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When disaster strikes, Jose Andres brings hot food and hope

Celebrity chef Jose Andres has been on the ground in the Carolinas this week, helping victims of Hurricane Florence. As a "food first responder," Andres was also in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria tore through the island a year ago. Jeffrey Brown talks with him about how he uses his knowledge of and passion for food to help create a new kind of activism, and offering nurturing to those in need.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jose Andres, who is already well-known to food-loving television audiences, is also becoming increasingly known for his work to help in the wake of natural disasters like Florence.

    In fact, just this last week, the celebrity chef has been on the ground in the Carolinas.

    In a new book, Andres details his experiences in Puerto Rico and elsewhere. He spoke to Jeffrey Brown about what he learned and the challenges of disaster relief.

    He was an unlikely first-responder after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico a year ago. Chef Jose Andres prefers the term food-first responder. And if you wonder what a chef can bring to a natural disaster, he says this:

  • Jose Andres:

    Our profession is a profession that is chaos, and we try to survive in chaos. And we try to…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And chaos is your normal life in…

  • Jose Andres:

    We try to organize the chaos. And that's the difference between successful restaurants and an unsuccessful restaurant, because it's kind of chaos.

    And moment this is very much like a crazy restaurant, only at a larger scale.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For years, Andres grew his brand as a celebrity chef, high-end dining, cookbooks, TV shows, Michelin stars.

    A native of Northern Spain, he became a U.S. citizen in 2013. His Washington, D.C.-based company is called Think Food Group, where we watched him working on ideas and recipes for some of his 30-plus restaurants around the world.

    But in recent years, escalating after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Andres has wanted to do more, to use his knowledge of and passion for food to help create a new kind of activism.

    His World Central Kitchen is a nonprofit humanitarian organization that not only responds to disasters, but looks for solutions to hunger and poverty.

  • Jose Andres:

    Chefs like me, we love to feed the few.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You love to feed the few?

  • Jose Andres:

    But more and more, we are very in love of feeding the many.

    I cannot have my fancy restaurant doing well in this corner, and then, in another part of the city, people are doing poorly.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So just four days after Maria hit Puerto Rico, Andres was on the ground, and his team was cooking within hours.

    He enlisted the help of local restaurants, grocers and bakers, mobilizing a network of kitchens on the island that ultimately fed hundreds of thousands, making nearly four million meals.

    Their efforts were chronicled on social media with the hashtag #chefsforPuertoRico.

  • Jose Andres:

    We did it. We opened more than 26 kitchens. My crazy idea wasn't crazy. My crazy idea was doable. I think we did very good work in a very difficult situation.

    So I guess we got the right to write the book and share what we learned with everybody.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That book is called "We Fed an Island," published on the imprint of his friend the late Anthony Bourdain.

    The initial challenge, Andres recalls, was convincing officials he was equipped to tackle the problem.

  • Jose Andres:

    In my brain, it's almost like I knew how to feed one or two million Puerto Ricans. And I was trying to communicate that.

    And, obviously, when you're a chef, and you're going to talk to — imagine — a government official, and you tell him, listen, I want to — I can help you feed two million people tomorrow. Just give me the resources, you — believing us.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    How could they not sort of see, who's this crazy guy kind of coming in thinking, I know how to — I know how to feed a whole island?

  • Jose Andres:

    It's not the first time you show up in one of those. When they see that you have more than 30 restaurants where I feed thousands of people a day, when you are manning an organization that has more than 2,000 employees, you know, you have some skills.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    He worked with FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but describes his frustration with what he saw as endless bureaucratic red tape.

  • Jose Andres:

    The truth is that the men and women, the volunteers, are all amazing.

    So, you need to be careful in the criticisms, especially on TV, because it sounds very harsh and seems nobody did anything. It's far away from the truth. But, yes, it's true that systems and the organization in charge sometimes are not creating a way that gives an opportunity for people to be successful.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Andres has been a frequent critic of President Trump for what he considers an inadequate response to the crisis.

    Just in recent weeks, the official death toll from Maria was revised to almost 3,000, a figure President Trump then sharply disputed. Andres believes the president has consistently underplayed the true scope of the devastation.

  • Jose Andres:

    To watch him throw paper towels to a hungry and thirsty crowd, while I'm sure he didn't meant bad, the image, the perception was one of almost like saying, hey, here I am to give you some — some paper towels, so you can take care of your own. The problem was big. The problem was huge.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    His group has now been active in other disasters.

    So, this is like a battle map almost.

  • Jose Andres:

    It's a battle map.

    And then I can show this to everybody, and everybody understands. And I break — and so those are the shelters. Those are the kitchens.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In recent months, World Central Kitchen has been on the ground and feeding people after volcanoes in Guatemala and Hawaii, an earthquake in Indonesia, and the wildfires in California.

    This week, Andres and his team are in North Carolina helping residents after Hurricane Florence. They have prepared and delivered upwards of 80,000 meals from relief kitchens in Wilmington and Raleigh.

    At the very end of this book, you write, "We need to build a new model of disaster relief and food aid."

  • Jose Andres:

    When disaster strikes, people need to be eating today, not tomorrow, not next week, not next month. We only need to make sure that organizations like ours, that we will be there making sure that things are getting better, quicker, and faster, rather than later. That's the least we can do for people.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All this based on a simple idea.

  • Jose Andres:

    Nothing nurtures people better than a plate of hot food. A plate of food was bringing hope, was bringing a message of saying, we care, and we're going to fight for you to make sure that, tomorrow, things will be better.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Washington, D.C.

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