Chef José Andrés is a giant of the culinary world. The Spanish-born chef owns restaurants across the country, as well as in Mexico and Puerto Rico, and is renowned for his culinary creations — especially at his signature restaurants, Las Vegas’ é by José Andrés and Washington, D.C.’s minibar. So, it was quite the big deal when the two star Michelin chef arrived in Ventura in the midst of the state’s worst wildfire to serve meals to first responders and victims as part of a relief effort through his organization, World Central Kitchen.
Andrés is no stranger to this task: First launched in Haiti in 2010 after an earthquake devastated the country, World Central Kitchen has set up operations in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, and in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Irene. To date, WCK has provided millions of meals to families in need.
Andrés will be a guest of honor and provide gourmet food for the VIP Chef Experience as part of the Thomas Fire Benefit on Saturday, Feb. 3, in downtown Ventura.
VCReporter: How did you become involved with the relief effort?
Andrés: We were coming from Puerto Rico and we felt like probably people were probably going to be needing food, so we sent a team there, allocated resources and partners and began cooking.
This is via your World Central Kitchen.
We are not a relief organization, per se, in the way we were created. We were created after the earthquake of Haiti; we have projects where food is the answer to many problems. Once you are on the ground, you see that you have opportunity to be reacting to the needs of people; so in Haiti, after a few more hurricanes, we’ve been there a few times. Personally, I have been going to learn and to give help. I’ve been to New York for funding. Coming back from Houston to be there for over a week to give a hand, making a few hundred thousand meals and bringing a few hundred thousand pounds of food. Then Puerto Rico happened, that was a big story that I hope you are aware of. We went from one kitchen and 2,000 meals to more than 3.3 million meals and 21 kitchens. It’s a big effort. When that happened, we felt like, OK … the WCK, besides being an organization providing food as solution, we can also become a food relief organization in times of need, so can we be as successful as we were in Houston in Puerto Rico? Everybody wants to help; what they needed was the framework to work as one and be successful. You cannot start from scratch every time, restart systems every time; you need to bring a certain level of experience to minimize the learning curve. I was the chairman of L.A. Kitchen, Robert Egger, founder of L.A. Kitchen, was there so it was easy to call him and to tell him, let’s activate this — so we began with that. From L.A., the fire kept moving north so we moved north. My director of operations from Puerto Rico was there, too. He has an MBA in this kind of thing. We ended up doing a kitchen in Ventura. It’s kind of funny that we opened 21 kitchens in Puerto Rico, then we end up in a mission created by Spaniards, where I’m from, and that they also made 21 missions. It feels like almost destiny, almost like fate in many ways.
How do you prep for that task to feed hundreds, if not thousands or millions, of people?
I am writing a book trying to come up with that myself, but at the end of the day, it’s the urgency of now, as Martin Luther King said. The urgency of now is that when people are hungry, they are hungry now. You cannot meet, negotiate contracts, talk about how you’re going to do it. The best way to do it is a call to action. When people are hungry, they’re hungry and cold now. You cannot wait for a week or two weeks to organize. We had more than 1,500 volunteers for the fires, they are an inspiration. It was beautiful to see. So many thousands, hundreds of chefs in my head, they were very important. Mention them, they were very important (Chefs Tim Kilcoyne and Jason Collis, for instance, are mentioned.)
What’s on the menu for the Feb. 3 benefit?
I’m there to support the fundraising, the efforts and people and volunteers who show up, but I don’t know much. After 3.3 million meals plus my restaurants, I don’t keep up with every item I serve. I see myself as a cheerleader. That’s what I did in Puerto Rico; I did my part of cooking but at the beginning I was more of organization and operations. When it was running I became more of a cheerleader that kept everybody fired up. It’s a way for me to thank everybody, hopefully, with my presence, and getting them ready in case something like this happens again.
What we are doing is, again, with chefs like them and the many others in Puerto Rico, Houston, they are unsung heroes of this movement. What we’re trying to do is we’re one big family. When this kind of thing happens, we can all activate as one. We have to celebrate when things are good and come together when things are not. I’m very glad we were able to relieve the pain of some people for at least a few weeks. That’s our blessing.
The Thomas Fire Benefit will take place on Saturday, Feb. 3, at Plaza Park, downtown Ventura. For more information including tickets, visit www.thomasfirebenefit.com.