José Andrés at the annual Refugees International dinner in Washington on April 30th. (Photo Courtesy of Refugees International
José Andrés at the annual Refugees International dinner in Washington on April 30. (Photo Courtesy of Refugees International

If his tapas takeover of the District doesn’t work out, then chef José Andrés can always hit the lecture circuit. On Thursday night at Refugees International’s annual dinner in Washington, Andrés gave an impassioned speech about the work he does with Word Central Kitchen, an nonprofit begun in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake with the goal of eradicating hunger through job training and empowerment.

“What happens in Haiti, let me be honest, is what happens sometimes five minutes away from Congress and the White House,” said Andrés, after receiving the McCall-Pierpaoli Humanitarian Award.

In a fiery speech that employed many hand gestures — all the better to make his point — Andrés repeatedly emphasized that the people his organization helps “don’t want our pity, they want our respect.” Instead of squirming uncomfortably in their seats the well-heeled crowded sat up straighter. After the chef’s 10 minutes at the podium, the more than 470 guests in the grand foyer of the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium stood for nearly as long.

“Can you believe he actually said he doesn’t deserve this,” noted actor Matt Dillon, the night’s MC. “José, we need more people like you.”

Next up was actor Forrest Whitaker, who also received the McCall-Pierpaoli Humanitarian Award for his work as the CEO of the Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative. Soft spoken in a three-piece suit and thick-rimmed glasses, Whitaker, who won an Oscar in 2007 for his portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” told the room that for the refugees he’s met around the world “being at home means being at peace.”

“They were both great,” said one attendee, referring diplomatically to Andrés and Whitaker. Still, it was clear that Andrés has made a lasting impression. “That was the best speech I’ve ever had at one of these things,” said another Refugees International supporter. He’d already opened his wallet once that night, helping the organization raise more than $750,000 and perhaps planned on doing it again.

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