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José Andrés talks about feeding the National Guard, tipping and whether he’d work in the Biden administration

In this image from video, chef José Andrés speaks during the Celebrating America television event, following the inauguration of Joe Biden. (Biden Inaugural Committee via AP)

With a new administration in the White House, one that has already taken steps to relieve the country’s growing hunger, it seemed like the right time to check in with the man whose nonprofit organization has fed millions of vulnerable Americans during the pandemic. José Andrés picked up the phone after the first ring.

We spent the next 80-plus minutes chewing over a great many topics — or, more accurately, Andrés, 51, chewed over them and I listened. They included the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often known as food stamps; the farm bill; the tipped minimum wage (which President Biden would like to eliminate); feeding the National Guard during the inauguration, which drew criticism; the Restaurants Act; and the chef’s idea to create a secretary of food and agriculture or a national director of food and nutrition within the federal government.

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Andrés’s takes can be too expansive for a simple Q&A format, which relies on short, edited excerpts from conversations that are far more nuanced. So, here I tried to provide the gist of the chef’s thinking on any one subject, in his words. I’m sure Andrés can fill in the blanks on his largest platform, his Twitter account, which has nearly a million followers.

Below are Andrés’s responses, edited for clarity and length, to the topics we discussed.

Food stamps used in restaurants

One of the things we’re going to see in the next two years, we’re going to see SNAP being used in restaurants, especially in diners.

Imagine one mother with three or four children. Wouldn’t it be smart, especially if she lives in a low-income part of the city, that she can go to a diner and order three, four meals that will be part of a special menu? Then she can take them home and feed her children and herself. I mean, we need to put ourselves in the skin of those people.

So how do you define a SNAP restaurant? Is it a fast-food restaurant? This is where politics become highly complicated. The way I see it, it will be small mom-and-pop restaurants. Why? Because you want to be helping the local economies.

The farm bill

We need to make sure that subsidies don’t keep going to the same big companies. If they’re going to be funding the big companies doing the big five or six grains, I hope they will also be helping the small farms in America, and I will say small/middle-size farms. They are suffering. They are really suffering. Under this program, Farmers to Families, they don’t really help small farmers. For the amount of money that America put on the table to sponsor that program, it seems more like an approach of buying votes than really helping, quite frankly.

What the government cannot be doing is subsidizing products that are proven to be putting Americans in harm’s way. This is not the business of the federal government. If some company can get rich selling sugar and people buy it, good for them. But let’s make sure it is done without support of the federal government, without subsidies from the federal government.

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The need for a national director of food and nutrition

I do believe that America, and actually every other country around the world, needs a national director of food and nutrition. The position would be created the same way the director for national intelligence was created after the Sept. 11 attacks. It would bring together the massive resources of the federal government, by making different departments work together, where right now it is not happening. Food deserts can end if the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Agriculture can work closer together. I know some people in past positions, they would say, “José, you don’t know what you’re talking about. They’ve worked together before.” Well, we need things not to work on paper. We need things to work with boots on the ground. We need the Department of Education and the USDA to work together. How is it possible today we have school kitchens where you cannot even boil water? How is this possible?

The possibility of working, in some capacity, in the Biden administration

If you get a phone call from the high office one day to help, everybody would say yes. But in my particular case, it’s not like I have university degrees and things like that. I feel most comfortable when I’m on the streets at 2 or 3 a.m., serving the cities.

You know me. I get bored very quickly. I like to do a lot of things at once and touch a lot of things at once. I’m very happy to be the wind behind the sails of a ship. Those men and women who are in public service, they care, and they are experts on their own, obviously. What I’m only learning is that those men and women, they are so humble and so respectful of taking the ideas of others because they understand they’re here to serve.

The best wall that America can build is a wall of knowledge, a wall of production. If the countries surrounding America are doing well, are feeding themselves, America doesn’t have to build a wall. That’s why I keep saying longer tables are the way. The best safety net that America can build is know-how: how not only America, but every country, can feed itself.

The criticism that World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit Andrés founded, should not spend its resources on the National Guard, which the government should feed

It’s very simple to be in your chair, at your keyboard and start writing about whatever you don’t like about the world. What I’m going to tell people is this: Leave your chair, leave your keyboard and your Twitter account and go out to improve what you don’t like in the world. We’ve fed National Guard troops before, because sometimes in the middle of chaos, the systems don’t work perfectly.

So what is wrong with giving those young men and women, many of them who come from rural America and not many of them with high paying jobs. … So what is wrong to give them a hot soup when people want to be nice? What is wrong with being nice? I’m sorry, I’ve been in the military. I’ve been in the Navy. Nothing made me happier than when some of my friends brought me a hot bowl of soup. I’m going to keep doing this for the rest of my life, if it’s necessary.

The Biden administration proposing to eliminate the tipped minimum wage and instituting a single minimum wage of $15 an hour

I do believe that we need to have a tipping policy on minimum wage nationally. But this cannot be done by county or by state. It has to happen at the very top. When we were against Initiative 77 [the measure that would have eliminated the tipped minimum wage in Washington, D.C., over time], all my employees didn’t want 77. Seventy-seven was raising the minimum wage in the front of the house to the same level as the back of the house without addressing, really, the tipping. All of a sudden, the waiters are going to make all the money and, on top of that, take the tips home, creating a bigger hole between back and front of the house.

Biden’s proposal, if paired with the ability to share tips with the back of the house, is a move in the right direction. Again, it’s going to be a learning curve, until we have the perfect policy. But we need to work it and test it and then we need to be open to changes until the perfect system happens. We already support the initiative that they are trying to pass in New York to eliminate the tipped minimum wage. The difference between New York and Initiative 77 is that in New York, whatever tip that customers leave, the owner of the restaurant has the possibility to share that extra income with other employees.

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The future of restaurants

If I’m realistic, we will go back to full business by 2022, March of 2022. I hope that is the day we can have the restaurant industry starting to go back to normal. In the spring and summer of this year, we will have this moment of relief again, a little bit, but we need to make sure we don’t get another spike in October or November. Maybe we have good news, and by September or October, we start building up business again. But me? I’m preparing for the worst and I’m hoping for the best.

The Restaurants Act, a $120 billion relief package for independent restaurants and bars, which is currently not part of Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package

I can tell you the Restaurants Act had bipartisan support, and I think it’s needed. What happened with the Restaurants Act is, some Congress members and Republicans were probably hesitant and thought the PPP was the best way. I think some politicians thought that the Restaurants Act was too focused on the owners of the restaurant and not so much on the employees of the restaurant. What we’ve been learning in politics is that you get support from some senators and Congress members on paper, but that does not equate to supporting the bill once it gets to the floor.

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