José Andrés was driving south on Interstate 45, trying to reach a small shelter where about 1oo or more Houstonians had taken up temporary residence in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the biggest rainstorm in the history of the continental United States. The D.C. celebrity chef and restaurateur heard about the facility earlier in the day and hoped he could set up a kitchen to cook the simple pasta and red sauce that he had purchased at a Target store.
“If I can feed one person, I’m happy,” Andrés said while navigating the highway. (Yes, he was talking via a hands-free device.)
The Washingtonian flew into Dallas on Tuesday afternoon and drove to Houston in a rented 4×4 vehicle. By himself, no less. He stopped at a Target store about an hour north of Houston to pick up the pasta ingredients. When pressed, Andrés said he shelled out about $1,900 for the food, but he was more interested in praising the Target workers who, he said, were pulling 18-, 19- and 20-hour shifts to help keep the locals stocked with supplies.
Andrés is no stranger to disaster. He visited Haiti after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake killed tens of thousands of residents and left many more struggling in tent camps. His trip to Haiti, in fact, inspired Andrés to create the World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that promotes culinary training and new kitchen equipment to improve a community’s health, education and economy. In Houston, Andrés activated World Central Kitchen’s Chef Network to entice other professionals to help with the massive chore of feeding people living in makeshift shelters. Among those in transit to Texas, Andrés said, is Victor Albisu, chef and owner of Del Campo.
After spending less than a day in Houston, however, Andrés was discovering that it’s not easy to navigate the city right now. Flooded streets and police barricades prevented him from reaching the George R. Brown Convention Center, which Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has turned into a shelter. Andrés couldn’t even make it to his designated hotel Tuesday night.
“There’s a lot of water everywhere,” he said. “This city is surrounded by water.”
Andrés is coordinating his efforts with the American Red Cross, although conditions on the ground were frustrating their ability to work together. The chef said that Cuisine Solutions, the Sterling, Va.-based company that specializes in prepared products cooked via sous-vide water baths, would be sending a truck to Houston, loaded with about 40,000 pounds of food.
The truck, said Gerard Bertholon, chief strategy officer for Cuisine Solutions, had not left Virginia yet, but when it does, the trailer will be filled with precooked and pasteurized foods, including nearly 3,000 pounds of roasted sliced turkey, 10,600 pounds of seared and seasoned sliced beef and 14,000 pounds of chicken. The products can be reheated, Bertholon said, or eaten as is, either in a salad or in a sandwich. The food’s ready-to-eat quality is vital, Bertholon noted, because shelters may not have working kitchens.
“We know we can feed people,” said Bertholon, whose company sent food to New York City after 9/11 and to the Northeast after Superstorm Sandy.
But Andrés knows that 40,000 pounds of food won’t last long. It would probably feed all the displaced people in Houston for a single day, he figured. The city needs much more. Which is why he’s in awe of the Southern Baptist Convention. The church’s disaster relief efforts are fast and well-coordinated, the chef said. Among other things, the Baptists help feed people with their mobile kitchens.
“They’re the ones producing the food from Day One,” he said. “I’m super-impressed with these guys.”
Aside from World Central Kitchen and its Chef Network, Andrés has other resources he can tap to help those in Houston and Southeast Texas. Among them, he said, is a mobile kitchen owned by the MGM National Harbor, where the chef has a restaurant, Fish by José Andrés. He’s looking to see whether the MGM can send the kitchen down to Texas.
Andrés said he plans to remain in Houston at least until next week.