The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

José Andrés doesn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize, but that doesn’t slow his disaster relief work

José Andrés at the National Book Festival in August. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

José Andrés was apparently not waiting breathlessly for the call from Norway.

The celebrity chef-turned-humanitarian and disaster relief specialist — who was nominated last fall for a Nobel Peace Prize by John Delaney, a former congressman from Maryland and a Democratic presidential candidate — spent most of the week in the Bahamas before the Nobel committee’s announcement Friday that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

If Andrés had won among the 300 other nominees, a list that reportedly included his occasional nemesis, President Trump, he would have been the first chef to claim the honor.

As if making a statement about his priorities — performing a public service over sitting around and awaiting news of a prestigious prize — Andrés was on the ground this week, working with his nonprofit organization, World Central Kitchen, to feed the victims of Hurricane Dorian. On Thursday, the group officially served its millionth meal in the Bahamas, less than six weeks after WCK set up operations on the islands. Andrés was not available for comment about the Nobel.

The chef was expected to land Friday in Puerto Rico, where he would honor a commitment to appear at a culinary event at Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton property that reopened in 2018, about a year after Hurricane Maria ripped through the island. For Andrés, it would be a return trip to the place where, in 2017, his life and career would take a dramatic turn in the wake of Maria. Where he would begin the transformation from celebrity chef to first responder to national hero to Nobel Peace Prize nominee.

José Andrés is nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, congressman confirms

Unprepared for what he and his organization faced when they landed in Puerto Rico after Maria knocked out the electricity, the roads and most of the island’s communications, volunteers soon discovered they faced another obstacle: an outdated, bureaucratic, top-down, paramilitary-type model of disaster relief that wasn’t prepared to deal with the magnitude of the crisis. Frustrated by the red tape, the delays and the standard thinking on disaster relief, Andrés and his team of volunteer chefs did what kitchens have done for decades: They improvised.

They activated any space with electricity and running water, whether a church, a restaurant or a food truck. They eventually opened a giant kitchen at the Coliseo de Puerto Rico in San Juan, where they produced 60,000 meals a day. They rewrote the book on how to feed people after a natural disaster. They fed Puerto Ricans — who are American citizens, Andrés frequently pointed out to Trump, who was accused of responding slowly to the unfolding crisis — millions of hot meals, staying there for months to make sure the job was done.

“It was also an untold disaster, hidden from view and lied about by our public officials,” Andrés wrote in his book, “We Fed an Island.” “My mission was to help my fellow American citizens, and to tell their story to a world that was living in the dark.”

José Andrés and World Central Kitchen follow blueprint from Puerto Rico to feed Dorian victims

Puerto Rico marked a major shift in priorities for both Andrés and World Central Kitchen. At the start, WCK was more about building infrastructure, setting up businesses and the developing the skills of people in underdeveloped countries. It could be in Haiti, Honduras or Nicaragua. “We were helping people become culinary professionals in the hopes of elevating the cities and the countries where they are from,” said Victor Albisu, the chef behind Poca Madre and a founding board member of WCK.

But following their work in Puerto Rico, Andrés and WCK embraced their roles as first responders. They have fed victims of every type of disaster: They deployed to the Venezuelan-Colombian border during the political struggle in Venezuela. They traveled to California after the devastating wildfires. They set up kitchens in Indonesia after the earthquake and tsunami. They even opened a relief kitchen in downtown Washington to feed federal workers during the partial government shutdown this year.

José, in the field, is intense,” said Albisu. “He’s very focused but all over the place. Meaning that, as soon as something is established, he’s already looking where he can do the next thing. … He’s never comfortable with the first achievement. There’s always much more to do.”

José Andrés’s riveting ‘We Fed an Island’ calls for a revolution in disaster relief

“That leadership is invaluable, that perspective, and it’s just him,” Albisu added. “That’s not just language and talking. That’s real stuff, because I’ve felt it from him. I’m better off for it.”

World Central Kitchen and Andrés have become so proficient at disaster relief that they were actually on the ground in the Bahamas before Dorian hit.

“This pre-positioning was essential as it allowed us to jump into action immediately to deliver meals,” Nate Mook, executive director of WCK, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “We will continue to serve hot and nutritious meals as long as we are needed.”

In the process, WCK has grown from a small organization, with total assets of $119,000 in 2016, to one with total assets of $16.3 million in 2018, according to the organization’s financials.

Andrés may not have won the Nobel Peace Prize, but he has won the hearts and influenced the minds of countless people, including industry peers who have seen his work up close.

“In a world that continually tells us the that the impossible is improbable, José Andrés reminds us that a few people, and a ‘no quit’ attitude can change the future of people in hardship,” chef and television personality Andrew Zimmern said in an email to The Post.

“I am so proud of my friend and his amazing organization,” Zimmern continued. “On a personal level if it wasn’t for a long night spent hashing out the issues of the world with José over 10 years ago, I wouldn’t be doing the service work that gives me the greatest joy in my life. He set my life on its current course, and he has done the same for millions of people around the world.”

Read more on Food:

Want an Anthony Bourdain keepsake? Now’s your chance with an auction of his possessions.

To David Chang, the ‘ethnic’ food aisle is racist. Others say it’s convenient.

A new survey about American breakfast preferences is stuck in the past