Following a turbulent year in which chefs from New York to Oakland were accused of sexual harassment, the James Beard Foundation announced on Wednesday that it would bestow its annual Humanitarian of the Year award on a chef who exhibited far more selfless qualities during 2017: José Andrés, the Washingtonian who led the charge to feed millions of people in Houston, Puerto Rico and Southern California after natural disasters struck those areas.
“José’s work in Puerto Rico and Haiti shows how chefs can use their expertise and unique skills to enact profound change on a global scale,” Mitchell Davis, the foundation’s executive vice president, said in a statement. Andrés will receive the award at the foundation’s May 7 ceremony in Chicago. “He has demonstrated how, at the most difficult times, hot-cooked meals provide more than nutrition, they provide dignity. José’s work serves as an important reminder of how precious and nourishing food can be. And we couldn’t imagine a more fitting honoree this year as we celebrate how chefs and our industry ‘Rise.’ ”
The foundation’s Rise campaign — which “celebrates the community of chefs and industry leaders who rise to the occasion” — is part of its efforts at damage control in a restaurant industry that has been rocked by scandals. Among those charged with sexual harassment last year are New Orleans chef and restaurateur John Besh and New York chef and restaurateur Mario Batali, both James Beard Award winners.
A Beard winner himself, Andrés rose to the occasion last year with his humanitarian efforts, which often put him at odds with President Trump, who was accused of focusing his attention on other matters as the crisis unfolded in Puerto Rico. (Andrés and Trump have, of course, been legal foes, too, after the chef backed out of his lease at the Trump International Hotel in the summer of 2015 when the then-presidential candidate referred to Mexicans as drug dealers and rapists on the campaign trail.)
During the latter part of 2017, Andrés, the chef and owner behind ThinkFoodGroup, frequently took leave of his daily responsibilities to focus on feeding the hungry with World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit group he founded after the massive earthquake in Haiti. The chef and organization first mobilized in Houston in late August after Hurricane Harvey turned much of the city into a giant lake. A month later, they were in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, providing millions of hot meals to residents who would have had to survive on MREs and snacks for months if not for Andrés and myriad volunteers.
Late in 2017, Andrés and World Central Kitchen also collaborated with L.A. Kitchen — founded by Robert Egger, the same man who started D.C. Central Kitchen, an organization that Andrés has championed for years — to help feed displaced residents and firefighters who battled the wildfires in Southern California.
When contacted by phone about the Humanitarian of the Year award, Andrés, 48, quickly deflected attention away from himself. “I’ve been praised enough,” the chef said. This is something of an understatement: Since focusing his attention on disaster relief, Andrés and his work have been covered in depth by many media outlets, including the New York Times, “60 Minutes” and the Wall Street Journal.
“We are all as good as the people around us,” Andrés added. “In my case . . . I was in the right moment, in the right place and surrounded by the right people.”
With women calling out sexual harassers in many industries — film, politics, media and restaurants, to name a few — Andrés noted that many have called 2017 the year of the woman. He was fast to acknowledge the influences in his own development, including chefs Susan McCreight Lindeborg and Nora Pouillon, who were pioneers in helping to feed the poor and hungry through an innovative Share Our Strength program in the 1990s.
This isn’t the first time Andrés has been honored for his activism. In 2012, Time magazine listed Andrés among the 100 Most Influential People in the World. The magazine pointed to the chef’s activism, including his work for D.C. Central Kitchen, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign. At that time, Andrés acknowledged chef-activist Alice Waters as an inspiration.
“I’ve been inspired by so many people,” Andrés said Wednesday. People continue to inspire him daily, he added.
World Central Kitchen’s work in Puerto Rico has, in fact, inspired Andrés to rethink how the nonprofit organization goes about its business in disaster zones. To date, WCK has served 3.3 million meals in Puerto Rico, most of them prepared by volunteer chefs who work in makeshift kitchens, and the organization continues to have a presence on the island. Volunteers still make more than 6,000 meals a day for residents in areas that have yet to fully recover from the hurricane, Andrés said.
But during a recent trip to the island, Andrés and crew started developing new approaches to feed people after natural disasters. One idea includes shipping containers retrofitted into mobile kitchens, which could be moved from place to place within 24 to 48 hours. The nonprofit group also wants to help Puerto Ricans grow more of their own food; Andrés estimated the nearly 90 percent of the food on the island comes from somewhere else.
There was other good news for Andrés on Wednesday. Anthony Bourdain Books/Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, announced that it has acquired the North American rights to the story of how Andrés, WCK and all those volunteers fed millions on Puerto Rico. The book, “We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time,” will be written by Andrés. It’s set for release in September via author and celebrity chef Bourdain’s imprint.
“With a fraction of the resources available to the government, huge non-profits or NGOs, José Andrés and World Central Kitchen fed hundreds of thousands of desperate people in Puerto Rico, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria,” Bourdain noted in the announcement. “Their ingenuity, creativity and fortitude deserve to be recognized, and recorded and replicated as a practical blueprint for how humans can and should best react in the face of disaster. To say that I am proud to publish this book, and to help tell this vital story, is a vast understatement.”
Andrés is not prepared to say that his life has taken a turn because of his humanitarian work in Puerto Rico and other disaster areas. He said he could never have predicted what kind of success he would achieve after immigrating to the United States in 1991. He’s not about to predict what the future holds.
“I don’t know what my life is going to be like in the next five to 10 years,” he said.