José Andrés in 2016?
During his keynote address at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference Saturday morning, Andrés sounded more like a presidential candidate than a chef and restaurateur. He argued for immigration reform. He made a plea for raising the minimum wage. He criticized the Farm Bill. He even had an idea or two on foreign policy and national defense.
Dressed in multiple layers — a russet-colored sport coat over an insulated vest over a red sweater over a dress shirt, clearly a concession to the unseasonal temperatures — Andrés largely ditched his prepared remarks and spoke spontaneously to the gathered chefs, authors, researchers and academics. He regularly roamed the stage and urged the culinary professionals to understand their power to make changes in the world.
“We are a big family. We are a powerful family. I want everybody to really understand the power,” says Andrés. “We are not alone. We are all, we are we. When we realize that. . . we can do great things in this 21st century because America and the world is going to be in huge need.”
The Spanish native provided an example from his own experiences with ThinkFoodGroup, which has 21 restaurants around the United States and Puerto Rico. Last year, when Mayor Vincent C. Gray signed a new minimum wage bill, Andrés and ThinkFoodGroup decided to move faster than the new law required. Instead of paying their approximately 1,100 workers at least $9.50 an hour, as the law mandated last July, ThinkFoodGroup paid them at least $10.50 an hour. This year, the company will do the same: When the law mandates a jump to $10.50 an hour in July, it will pay employees $11.50 an hour, a year before the District requires the same wage.
“Why are we doing this?” Andrés asked. “Because we feed the few, but we need to be taking care of feeding the many. We have employees that, at the end of the day, they have to go on food stamps to pay their bills.
“I know I’m going to make less money, but I hope that one day when I’m in my bed before going to my next chapter in life, I will remember that at least we tried,” he added.
The chef’s talk of poorly paid restaurant employees reminded him there’s another class of workers even lower on the food world’s organizational chart: field laborers, many of them undocumented.
“When a senator and a congressman are in my restaurant eating a carrot, probably that carrot was picked by an illegal immigrant. It’s about time we make immigration reform happen,” Andrés said.
The chef had to pause while the crowd applauded.
“I want to have secure borders. I love this country. We need to keep the democracy that we are, but we cannot be living that dream that everything is cool,” Andrés continued. “Immigration reform should be yesterday.”
Andrés noted how food plays a role in some of the country’s thorniest issues, including obesity and national security.
“You think that your profession has anything to do with national security? Sure it does, people!” he said. “Right now, our Army is not able to fulfill its obligations and cover all the needs of the Army because the vast majority of Americans, either they’ve been in jail or we are obese.”
While Andrés reminded the audience they can be part of the solution, by serving better and more nutritious food, he argued the government often undercuts its own interests by subsidizing crops that are used to produce some of the most unhealthful fare, like soft drinks and processed foods. First lady Michelle Obama may want Americans to fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables, but the government makes that difficult.
“Let me tell you, the Farm Bill is the biggest problem America faces when it can be the biggest opportunity America faces,” Andrés said. “You know the subsidies for vegetables and fruits? One percent!”
“What America should do is make sure the field is level,” he added. “A Farm Bill [should] serve all America, not a few corporations that benefit from it.”
Andrés also talked about his role with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership to improve health and the environment by finding clean and efficient methods for cooking food. He drew a bleak picture of how an open-charcoal or wood-burning stove in Haiti can lead to multiple problems: It can shorten the lives of people who inhale the smoke; it can lead to environmental damage when children and families continue to cut down trees to fuel their stoves; and it can lead to endless poverty as children miss school to gather wood.
“We need to be finding ways to make sure that fire is going to be changing the lives of over a billion people in the world that today are using fossil fuels,” he said. “The fire should be our friend, not our enemy.”
The chef concluded his nearly hour-long remarks with a video of his latest concept, Beefsteak, a mostly vegetable restaurant that he hopes one day will serve as many customers as that chain with the Golden Arches out front.
“I can tell you that I’m envious of McDonald’s. I want to feed millions a day,” he said. “But we’re going to have to be more creative. It’s okay to have a fancy restaurant, but I think it’s [time] to realize who do you want to feed America: a chef or a corporation? I think it’s very clear to me the answer.”