Spanish-born superchef José Andrés has become an unlikely face of the relief and recovery effort in Puerto Rico. He flew down to the island on one of the first commercial flights after Hurricane Maria, and through his typical mix of connections, charisma, and unbounded energy, he built a network of kitchens so vast and nimble that the New York Times declared it “may change how aid is given.” Roads & Kingdoms co-founder Matt Goulding is a longtime friend and collaborator of José’s and recently spoke with the chef at José’s Bethesda home about everything from his penchant for disaster relief to the path forward for Puerto Rico.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Explore Parts Unknown: Most people flee hurricanes. Most people move away from them. You, over the years, have moved toward them and their aftermath. Why is that?
José Andrés: I don’t know if it’s that I can’t watch people suffering, or that I have a sense of adventure, or that I’m trying to lay the groundwork of learning so one day I could be more impactful or more helpful. It’s all of the above, it’s all of the above.
You started with Sandy. Then there was Haiti, then Houston, and now, of course, Puerto Rico. How is your involvement sort of evolved over the years?
Well, you realize no two hurricanes are ever alike. The leadership sometimes is different, the readiness and the urgency changes. You are only aware of those subtleties by being present. It’s not like now I know more than anybody. It’s only like you have a sense of the reality of now. You sense it in many things: how quickly they set up kitchens so they can start feeding the people; how quickly they start repairing electricity; how quickly they make sure that the water sources are taken care of; how quickly they take the debris out of the street. This is the reality of now.
What did you learn during Sandy?
A couple of friends at the Red Cross gave me a mission to see how to provide food after a storm in America. How to make food for [people with] celiac [disease], food that takes care of religious needs. Food for people that don’t eat meat. You realize it becomes super complicated. I do believe people have the right to have those moments of need. You see humanity really show off and you see that people’s stances don’t go away in adversity.
I saw it in Haiti, too. Once I had been cooking this bean stew for seven hours that I was going to serve with rice. A group of women came with a translator and told me that they were very grateful, but that they wouldn’t be able to eat the beans that way. We had to do one more hour until we fixed them and we made them into a puree that became a sauce with the rice instead of the beans I was planning to do. It was frustrating at first to me that people in a camp with no home, no money—maybe this was the only meal of the day and maybe the only hot meal they ate in few days—and still they would not settle for anything less than what they are used to. This only tells you that humanity has pride.
Take me through Puerto Rico from when you first touched down on ground there.
Well, I went with my buddy Nate [Mook]. We went to Santurce, the heart of San Juan. There’s a place there called La Placita, which is one of the oldest markets in Puerto Rico. Jose Enrique is a beloved chef in Puerto Rico, [one] who has brought kind of brought new energy to the Puerto Rican food scene, and his restaurant is there.
And I asked him, “Well, are you planning to open the restaurant any time soon?” I thought, no way. I think was Sunday, and [he said he] was cooking a little pot of sancocho, this very hearty stew of yucca, and corn, and sausage. Monday I asked him, “Well, are you gonna do more? You need me to bring more?”
So he gave me an opportunity to go shopping but also to see the situation on the island. And I saw the farming [was] wiped out. It’s not like Puerto Rico provides a big percentage of the fruits and vegetables Puerto Ricans eat, but what they did have was wiped out. But the important thing that I saw was that the private sector was healthy. [Suppliers] had been through these hurricanes before—they had guys, they had fuel, they had diesel … Their freezers were full of food. Their dry goods were full. And even you would read in the news there was no food anywhere. Well, there was no food in the little stores around the island, but the main companies were thriving. Even with issues of the port, I didn’t see what was going to be a major problem.
So I opened an account and we began cooking. We went Monday through Sunday. In his restaurant we began making the sancocho in his little kitchen, and in the dining room we made sandwiches. Very big ham and cheese sandwiches, with a lot of mayo, a lot of mustard. And [they] became an instant hit because they were easy to deliver with a fruit and a bottle of water, and you gave the day to somebody. It’s the sandwich we all grew up with.
But you outgrew the space, right?
We had a parking garage across the street, and I tell Jose Enrique to help me rent it. We paid him good rent and he gave it to us.
But at the very beginning it was a good decision to do the camp with Jose Enrique because I was not able to buy gas. You had to wait two, three days on line to fill up $25 of gas in your tank.
Without gas, how do people bring you things? Like I needed to buy bread, and we contacted a couple of these bread companies but they didn’t have gas. So they tell me, we are making bread but you have to come pick it up.
On Wednesday night, the Grand Marshall of Salvation Army came to ask us for food which is great… [The] Salvation [Army] has fed hundreds of millions of people over the years. The least we could do [is] to give them some sandwiches. But this made me think, it’s like, I thought Salvation Army had kitchens in the island already. Why he is coming to us for food?
Was a new organization necessary?
Structurally, I give it to the Grand Marshall for what he’s doing. It’s always what they call mass feed, which is the group at FEMA that handles feeding. I went to a [mass feed] meeting and they let me speak. But I only had a few questions, mainly: where are the kitchens of Southern Baptist Church? Americans are generally not aware, but if you see Red Cross trucks delivering food, actually they’re not delivering their food, they are delivering the food of Southern Baptists. The Southern Baptists are the Navy Seals of food production. They are able to produce food anywhere, any time. They are very self-dependent. They bring their own electricians, they bring their own showers, water. They almost bring anything necessary to succeed. They’re men of God, and men of peace. They would the perfect kitchen for war zone. That’s how good they are.
Many of them retired, many of them veterans. Again, Southern Baptist Church should be praised because they are doing God’s work, really. That’s why I was surprised when FEMA told me they are not there. Almost 10 days later, a group of Southern Baptists came, and I think I’m gonna give myself a medal is because I requested it. I must have said if they don’t come, there’s gonna be a lot of hungry people in Puerto Rico.
What’s the difference between private sector and public sector in feeding people?
The old way is giving dry goods—manufactured foods like peanut butter cookies and Oreos. But in America, understanding how good the private sector works here and especially in restaurants, and I think this is a very old way of thinking. It’s not about being a foodie, it’s about being a human. You want use a simple, humble plate of food. And so we began one Monday, Jose Enrique told me they made 200 sancochos. By Sunday we were doing 25,000 meals. People were coming from everywhere, anywhere. We were getting orders and we were fulfilling those orders. I never said no to anybody. We were not only taking people from around San Juan, but people began from Caguas, people began coming from Mayagüez, people began coming from places that were more than an hour away.
By Friday, I already had made clear I had to make a change and a decision. They already had the help of the governor’s wife who was in the convention center, el Coliseo. I knew that kitchen was good, and that I could use it.
What do you take into consideration when making decisions about ramping up and so on?
The important thing is not to give, the important is to know who is going to receive it and how they are going to receive it. Don’t send things that people don’t need. Don’t send things people don’t want. You may feel good about it but you are not doing anything, actually. You are creating more garbage and more problems. Obviously, people do it with good heart. But in these operations you don’t need good heart, in these operations you need good brains.
Did the type of food you were serving change?
My quick idea was that if we are going to be feeding the community every day then we need a menu change. And if I run out of certain ingredients, I always have other dishes that can cover me up. And believe me, people knew. People began calling placing orders with the dish they wanted.
How did you get to serving your two millionth meal last week? That’s long way from serving sancocho on the side of street or out of a garage.
The menu was sancocho at the very beginning, then we kept going for one more week at least. Then we did [a meat dish] in a satellite kitchen right in front of Jose Enrique’s restaurant. In the street between Jose Enrique and the garage, we had a satellite salad kitchen. We had two refrigerators, one for meat and other refrigerated goods like cheese and ham, and another one for vegetables.
Then we had the chicken and rice operation. The meat dish became pasta with one meat. And pasta with one meat became pasta with vegetables, tomato. So we were able to change the menu and adapt also to the ingredients, to the donations we were getting or the foods we were able to buy that were good price.
At this point, how many kitchens do you have set up around the island?
We went to Ponce on a research trip, and I saw the mayor of Ponce, whom I knew already. By then I knew that San Juan was not enough, that we had to feed the island. I couldn’t have people driving two, three hours. And I saw the problem was bigger than a few thousand people, the problem was hundreds of thousands. And I had to reach as many people as I could and do as many meals as I could to really get to the people that were in need. So I set up a plan for 12 kitchens around the island. In less than three weeks, that plan went up from 12 to 18. And yesterday we had 18 kitchens that we open total. Between 18 kitchens, at one point, were able to reach more than 150,000 meals a day.
We did it through food trucks, through boats we got donated. We did it through Goya, they were very kind and they let us use their family business helicopter to deliver to the hardest places. We got Homeland Security delivering in the very high mountains with the unit they had there, which was astonishing. I never thought I will be working with Homeland Security.
But it’s not just organizational challenges you ran into, right? I saw you limping around in some videos.
With the limping, we [were crossing a river] in a place called San Lorenzo in Morovis, and we were bringing them yucca and roasted chicken. There was one guy that he looked like Jesus. He could go back and forth, non-stop. But we were not as good. I guess it was raining in the mountains, and the water level kept going up slightly, and we couldn’t see the bottom and there were a lot of rocks and holes. So, I had a big tray of rice in my hands, and in that moment, my leg went deep into one of those holes. I turned my ankle and then my knee fell down heavily on a rock. I’m supposed to go see the doctor because this is still bothering me a lot.
But the good thing is: I saved the rice. That’s my proudest moment. We had many, many trays, and that would be only one more tray. We did 120 whole roasted chickens with the fixings of yuca and rice. But I’m gonna put this in my resume, the day I saved the tray of rice.
On this week’s episode, Tony shows us a Puerto Rico facing some real challenges, but it’s obviously a very different island after Maria. What’s the way forward for Puerto Rico?
If Tony was going to do another show in Puerto Rico—you know, poor guy, he cannot cover the entire island in an hour—I would send him some places.
I found this roasted chicken in Morovis. There was this big line of people waiting for their piece of roasted chicken with that amazing yucca with mojo. A total surprise.
Then, he should go to Boqueron in Cabo Rojo. There is a great bay, and they have these oysters that they grow in the mangroves, on the roots of the mangrove. Those oysters are clean, pristine, small.
And Dorado is an amazing place. Dorado will always be very high up on my list.
Would you collaborate on a Puerto Rico return with Tony?
It’s funny because I feel I live this parallel life with this person I adore, Tony. I love how unserious he takes himself, but at the same time he has this weight he carries with him, sometimes not even talking, but just with the look in his face.
I remember him being there in Haiti right before a hurricane. A lot of people don’t know that. I was there with him having a couple of rum sours. Actually, he invited me to be on that show but I told him I didn’t want to show up in a show in Haiti when still I was coming to help people post-earthquake and then pre-hurricane. They were shooting in the bar in the Oloffson, one of my favorite hotels in the world, where the mythical band RAM plays Thursday nights. One of the best experiences anywhere in the world if you’re lucky to see RAM at the Oloffson on a Thursday night, having a rum sour like I do. But you know, I didn’t do it because I didn’t feel like it. Not everything is about being on TV.
I was proud just watching Tony filming that segment. I would always take a job with him or his amazing team which are unbelievable. I love all his team. I love all the camera, the directors, the crew. They are just such a good thing, being with them. He always knows I wish I had more time to do once-in-a-while shows with him. Really, being around them is always very inspiring. It’s very uplifting, I would say.
Puerto Rico has to come back. People don’t want our pity, they want our respect, and showing up is a way to do it and help economies, local economies, to come back.
We need the hotels to be open again. My own hotel, I hope it will be ready to open in the next few weeks, months… little hotels are opening, restaurants are opening. We need to give a chance to the private sector, but the government is going to have to, obviously, diversify. But what can we do now? It’s restaurants, hotels, tourism. That’s where we can be thriving, and Puerto Rico should come back on the shoulders of the same chefs that fed Puerto Rico in a moment of need.