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MIAMI — After Hurricane Maria devastated and virtually paralyzed Puerto Rico in September 2017, local and federal officials were having trouble getting to entire towns and cities that had been plunged into darkness and cut off from highways and communication. Yet the restaurateur and celebrity chef José Andrés went to the island, organized 19,000 volunteers in 25 makeshift kitchens and served over 3.5 million meals through one of the hardest years in the island's history.
Andrés tells that story in "We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time," a book released by the late Anthony Bourdain’s Ecco imprint last fall. While the book focuses on Puerto Rico, it's also a blueprint for how relief organizations can respond to both human-made and natural disasters.
“We cover blind spots. We bring leadership where sometimes leadership is totally gone,” Andrés told NBC News last week at the renowned South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Miami. At the star-studded event, he gathered many of the island's chefs who worked with him after the hurricane, cooking up traditional dishes such as roast pork and boosting the U.S. territory he's come to know so well.
“In part, we celebrate that they are really heroes and in part we’re celebrating that Puerto Rico is open for business, that it has great food, great gastronomy, great places for travel” Andrés said.
Now, Andrés is focused on Puerto Rico's recovery; this month World Central Kitchen announced it would commit $4 million to its Plow to Plate initiative, aimed at increasing the island’s food security and sustainability by supporting farmers and local food businesses. The Spanish-born celebrity chef is confident the strength and resiliency he experienced firsthand on the island will help Puerto Ricans lift themselves from the storm's aftermath amid a historic fiscal crisis.
Puerto Ricans, he said, "demonstrated an impressive solidarity, an incredible generosity, patience, help to their neighbors.”
"Another community couldn’t have gone through those weeks and months after Maria in the form they did," he said. "People who were aggrieved and indignant did it calmly, dignified and proudly at the same time. I think that’s worthy of admiration.”
The work of Andrés and his nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, has become synonymous with relief efforts around the world. Founded in 2010, the organization works with communities through health, education and culinary training, and provides much-needed meals and provisions. Beyond that, it's a vehicle to help areas ravaged by disaster move forward.
In the last year, World Central Kitchen has responded to events as far flung as a volcano in Guatemala, an earthquake in Indonesia and multiple tsunamis. Closer to home, they provided free meals to first responders during the California wildfires and to furloughed federal employees in Washington during the recent government shutdown.
They are currently monitoring the situation in Venezuela, where his team delivered food to Cúcuta, on the border with Colombia.
His efforts are being internationally recognized; he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, which comes on top of being named twice to Time’s “100 Most Influential People” list and chosen as the James Beard Foundation's Humanitarian of the Year.
Andrés is still expanding his culinary empire, which includes Washington’s Michelin-starred minibar by José Andrés and concepts in Las Vegas, Beverly Hills and Mexico City. His restaurant group is scheduled to open Mercado Little Spain in New York City and Jaleo in Disney World in Florida this year.
Despite this, Andrés shows now sign of sidelining his humanitarian work.
“If we don’t answer to anything the rest of our lives, already World Central Kitchen did their tiny contribution in the few places we’ve been in the last few years helping. But the truth is, that’s not our intention," he said. "We feel there’s a role for us to play, that we occupy, and that we can do very smart, very strategic, very quick and very effective. If anything, we are trying to have bigger and bigger capabilities to respond in more communities.”
He's perpetually aware of what's happening around him. At the festival, after making the rounds of the food stalls and gamely smiling through an onslaught of selfies, Andrés stationed himself at his vegetable oil-driven food truck parked just outside a hotel.
While greeting friends and chatting to staff, Andrés quickly spotted a disabled homeless person struggling to get through the tourist traffic on Collins Avenue. Andrés motioned to his staff for water and food then delivered it to the man personally, a human exchange barely noticed by the sea of people passing by.