Unlike the president, Homeland Security or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, José Andrés has no responsibility to respond to natural disasters, and yet the Washington celebrity chef has become a reliable presence in disaster zones, deploying his Chef Network to help feed thousands of displaced people.
Andrés was among the first responders in Haiti and Houston, and now he and his crew from World Central Kitchen are on the ground in Puerto Rico, improvising ways to feed countless residents who are stranded without electricity, drinking water and food in the wake of Hurricane Maria. With little ability to speak with the outside world, Andrés has used his Twitter feed to keep followers updated on his progress in the U.S. territory.
If President Trump has become a target of criticism for the administration’s response in Puerto Rico, Andrés has become a hero. The restaurateur’s social networks are overflowing with words of praise for the native Spaniard who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2013.
Heroism has not come easy in Puerto Rico.
“Today’s a hard day,” he said in a video posted Thursday to Twitter. “We’ve been getting deliveries, but we’ve been missing a few things. When we have bread, we don’t have cheese . . . But more or less, things keep falling into place.”
Andrés and company landed in Puerto Rico on Monday and wasted little time. He posted a photo of himself ladling out sancocho — a Puerto Rican beef stew — to locals. He also started soliciting donations and volunteers to help with the massive task of feeding a population that has survived two hurricanes: Irma early in September, followed by Maria later in the month. The Category 4 Maria was the strongest storm to directly hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years, wiping out power to the entire island.
Since arriving, Andrés has teamed up with chef José Enrique, a native son whose eponymous restaurant in the Santurce district of San Juan has served as one of two bases for meal preparations. The other is Mesa 364, a private-events restaurant launched by chef Enrique L. Piñeiro. Volunteers from the island and the U.S. mainland, working under the hashtag #chefsforPuertoRico, have prepared stews, sandwiches, paella and pastelon (a Puerto Rican lasagna with fried sweet plantains for “noodles”) for those in hospitals, senior homes and San Juan neighborhoods. They’ve used food trucks to help distribute meals.
In a series of tweets published Sunday, in fact, Andrés offered a number of suggestions to the president.
This isn’t the first time Andrés has set himself against the president: In April, the two settled lawsuits against each other after Andrés backed out of his lease to open a restaurant in Trump International Hotel.
He also tweeted:
According to Andrés’s PR team back in Washington, the crews in Puerto Rico are now feeding 5,000 people a day, and since Monday, they have served more than 15,000 meals. (In late August, Andrés was in Houston with World Central Kitchen, where they served 20,000 meals for victims of Hurricane Harvey.)
You could make the argument that his relief efforts in Puerto Rico are more personal to Andrés. He has a restaurant on the island: Mi Casa is a modern Caribbean restaurant inside a Ritz-Carlton property in Dorado, just west of San Juan. The restaurant took a hit from Maria and remains closed.
“While they are undergoing efforts to restore operations at the property, guests are not able to make reservations,” emailed Margaret Chaffee, spokeswoman for ThinkFoodGroup, parent group for Andrés’s family of restaurants.
Despite poor cell coverage on the island and a packed schedule, Andrés called The Post to provide a brief update on his team’s efforts. Well, sort of. The first words out of the chef’s mouth were, “I’m sorry, but I cannot speak right now.”
Andrés then spent the next five minutes answering questions, as those around him urged the chef to move along to the next task at hand. Andrés said they’re feeding close to 8,000 people daily now, between the two San Juan restaurants and the food trucks.
When asked how he’s managing to get supplies on the island, Andrés just said, “When you have a credit card, everything is possible.”
Andrés would like to expand his relief operations to Vieques, the small island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. Vieques has been essentially cut off from all communications and supplies since Maria hit. But he’s not sure that will happen.
“We have to be realistic about what we can do,” Andrés said.
The celebrity chef said he was due back in Washington already but decided to extend his stay in Puerto Rico. He isn’t expected back in the District until next week.
“I cannot leave,” he said.
Then he begged off. His team was signaling him to get off the phone. “I really have to go,” he said.
This post originally published Sept. 29; it has been updated.
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