Thirteen million meals.
That’s the level of cooking that the nonprofit World Central Kitchen has prepared, with the help of local volunteers, to feed victims of natural disasters worldwide.
Chef José Andrés, founder of WCK, told that story last Monday at the State Theatre in Minneapolis to a rapt audience that included many in the food and hospitality fields. He spoke as part of the Inspired Conversations series, sponsored by the Star Tribune and Hennepin Theatre Trust.
WCK was created in 2010, after relief work in Haiti in the aftermath of earthquakes. Last year, for the first time, WCK cooked every day — 365 of them — in disaster zones, somewhere in the world.
That included the Bahamas, hit by Hurricane Dorian in September, followed by Albania in December due to earthquakes.
In January, WCK continued work in Puerto Rico, due to earthquakes, with another team in Australia during its wildfires.
The nonprofit also prepared food in Japan for the passengers and crew of the quarantined cruise ship.
Some highlights follow from the discussion with Andrés, who immigrated to the U.S. three decades ago from his native Spain. He operates 30 restaurants around the world. His words:
Becoming a chef: I wanted to be a chef from the moment that my mother was feeding me that amazing warm, sweet liquid gold. You know? I have a feeling that it was that connection. That has to be an important moment for who we are, this loving relationship that we have with food.
About his parents: My mom and dad cooked at home. We didn’t go to restaurants. My father, especially on Sundays, would cook for everybody. He had these big paella pans. My father always put me in charge of making the fire. He never allowed me to do the cooking when I was young. But one day I wanted to cook, and I told my dad, “Let me cook, let me stir the ingredients.” And he said, “No, you have to do the fire.” I got very upset and he sent me away.
After everybody ate, he pulled me aside and he said, “My son, I don’t know that you realize your value. You have been a very important part of making this paella, all this time, helping me to be successful. You are the only one to make the fire, who has the sense to know when I need the big one, and when I need the low one. My son, everybody wants to do the cooking, everybody wants to stir the pot, but the most important piece is to make the fire, to tend the fire. Once you control the fire, then and only then can you do anything you want to do with your life.”
Obviously for a cook, this was a very important lesson. But in the end I realized that it was much more than that. It was a metaphor of life. We are all always concentrating on the cooking of our lives, but not very often do we understand the fire underneath. We need to ask ourselves if we know what the fire is and, more important, are we able to control it? Once we understand what is underneath, I think we get so much more out of life. For me, and for my father who has passed, I think forever I will be very grateful for this story.
His military service: I go to the navy [in his teens, after culinary school]. I want to go on a ship. But what does everyone in the navy want me to do? Cook for the admiral. So they send me to the house of the admiral to cook. I said to him, “Let me be honest with you. I don’t want to cook. I want to go on a boat.” And the admiral said, “You’re going to do one thing: My wife needs you for six months. If you behave, I’ll send you on a boat six months from now.”
I ended up on one of the most beautiful tall ships in history — four masts — the Juan Sebastián de Elcano. It was 300 people on the ocean for six months. I came to understand the value of teamwork. We crossed the Atlantic twice. First time I came to America, in Pensacola, Fla. But then we went to New York, under the Verrazzano Bridge. I was up in the mast, 30 meters. You see Lady Liberty, Ellis Island. I docked on the West Side, almost on 30th Street, 30 years ago. Last year — it was 30 years, to the day — I opened my biggest restaurant yet, in New York, on 30th Street.
A young man, searching for opportunities in America: I was looking for a place to belong. I think we always look for a place to belong. I wanted to throw my anchor and say, “Here I am.” A very important person in my life is a man named Richard Melman. He is one of the most amazing people. He’s opened the most amount of restaurants in Chicago. I went to one of his restaurants, [Cafe] Ba-Ba-Reeba! I cook the paella there. He saw a young kid who was trying to find his place. He told me, “You can come to Chicago, or you can go somewhere else, but find a place to belong. Whatever you do next, go to one place and never move again.”
I found Washington. I love D.C. It’s where I found my wife, and that’s the moment when my life ended up being my life. My daughters were born there. It is where I grew up as a man, where I grew up as a father. It’s where I found my partners. I don’t know about you, but all of my life, I have been looking for answers. I have been trying to find instructions. You buy something from Amazon, it comes with instructions. In my life, my wife gives the instructions to me, all the time.
His first experiences with feeding the hungry: I arrive in Washington, D.C., in 1993, and open Jaleo. Across the street from the restaurant was the Missing Soldiers Office, a tiny brick building. It was created by somebody called Clara Barton, one of the legends of America. She cared for the wounded soldiers during the Civil War. She created the Red Cross. For me, this is very important. My mother, my father, were nurses. A woman like her was able to create this amazing system for taking care of the wounded on the battlefield. Maybe cooks like me can do something like that?
There is a place called D.C. Central Kitchen. It was founded by a bartender named Robert Egger. Everybody talks about food waste, and food waste is wrong. But we forgot that we are also wasting people. Robert was in the business of making sure that no man or woman would be wasted. He would give them opportunities. He would take homeless off the street, clean them, give them an opportunity to go to this kitchen to learn cooking, to graduate and then go find jobs. This is a kitchen that feeds 14,000, 15,000 people a day. He told me, “José, the business of charity has been totally wrong. It feels like charity is always about the redemption of the giver, when charity should be about the liberation of the receiver.”
The start of World Central Kitchen: I wanted to start something beyond my city. After the  earthquakes in Haiti, I got a group of friends together. We went to Haiti and we began cooking in camps. This day for me was not about helping. What I was doing was learning. Learning about how we could go to those disasters and give hope, one plate of food at a time. That was the beginning of World Central Kitchen.
We opened a children’s home in Haiti. Many children lost their families in the earthquake, and many were mentally handicapped. They put almost 200 kids in this home. There we opened a bakery, not only to feed the children but also to teach them a profession as they grow older and also to sell the bread, so the bakery could help sustain the home. Then we opened a restaurant with the same intentions. Then we opened a cooking school where, to this day, we are graduating 100 women a year and helping them find jobs. We try to be there to support for the long term.
We didn’t call it the José Andrés Foundation because it was important for me that we would have a place where every single person could become part of the solution. That’s why we call it World Central Kitchen, because everybody that loves cooking and loves the power of food can come together and just provide relief and show hope for a better tomorrow, one plate of food at a time.
The challenges of Hurricane Maria-stricken Puerto Rico: The island was wiped out [in 2017]. There was no electricity, no water, no gas at the gas stations for cars. The entire island was shutting down. We began cooking after I sent a text message to a friend, José Enrique, one of the best people in the world and one of the most talented chefs. The first day, we did 1,000 meals. Then we went to 150,000 meals a day. We went from 20 friends in a restaurant to more than 25,000 volunteers. We went from one kitchen to 26 kitchens. We had 10 trucks, we had hundreds of people delivering to more than 700, 800, 900 delivery points in a day. At the end, we did probably more than 4 million meals.
Puerto Rico fed Puerto Rico. The men and women said, “If our government is not going to do it, we’re going to do it for us.” I don’t believe in big government, or small government. I believe in right government. Our government should be there to take care of every single American. What else is the government for? We stayed there for months. We’re still there.
To understand how organized we are now, in less than six hours after the latest earthquake, the people of Puerto Rico were feeding Puerto Rico. They were feeding everybody that was without a home or everybody that was in a shelter. We are showing people that when we organize ourselves, nothing can stop us. We show that bringing hope, one plate of food at a time, is forceful. We show that you don’t need the big budgets. Sometimes, all it takes is empathy.
The role of chefs as first responders: I feel so good for my profession. I am very happy that today chefs are just not only in our kitchens. I think it’s necessary. If not, nobody is going to solve any of the food issues we face. Chefs, we can be the front lines in solving many of the problems, so food should stop being a problem, and finally, once and for all, food should be the solution for many of the problems. Food is important. Food is a science and it’s also an art. It’s physics. Food is history. Food is public policy. Food is diplomacy. Food is immigration. Food is the economy and food is health, and food is hunger. Food is medicine. Food is very much at the heart of who we are. It is part of our DNA. I believe that in our political talk we should be talking more about food.
How World Central Kitchen works: We welcome everybody locally because there’s nobody better than locals to provide relief for themselves. We bring this know-how. We push the systems into place, but we need the locals. That’s why in the Bahamas we go from 24 team members at World Central Kitchen in the first three days to more than 4,000 volunteers. That’s what we’re achieving and, in the end, it is not very complicated. We arrive long before the other big organizations, including the U.N. The men and women of the big organizations, I love them. They are good people, believe me. What I criticize is that I don’t understand why these big organizations, with so much money, that they are not there first.
To these big organizations: We love you, but you need to change. You need to improve. FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] needs to become smaller and to be there for the American people when there are disasters. We are here to tell people, “It’s not so complicated.” We can do it. The Bahamas survived. We showed that we could do it. We were the first ones to arrive and the last to leave. And that’s the type of relief that we should start providing. Because more things are going to be happening, and we are here to remind everyone that we should do better. The American people, and the people of the world, they don’t deserve anything less.
His Spanish accent: People are so critical. They say, “You have a thick accent, I don’t understand you.” And I think, “How about you? You have a thick accent. I don’t understand you, either. Where are you from?” With apologies to the Native Americans and the Vikings, the Spanish were some of the first people here.
Becoming a U.S. citizen: [Supreme Court Justice] Sonia Sotomayor, because she was coming into the restaurant, she found out that I was about to become a citizen, and she offered the Supreme Court, and she handled the ceremony. Life is like Forrest Gump for me. I have spent more than half of my life in America. I learned that you don’t belong somewhere because they give you a piece of paper that says that you do. I learned that you belong somewhere because you work hard to belong.
Across the street from my office is the National Archive, and there are the documents of the creation of our country. You can read the whole thing, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights. But when you go and you read those three words, “We the People,” if you keep repeating, “We the People, We the People, We the People, We the People,” you learn that these are three very important words. Everyone should remember that We the People is who we are as Americans. All the people. A nation of inclusion, not exclusion.
Donations to World Central Kitchen: The difference between us and other organizations is that we never look at the bank to see how much money we have. We just go, and we start feeding people. People see what we do in real time, and how we are able to feed everybody. I’m tired of some big organizations who raise more money than they need, and they don’t know what to do with their money. We don’t want to raise more money than we need. We only want to raise the money we need [wck.org].
On donating his Minneapolis speaking fee to Second Harvest Heartland: I am an American citizen. I will be there for you in the same way that I know that you will be there for me. That’s the spirit of America.