MIAMI, Fla -- Acclaimed chef and restaurateur José Andrés has become one of the strongest voices in defense of immigrants and a counterpoint to President Trump's views on immigration.
And during a whirlwind weekend that included a star-studded reception in his honor, the chef spoke to NBC Latino about his vision of the country he emigrated to from his native Spain.
"If anything we should be building walls of inclusion, walls that create communities, that create schools, that create hospitals, that create places of faith. In the end, walls that give people the opportunity to succeed and move forward," said José Andrés during the high-profile South Beach Food and Wine Festival this past weekend.
It was at a fundraising event where he was honored that the Spanish chef brought the house down when he took off the iconic white chef's coat to reveal a black T-shirt that said, "I am an immigrant."
It was an electrifying moment, and he brought the crowd of culinary celebrities to its feet, acknowledging the hardships facing both recent immigrants and those who feel left behind. "The American dream of the 21st Century needs to be an America of inclusion not exclusion," Andrés affirmed.
Andrés was recognized at the festival's tentpole tribute dinner that took place Saturday night at the Loews Hotel on Miami Beach, part of the festival's New York Times Cooking dinner series. A stellar team, that included internationally acclaimed chefs Emeril Lagasse, Michel Voltaggio, and Andrew Zimmern, prepared the menu.
The festival had no shortage of reasons to honor Andrés' outstanding career. His award-winning restaurants have transformed the way we think of Spanish cuisine in the United States.
A multiple James Beard Award winner, he was chosen as one of Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People". Beyond his culinary contributions, Andrés is a widely respected advocate for sensible food policy and clean cooking technology. In 2012, he founded the World Central Kitchen to end hunger and fight poverty. Last year, he received the National Humanities Medal from former President Barack Obama.
"We love José for being an extraordinary chef and being an extraordinary humanitarian," said festival founder Lee Schrager.
The noted chef also became involved in a multi-million dollar lawsuit with Donald Trump when he backed out of a deal to open a restaurant in then-candidate Trump's DC hotel after his disparaging remarks toward Mexican immigrants. Andrés filed a countersuit.
Earlier this month, Andrés was in the spotlight once again when he supported "A Day Without Immigrants" by closing his five Washington, DC restaurants.
Schrager couldn't have foreseen the dimensions the decision to honor Andrés would take, but he doesn't seem the least bit sorry.
"What he stands for is dignity and speaking up and giving people a voice. We couldn't be more proud. This is his year and we're lucky it became our year because of that," said Schrager.
Master of Ceremonies Anthony Bourdain, the popular author, chef and television host, wasted no time in addressing the controversy that surrounds Andrés. After listing his considerable achievements, Bourdain noted to thunderous applause that "most heart-warmingly, [Andrés] is the first chef in the history of the world to be sued by a sitting president."
In a quieter moment, Bourdain said, "I feel it's important to stand behind him at every opportunity, and I'm proud to be here for him."
Despite the complicated issues Andrés tackles, his stand on immigration is simple. "It's only about a very genuine, humane, common sense of trying to respect each other. That's the essence of what we should all be talking about. Not kicking people out, not building walls for separation," Andrés told NBC News.
This message rang clear in his acceptance speech after a warm introduction by Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan. Taking the stage, he recalled coming to the United States for the first time with the Spanish Navy and seeing the Statue of Liberty.
"I instantly fell in love with what America stands for. The values that that flag and those stars [represent] and the men and women that fought wars and work hard to make the country we all love," said Andrés to the crowd.
Andrés and his wife Patricia became American citizens three years ago, an experience that informs his awareness of the people who help get food to American tables and who fill the ranks of restaurants around the country.
"We have more than 70 percent of the people working our farms and fishing boats who are immigrants like me," he said before proudly removing his jacket to reveal his "I Am an Immigrant" t-shirt.