you? 

I cry a lot. Usually I look like a big boy, but at the end, I'm like a little bird. I'd rather prefer that [little bird] didn't show up, but at the same time, I think it's very good that you show the emotions that you go through, because you need to be emotional in a way. 

I cannot understand what people go through, because I've not been going through that. I'm only next to the people that are going through that. But their emotions become your emotions, right? 

Because we care what happens to others, sometimes we make their grief and the problems our own. And I do believe that's the only way we can make that happen, when we try to put ourselves in the skin of what others are going through. 

But what keeps me going is that every morning you wake up, very early on in the morning and you say to yourself, how many more people we see today? How many more cities can we arrive at today? 

How many towns, villages we can arrive at, make contact and start telling the locals and the mayors, we are here next to you. We cannot solve every problem you have. But in the short term, food and water is not going to be one of your problems. I promise you that. And that's what I tried to do every day.

I always say that the big problems, they have very simple solutions. In our case, it's make sure that in the initial moments of an emergency, we are next to the people providing them relief with food and water. 

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Julie Crysler. This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

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