José Andrés’ voice becomes deeper and his cadence slows when he talks about Ukraine.
He remembers intense military checkpoints, having to navigate unfamiliar roads without headlights to avoid giving “any information to anyone who might be a spy”. He seems far away as he describes the sirens and munitions that assaulted his senses, what he calls “the sounds of war”. When he talks about the Ukrainian people, he is amazed.
“You no longer feel any danger because you are surrounded by millions of people who carry on no matter what,” he says. “These people, they don’t give up their fight.”
The Spanish-born chef traveled to Ukraine in late February after Vladimir Putin invaded Russia. As he always does in disaster situations, Andrés brought a network of mission-ready World Central Kitchen chefs – not to take up arms, but to get food into people’s hands. Today, they prepare around 380,000 meals a day.
“At the end of the day, the only good thing about it is that the best in humanity always seems to show up in the worst in humanity,” Andrés says.
Andrés has been showing up in calamitous situations with World Central Kitchen for 12 years. The rambling aid organization is the subject of a new documentary, “We Feed People,” directed by Oscar-winning actor Ron Howard and premiering Friday on Disney Plus.
The film traces André’s origin story, from his influence on American cuisine with his first restaurant, Jaleo, in Washington, D.C., in 1993 to delivering meal kits to the pandemic-devastated Navajo Nation in 2020. Through it all, viewers see Andrés is a man who refuses to accept things as they are because that’s the way they’ve always been.
“I’m very persistent in knocking on the door, and the door always opens eventually,” he says.
“We Feed People” opens in 2018 in Wilmington, North Carolina, after Hurricane Florence flooded the streets and displaced thousands of people. Amidst the wreckage sits Andrés, a hulking figure, dressed in a utilitarian vest and baseball cap as he strategizes with a paper map dotted with color-coded sticky notes representing the people who need food.
“We don’t just feed people, we create systems,” he says of World Central Kitchen’s logistics response. “If we don’t have systems, we can’t take care of people.”
Transporting food, organizing resources and people, and distributing meals are the basis of World Central Kitchen. But what sets his methods apart is the speed and authenticity of how Andrés and his people interact with those in need.
After a catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, Andrés cooked black beans for survivors. But it was not the “velvety and silky black bean” stew that the locals preferred. It was then that he learned that real help – real empathy – meant learning and adapting to local customs, not the other way around.
“He realized that you have to respect people,” says Richard Wolffe, author and managing director of Andrés’ media group, ThinkFoodGroup. “Food is about community. It’s about having food your way, not how a white savior thinks it should be cooked. It’s really shaped World Central Kitchen in all of its operations. in the future.
Through local video shot by World Central Kitchen and professional documentary cameras, viewers see how the organization looks days, sometimes hours, after a natural disaster.
They also see the toll that relief jobs can take. In Puerto Rico, during the botched federal response to 2017’s Hurricane Maria, Andrés reached breaking point. He opened loans to fund relief, mobilized the island’s food trucks to help feed thousands, and did interviews and social media posts to raise awareness of the devastation. Yet, as the clips show, a long-time relief organization tells him there isn’t enough money for everyone, and at a press conference weeks after the hurricane, then-President Trump throws paper towels into a crowd like he’s playing basketball and tells them “I hate to tell you Puerto Rico, but you messed up our budget a bit.”
“The problem with seeing the president throw the napkins isn’t the napkins. The problem is that’s what becomes of the relief, ‘Let me throw the bones at you,'” Andrés says.
Andrés’ wife, Patricia, whom he married in 1995, remembers how desperate he was to help and how frustrated he was that he couldn’t do more. “You could see in his eyes,” she said. “He was here physically but not emotionally or even mentally.”
Puerto Rico was a watershed moment when he learned he was facing a double battle: to grow and empower World Central Kitchen while demanding a better relief response from world leaders and legacy organizations.
“I’ll make sure I’m the light in the dark room,” he said. “I can’t try to solve all the problems. But water and food? We are good at food and we do it well because we are cooks. We understand food systems. … We maximize response in the most difficult situations. And we always seem able to adapt.