With “We Fed an Island,” chef-and-restaurateur-turned-relief worker José Andrés doesn’t just tell the story about how he and a fleet of volunteers cooked millions of meals for the Americans left adrift on Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. He exposes what he views as an outdated top-down, para-military-type model of disaster relief that proved woefully ineffective on an island knocked flat by the Category 4 hurricane.
Andrés also points plenty of fingers. At President Trump. At the Federal Emergency Management Agency. At the American Red Cross. At Puerto Rican politicians who let their own people down. No one is spared Andrés’s critical eye, including the chef himself.
Although it contains moments of real pathos, the book is not a saccharine, self-serving tribute to the work of thousands of chefs, line cooks, food truck operators and other volunteers who heeded the call to help from Andrés’s nonprofit organization, World Central Kitchen. It’s a manifesto asking governments and nonprofit groups to rethink the way they feed people after a natural disaster.
Co-written by Richard Wolffe, a veteran journalist who has collaborated with Andrés on a pair of cookbooks, “We Fed an Island” is as close to a page-turner as current-affairs nonfiction gets. There are good guys and bad guys. There are obstacles faced and obstacles overcome. There are winners and losers. There is an outrage on virtually every page. My advance copy of the book is so full of dog-eared pages, highlighted passages and marginalia that it looks like a scholar’s copy of Shakespeare’s collected plays.
“It was already clear to me that this was a deadly serious humanitarian crisis,” Andrés writes about his first days on the island, right around the time Trump told reporters that his administration had received “tremendous reviews” for its response on Puerto Rico.
“It was also an untold disaster, hidden from view and lied about by our public officials,” Andrés continues. “My mission was to help my fellow American citizens, and to tell their story to a world that was living in the dark.”
Puerto Ricans were living on the edge even before Maria hit the island, and Andrés and Wolffe make sure to spell it out. They lay out the yawning inequalities between Americans on the mainland and those on Puerto Rico: The lack of voting rights, the devastating effects of the Jones Act of 1920 on the island’s economy and the substandard benefits given to those living below the poverty line. They make the case that Puerto Rico is, if not a de facto colony, then at least a territory full of second-class citizens.
When Maria struck the island last September, it laid bare many of the problems affecting Puerto Rico: The crumbling infrastructure that left folks without running water and electricity for weeks; the huge number of impoverished residents whose EBT cards (a kind of social assistance credit card) wouldn’t work without an Internet connection; and an entire economy crippled by debt. Just as important, the storm seemed to reveal an indifference from the Trump administration, as if all but confirming the island’s second-class status. As the authors point out, Trump spent the first weekend after Maria mostly at his private New Jersey golf club, fulminating about Kim Jong Un and the National Football League.
Andrés arrived on one of the first commercial flights to Puerto Rico, landing in San Juan on Sept. 25, five days after Maria made landfall. It was the same day that the first Trump administration officials visited the island. The chef saw a humanitarian crisis and stayed to help. FEMA administrator William “Brock” Long and Tom Bossert, a White House homeland security adviser, stayed the day and returned to Washington to brief the president.
“My original plan was to cook maybe ten thousand meals a day for five days, and then return home,” Andrés writes.
Instead, Andrés and the thousands of volunteers who composed Chefs for Puerto Rico remained for months, preparing and delivering more than 3 million meals to every part of the island. They didn’t wait for permission from FEMA. They didn’t even wait for FEMA funding (though funding eventually came from the agency). They just started activating restaurants, churches, food trucks and, eventually, the Coliseo de Puerto Rico in San Juan. They quickly scaled up their production of sandwiches, paellas, stews and, really, anything that would provide more comfort than the field rations known as Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs, the food often passed out after disasters. Under certain conditions, MREs have a shelf life of five years.
“I like to say that a hot meal is more than just food,” Andrés writes. “It’s a plate of hope. An MRE is almost hopeless.”
These grass-roots culinary efforts didn’t always sit well with administration officials or with executives at hidebound charities, in part because Andrés was no diplomat. He trolled Trump on Twitter over the situation on Puerto Rico. He badgered FEMA for large contracts to ramp up production to feed even more hungry citizens. He infamously told Time magazine that the “American government has failed” in Puerto Rico. A chef used to fast-moving kitchens, Andrés had zero patience for slow-footed bureaucracy, especially in a time of crisis.
In the book, Andrés and Wolffe save their most scathing criticism for the American Red Cross, the multibillion-dollar charity with the federal charter “to maintain a system of domestic and international disaster relief.” In a chapter titled “Seeing Red,” the authors use the organization’s own words and statistics against it. Of the more than $65 million raised to help the victims of Maria, the Red Cross spent only $30 million on emergency relief and recovery efforts, they write. “The Red Cross generously gave themselves 9 percent of that leftover cash — or $3.2 million — for their own general management costs,” they add.
If Andrés is tough on charities and the administration for their response in Puerto Rico — he writes Trump didn’t earn the “10” rating that the president gave himself — the chef is equally hard on himself. “And I certainly wouldn’t give myself anything more than a five for my own, because there was so much more we needed to do. We failed to reach so many people who needed so much help.”
After dealing with so much red tape and mismanagement (remember the disastrous $156 million contract that FEMA awarded to a small, inexperienced company to prepare 30 million hot meals?), Andrés wants the government and nonprofit groups to rethink the way they handle food after a large-scale natural disaster. He wants them to drop the authoritarian, top-down style and embrace the chaos inherent in crisis. Work with available local resources, whether residents or idle restaurants and schools. Give people the authority and the means to help themselves. Stimulate the local economy.
“What we did was embrace complexity every single second,” Andrés writes. “Not planning, not meeting, just improvising. The old school wants you to plan, but we needed to feed the people.”
Andrés and World Central Kitchen have embraced complexity. An organization not originally designed as a food relief organization, WCK has, in the aftermath of Puerto Rico, sent chefs to Hawaii, Guatemala, Indonesia and other locales to feed locals in need. In fact, Andrés is donating 100 percent of his net proceeds from “We Fed an Island” to World Central Kitchen, which will help continue its work to feed those who can’t feed themselves when disaster strikes.
The money might even help keep a promise that Andrés made to a 10-year-old volunteer named Lola. The daughter of a food truck operator in San Juan, Lola worked every day to make sandwiches, disregarding Andrés’s pleas to take a break. “I was so impressed with her,” he writes in the book, “I promised I would pay for her college education.”
It’s a promise, Andrés told me, that he won’t forget.
By José Andrés, with Richard Wolffe
Anthony Bourdain/Ecco. 288 pp. $28
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