Story by Parija Kavilanz, CNN Business
Award-winning chef José Andrés is no stranger to disaster zones.
Over the past few years, he has responded to many major crises. After an earthquake devastated Haiti, or when Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, when wildfires scorched Southern California and a refugee crisis intensified on the Venezuelan border, he mobilized volunteer chefs in each of those spots to prepare meals for thousands of people in need.
Now, during the global coronavirus pandemic, Andrés is again leading the charge to provide food relief to the elderly, those suddenly without work and frontline health care and essential workers.
He was early to spring into action. His nonprofit World Central Kitchen (WCK) set up makeshift kitchens at ports in Japan and California to feed quarantined cruise ship passengers and crew in February and even turned the Nationals’ baseball stadium in Washington, D.C. into a field kitchen to cook and distribute free meals.
In Arkansas, when schools closed in response to the pandemic, WCK teamed up with the Clinton Foundation to feed children who rely on school-provided meals. And at a time when America's restaurants have come to a near standstill, with about six million restaurant employees laid off or furloughed since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, Andrés is aiming to turn hundreds of restaurants and other locations into community kitchens.
A decorated chef whose innovative dining concepts have earned two Michelin stars, Andrés has opened an award-winning group of restaurants, written several cookbooks and created a collection of Spanish-inspired food products that are supplied to wholesalers and retailers nationwide. He could have easily kept himself out of harm's way. He's had plenty of work to do just managing his for-profit restaurant empire. Instead, he has put himself on the front lines of crises at personal risk to himself.
It is a dramatic departure for a chef of his caliber and stature. Andrés could, like some of his peers, just worry about appealing to the broadest swath of people in the friendliest, least polarizing way. Instead, he has taken time away from his business, and he has not worried about doing so in a way that can make him a political figure, criticizing President Trump and pushing for action on crises like hurricanes and the coronavirus.
Often, Andrés himself leads the cadre of volunteer chefs, said Nate Mook, CEO of World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit emergency food-relief organization Andrés founded in 2010.
"When there's a medical crisis anywhere, we send doctors. So, when there's a food crisis, we send chefs to help," he said.
Andrés was on the ground with his team in Oakland, California overseeing food relief work for the cruise ship passengers; In New York City and the DC area, he has personally delivered meals and much needed personal protective equipment like masks and gowns to hospitals, shelters and senior centers amid the coronavirus pandemic. "At the end of the day, José jumps in. We all jump in," said Mook. "When someone is hungry, they aren't hungry next week or next month. They are hungry now."
WCK has already delivered close to 18 million meals around the world thus far in places like Haiti, Puerto Rico, Indonesia, California and Mozambique. The non-profit is funded by individual donors, foundations and businesses. The organization logged $28.5 million in revenue in 2019. Now, as the world collectively faces an unprecedented situation with the coronavirus having taken a foothold in more than 200 countries, and infecting over 3.5 million people in a matter of months, Andrés again is all in, mobilizing chefs on the front lines.
In early February, 712 passengers and crew were quarantined aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship that docked in Yokohoma, Japan. Nearly half of the people on board eventually tested positive for the virus. Within days of the ship's lockdown, WCK and its chef relief team had mobilized to set up a field kitchen at the port outside of the ship to heat up and deliver fresh meals daily to quarantined passengers.
"We got a lot of help from different Japanese chefs," Andrés explained to CNN during a global town hall event in early March. "Everything was done in a very professional way to make sure that everybody will be safe, achieving what we wanted — feed everybody in a healthy way," he said.
Mobilizing local chefs and restaurants is key to quickly activating WCK's operations in a crisis area, explained Mook. "Tapping into the local resources — chefs, kitchens, materials — rather than flying everyone and everything in, helps us rapidly scale our emergency efforts."
In April, WCK assembled another chef relief team to feed passengers and crew quarantined aboard a cruise ship in Oakland, California. Then, as the pandemic spread in the U.S., shuttering businesses, closing schools and bringing life to a standstill, Andrés ramped up food relief efforts not only for frontline health and other essential workers but also for the many families now struggling to put food on the table.
In New York City, the epicenter of the nation's outbreak, Andrés has turned his sprawling 35,000-square-foot food hall, Mercado Little Spain, which encompasses three full-service restaurants and over a dozen food and retail kiosks, into a community kitchen serving low-cost (or free) grab-and-go meals to people in need. Over 3 million have been served in 890 individual locations to date, which includes but is not limited to community kitchens.
In mid-April, Andrés' friend Jacques Torres, a New York City resident and one of the most renowned chocolatiers and pastry chefs in the world, witnessed the scale of the effort.
"I was in the kitchen in Little Spain, and there were thousands of little trays filled with food for people on the front lines," said Torres. "It was humbling to see."
The volunteer chefs, united under the #ChefsForAmerica banner, are distributing 100,000 meals a day in New York City and New Jersey, said Mook. WCK has served over 7 million meals distributed in 234 cities in more than 35 states and territories, as well as 35 towns and cities in Spain. The non-profit, in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, is also providing meals specifically to NYC healthcare workers.
During the shutdown in the US, WCK has contracted with shuttered restaurants to help prepare 1 million relief meals, providing them with a crucial economic lifeline.
WCK is paying participating restaurant owners $10 per relief meal. Mook said the effort is designed to help get restaurants back on their feet and prevent many from going out of business.
Health and safety protocols are mandated for everyone involved in the effort, with restaurant staff advised to wear face masks, gloves and hairnets, and food preparation stations required to be at least six feet apart. Andrés' own company ThinkFoodGroup has also taken a hit amid the shutdown. The business was able to keep all of its employees on payroll with full compensation during the first five weeks of the shutdown. But in late April, the company furloughed its hourly employees and made them aware of their unemployment benefits. ThinkFoodGroup said it is covering 100% of employee health benefit premiums while they are not actively working.
"This pertains to employees in DC, NY, Las Vegas and Orlando. TFG continues to pay chefs and restaurant managers responsible for operating the community kitchens," the company said.
As he reflects on his evolution from chef to dedicated humanitarian wanting to feed people at their most vulnerable, Andrés has courted risk along the way, particularly with his activism as a proud and successful immigrant.
"It was very clear to me the day I swore in as an American, that we need to participate in the democratic process," said Andrés. "When you feel sometimes that things are unfair and unjust, I do believe it's the role of every American to speak up," Andrés said.