This article is part of a series about resilience in difficult times – what we can learn from history and personal experiences.
Before José Andrés won four Michelin stars for his kitchen and before he made the cover of Time magazine as a chef “Wants to Feed the World” He served in the Spanish Navy. The service was mandatory then and he got a job as a cook for an admiral. But what he really wanted was to serve on an actual ship. He eventually landed on the Navy’s training ship, Juan Sebastián de Elcano, and learned lessons that still serve him well.
“To see only 300 people working together, no matter where the currents came from or the wind came, the boat always marched forward,” he said recently from El Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain, where he visited a friend’s restaurant and helped to do that Coordinate his team’s response to the outbreak of the corona virus there. “Victim, hard work, teamwork, belief in the person on your right and belief in the person on your left.”
It was this type of group ethic that led 50-year-old Andrés to become one of the most famous and well-known chefs in the world and the founder of ThinkFoodGroup (and its 28 restaurants) and World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that has Fed millions after disasters and crises in Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Indonesia, Mozambique, Haiti and the USA. During the corona virus pandemic, World Central Kitchen, based in Washington, recently provided over two million meals in Spain and 16 million in the United States.
Resilience to trauma seems to be a specialty of Mr. Andrés. This interview was compressed and edited for the sake of length and clarity.
You seem to have endless energy and determination. Do you have a sense of where that comes from?
I don’t feel so full of energy anymore. I realize that like everyone else, I have limits. I left school when I was very young. The only way forward was determination, because if I wasn’t happy, no one else would.
In Spain there is a classic book called “El Lazarillo de Tormes” from the 16th century. It tells the story of these young people – they are called “Picaresca”, people who have to be very funny to overcome any obstacle. I think that’s in my DNA to adapt to any circumstance. They make the best of every situation, no matter how bad it is.
How do you put together a team to support a major project like World Central Kitchen?
It was a simple reality for me that the restaurant community in America and around the world is very large and very deep. You will always find a restaurant, a staff, cooks – and that means connection to farmers and food companies and distributors, with access to gas, with access to cooling. It doesn’t matter where we are in the world. In an emergency, this is something very powerful.
That means you may have an army that has a hard time feeding their people, but if we are involved, we will have no problem feeding a village. Because we know where the food is, we know where the water is, we know where the generators are, we know where the cooling is. This is the beginning of World Central Kitchen, a firm belief in the world’s food community. This theory of mine proves itself over time.
In Yokohama, for example, Nobu Matsuhisa was one of the first cooks when we started answering Covid [we contacted]. Yes, I know Nobu well, but his people started to help us with questions we had. This enabled us to prepare tens of thousands of meals for the Princess cruise ship.
Did working in and running kitchens help you discover the skills and endurance to run these extensive programs?
Remember that there is a bit of chaos in all kitchens. Cooks like me, we’re natural people with chaos. It is Friday evening and order after order comes again and again. Fish without garlic and vegetables without black pepper, well-made steaks and “I don’t want mustard.” Then the system crashes, the computer crashes. Restaurants always give out food.
You wrote in March a commentary for the New York Timesand you described essential steps for your work in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Are these steps the same for responding to the pandemic? Have you adapted your thinking to this new challenge?
Of course, each previous experience helps us for the next, but two emergencies are never the same. I always say that the future of business, the future of N.G.O.s. [nongovernmental organizations]are not the ones who are just planning. If you plan too much and write the perfect plan page by page, there is a good chance that nothing will go as planned in the next emergency. Then what do people do who have no written plan? For this reason, I firmly believe that the best way for companies, small, large companies, and governments to become experts in adaptation. Adaptation will always win the day.
At World Central Kitchen we have a mission and a very simple goal: to feed the hungry, to bring the thirsty water. Everyone understands this very simple, clear and profound message. In the end, we tell them: adapt to the circumstances to achieve this.
In the same statement, you wrote, “These challenges can seem overwhelming, but we believe that the most effective solutions are often right in front of us.” I think there are many people out there who are paralyzed by these massive challenges. How do you personally overcome this feeling?
Hmm. Let me see. There was no bread in Puerto Rico. On paper. But you had four bakeries there. But people are thinking about bringing bread from Florida. We have been thinking about how to get generators to the bakeries so they can start making bread. People who tried to bring bread from Florida were unsuccessful a month later. People like us, who spoke to the bakery owners and were just trying to be part of the solution, got bread on site in less than 24 hours. Do you understand what I mean? Sometimes very big problems, they have very simple solutions.