The world-renowned chef (who was famously involved in a lawsuit with President Donald Trump earlier this year) and his organization World Central Kitchen spent ten weeks leading the charge after Hurricane Maria, and they’re jumping into action again with the wild fires in California. In the last few days, Andrés’ has team worked with local organization L.A. Kitchen feed local firefighters and evacuees.
The team jumped into action without a plan. “In an emergency, you cannot run by committee,” he says of the big lesson he learned in Puerto Rico. “We have a tendency to throw money at the problem instead of investing in solutions.” His strategy in California was one of action. “We cooked the food and the worst that can happen is nobody needs it. But I decided, let’s start preparing the food because the moment they see the need and tell us where to go, it’s ready. That’s what we do.”
The chef, who spoke to PEOPLE from his Bazaar by José Andrés restaurant at the SLS South Beach Hotel, initially butted heads with both FEMA and President Trump while he was on the ground in Puerto Rico. But he says that in the end he worked hand in hand with the government. “I did work with the federal government. We were having the Navy cooks volunteering in our kitchens, we did have Army HUMVEES helping us cross the rivers, we were having Homeland Security units and even ICE units – I cannot believe I’d ever work with ICE, but they were helping us deliver sandwiches. In the end, you learn that everybody does the work they are hired to do – it doesn’t mean they are good or bad people, they only follow orders.”
World Central Kitchen and Chefs From Puerto Rico ended up serving an average of 150,000 meals a day from 21 kitchens spread through the island. “We began with 200 meals on Sunday, then 2,000 on Monday with friends, chefs, and volunteers. We had 25,000 within four days. We got more chefs, more donations, and figured out what people needed to get the food across the island. You have to be a little bit militaristic,” he says of the efforts.
Andrés’ team was so involved with the operations, that FEMA was eventually turning to them for answers. “I got this map from the military inside FEMA headquarters, and we did a map of where is water, where is gas, where are the kitchens. Because there were no communications. We had such an intelligence of what was going on around the island. At one moment, we were delivering blue tarps because we knew what communities needed them, what homes. We were delivering medicines, we were delivering things that we were not supposed to, but all of a sudden we became a connector.”
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Of the people they helped, he says, “I saw a lot of patience. Everybody thought after this situation, that there was gonna be looting, but I saw so much good. The sense of no electricity, the chaos it created was beyond imaginable. No water pumps, no gas, no medicine, no drinking water. But the people were so patient and grateful.”
As to why the burden fell on these chefs — many of whom left their families and businesses for weeks at a time— Andrés says, “It required to step up much more than the government did because the problem became much bigger than anybody knew, and that’s what we did. The same people that are doing this in the day to day are the best prepared people to try to take care of that emergency. In the end, how we feed Americans in emergencies is no different than how we feed them every day.”
WATCH: José Andrés Talks Immigration in the U.S.
And while some have said the government ill-prepared for a disaster of this magnitude, Andrés, who is currently writing a book about his experience and working in Washington, D.C., says the future is not about fighting. “This isn’t about politics. It’s easy to trash people but this is bigger than this. It’s easy for the government to get ready to fulfill the needs of Americans in a moment of emergency. I’m not an expert on everything, but in food I can tell you, we’ve shown now many times that we are able to infiltrate ourselves in the system. So I hope I can shed light on what’s not working with the red tape.”
“The mission of the federal government is to ask, ‘How can we provide help to Americans in moments of need fast and quickly and cheaper than the way we are doing it now?’,” he continues. “That’s something Democrats and Republicans can agree on. If you take care of the people, Democrats will be happy and if you do it cheap and efficiently, Republicans will be happy.”