Eva Bolívar does not believe in idolizing others or fawning over stars, but there are two people in the world she greatly admires: Mother Teresa of Calcutta and chef José Andrés. She says she “stalked” Mother Teresa at an airport in New York because she had always wanted to meet her. As for Andrés, who was recently nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, he was the one looking for her.
Bolívar, a long-time event planner and owner of the well-known Restaurante Bilí in Vieques, was on vacation when Hurricane María struck last year. Upon returning to Vieques, which is a small island off of Puerto Rico, she heard that Andrés had been trying to reach her.
Bolívar had no way to contact him since the phone lines were down, so she traveled to the convention center in San Juan, which served as a base of operations during the hurricane, and met her second hero.
The first thing Andrés said when he saw her was, “What do you need?”
Restaurante Bilí, beloved by locals and tourists alike, had been destroyed in the storm. Bolívar lost all the tables and chairs and the restaurant's whole front part was blown away. Out of this destruction, a beautiful partnership began between Bolíivar, Andrés and his nonprofit organization World Central Kitchen (WCK) — with the purpose of helping others.
Andrés “provided everything we needed to operate out of my kitchen,” said Bolívar. Together, the Vieques team (there were other teams with WCK stationed in different municipalities throughout the island) provided 64,000 meals over the course of five months.
The hurricane had devastated the island's roads and infrastructure, so there was virtually no access to food and beverages when supplies ran out, especially in more remote areas of the island. But on social, there were pictures of Andrés crossing treacherous areas to bring vats of food to residents. The hot meals not only gave thousands of hungry Puerto Ricans necessary nutrition, it also gave them hope.
Andrés deserves the Nobel Peace Prize because “he became the Mother Teresa of Puerto Rico,” Bolívar said. “Not only in Vieques, but in other communities. He was our savior at that moment because we had no help from the government.”
Lilly Cubano, an administrator in Maryland’s Department of Health, agrees. The Guaynabo, Puerto Rico native was supposed to get married last October at an hacienda in the town of Vega Baja, but the venue was wrecked by Maria. After canceling the ceremony, Cubano volunteered with WCK on what would have been her wedding day. The time she spent making sandwiches, cleaning pots and chopping ingredients for paella was a rewarding experience.
“It was a time when we felt we were not being heard by the federal government," said Cubano. "FEMA gave us Doritos and M&Ms; people were eating gummy bears for weeks. But he was giving us hot food.”
Cubano was most surprised by how active Andrés was in the day-to-day operations of WCK. Instead of simply providing money for the #ChefsforPuertoRico initiative, he was a hands-on figure and morale booster.
“He walked around and talked to different tables. He was personable and encouraging,” said Cubano. “I really hope he wins.”
Though the number of other nominees up for the award is currently unknown, last year there were 331 candidates. Despite the competition, those who have worked with Andrés think he has a great chance.
“He is more than deserving,” said Efrén D. Robles, founder of Frutos del Guacabo, an organization dedicated to the production and distribution of fresh produce across the island. Robles says he likely would not have been able to stay in business without Andrés’ support.
The acclaimed chef and restaurateur has made it his mission to go to areas which have been hit hard by natural disasters — he recently prepared and served a Thanksgiving meal with fellow celebrity chef Guy Fieri for survivors and volunteers of California's Camp Fire, the deadliest in state history.
Whether Andrés wins or not, said his supporters in Puerto Rico, it won't detract from their deep gratitude.
“He made a big difference in terms of whether people lived or died,” said Bolívar.