Chef José Andrés joked Monday afternoon that FEMA and the governmental agencies that were responsible for Hurricane Maria relief in Puerto Rico are “the Yelpers that always give zero stars.”
But that was about as pointed as the chef got in a wide-ranging conversation at the South by Southwest conference in Austin with TV personality Andrew Zimmern about the two chefs’ efforts to help ameliorate hunger through charities, moderated by Dana Cowin, host of the podcast “Speaking Broadly.” Andrés, who is writing a book about his nonprofit World Central Kitchen’s disaster relief in Puerto Rico, emphasized the need for critical thinking and respect in future efforts. He was recently named Humanitarian of the Year by the James Beard Foundation for his work in Houston, Haiti, Southern California and Puerto Rico.
“We had people that were thinking about how to feed Puerto Rico a month from now. Hunger cannot wait a month,” he said, pointing out that agencies were giving dry beans and rice to families that had no clean water or power, and thus no means to cook them. “Sometimes we have people making decisions that I have a feeling are not on the ground.”
Andrés and Zimmern each spoke about a profound moment when they began to understand how to give aid in a way that restored recipients’ dignity. For Zimmern, it was a time when he was working in Botswana for one of his shows and spending time with a remote tribe that took him out to catch birds to eat. When the tribe caught the birds in a rope, he took out a knife to cut the rope, but the tribal leaders gasped. They never cut the rope, they explained, because they had worked hard to make it by hand, and they would use it until it frayed and turned to dust.
“I was about to cut their rope. In my culture … we’ve got three balls of twine in every … drawer in the kitchen,” said Zimmern, who choked up. “What I wasn’t doing was listening and paying attention. I was thinking too much about me.”
Andrés talked about a similar moment when he was serving food for the relief efforts after the Haiti earthquake in 2010. He made rice and beans for a village of people who hadn’t eaten for days.
“When I’m about to be serving the rice with the stew I made, they all gathered around the translator,” who told him a group of women wanted to tell him something. “What do they want to tell me? That the beans are no good,” he said, to a big laugh from the crowd. “They like them like a purée.”
He said it was a reminder that, when doing charity work, “People coming from the outside, it always seems like they are imposing what they think you need. … That day, forever, I saw the value of a hot plate of food.”
Andrés’ relief efforts are ongoing. He said that yesterday, World Central Kitchen served about 7,000 meals. “We never thought we were going to be there six months.”
Andrés has been making the rounds at South by Southwest, too. On Sunday night, he hung out at the WeDC party, sponsored by the Washington D.C. Economic Partnership, and mugged for photos with fans. Then he briefly appeared behind the bar at a party sponsored by the Atlantic, before sitting for a panel discussion and a clip of a short film by Concordia Studio about his relief work. Called “Making Fire,” the title is a reference to Andrés’ father teaching him how to cook – first, by learning how to control the fire. But it’s also a metaphor for finding the fire within you.
In the panel discussion that followed, Andres talked about how a simple ham and cheese sandwich was one of the most meaningful dishes he made during the hurricane relief.
“A sandwich, to a degree, was sending the message that someone cares,” he said. “A sandwich can be a huge message of hope. … I am never going to look at a sandwich the same way again.”
And he spoke about the relief effort with his characteristic humility.
“I think that’s the new American dream — to fight for others as much as you fight for your own.”