José Andrés’s voice deepens, and his cadence slows as he talks about Ukraine.
He recalls intense military checkpoints, navigating unfamiliar roads without headlights to avoid “giving any information to someone who might be a spy.” He seems distant as he describes the sirens and ammunition attacking his senses, what he calls “the sounds of war.” When he talks about the Ukrainian people, he is impressed.
“You don’t feel any danger anymore because millions of people going on anyway surround you,” he says. “These people are not giving up their fight.”
The Spanish-born chef traveled to Ukraine in late February after Vladimir Putin’s Russia invaded. As he always does in disaster situations, Andrés brought in a network of mission-ready World Central Kitchen chefs – not to take up arms but to put food into the hands of the people. Now they make about 380,000 meals a day.
“In the end, the only good thing about it is that the best of humanity always seems to appear in the worst of humanity,” says Andrés.
Andrés has been in disastrous situations for 12 years with World Central Kitchen. The shabby humanitarian aid organization is the subject of a new documentary, “We Feed People,” directed by Academy Award winner Ron Howard and premiering Friday on Disney Plus.
The film follows Andrés’ origin story, from his influence on American dining with his first restaurant, Jaleo, in Washington, DC, in 1993 to delivering meal packages to the pandemic-ravaged Navajo Nation in 2020. Through it all, viewers see Andrés, a man who refuses to accept things as they are because they have always been that way.
“I’m very persistent in knocking on the door, and the door always opens in the end,” he says.
“We Feed People” opened in 2018 in Wilmington, North Carolina, after Hurricane Florence flooded streets and displaced thousands. Amid the wreckage is Andrés, a towering figure wearing a utility vest and baseball hat as he devises strategies using a paper map strewn with color-coded sticky notes representing people in need of food.
“We don’t just feed people, we create systems,” he says of the World Central Kitchen logistics help. “If we don’t have systems, we can’t take care of the people.”
Transporting food, organizing resources and people, and distributing meals form the basis of World Central Kitchen. But what sets her methods apart is the cheerfulness and authenticity of the way Andrés and his people deal with people in need.
After a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Andrés cooked black beans for the survivors. But it wasn’t the “velvet and silky black bean” stew that the locals preferred. Then he learned that real help—real empathy—means learning about local customs and adapting to them, not the other way around.
“He realized that you have to respect people,” said Richard Wolffe, author, and director of Andrés’ media group ThinkFoodGroup. “Food is about community. It’s about getting food your way, not how a white savior thinks it should be cooked. That shaped World Central Kitchen in all its future activities.”
Through grassroots videos shot by World Central Kitchen and professional documentary cameras, viewers see the organization resurface within days, sometimes hours, of a natural disaster.
They also see how much toll assistance can cost. In Puerto Rico, Andrés reached a breaking point during the failed federal response to Hurricane Maria in 2017. He has taken out loans to fund aid, mobilized the island’s food trucks to feed thousands, and conducted interviews and social media posts to raise awareness of the devastation. But as seen in clips, an old aid organization tells him there isn’t enough money to make ends meet. In a press conference weeks after the hurricane, then-President Trump threw paper towels into a crowd as if he were playing basketball and told them, “I hate to tell you Puerto Rico, but you messed up our budget a little bit.”
“The problem with seeing the president throw the towels is not the towels. The problem is, that’s what relief is becoming: ‘Let me throw the bones at you,’ Andrés says.
Andrés’ wife, Patricia, whom he married in 1995, recalls how desperate he was to help and how frustrated he couldn’t do more. “You could see it in his eyes,” she says. “He was here physically, but not emotionally or even mentally.”
Puerto Rico was a turning point where he learned he faced a twin struggle: to grow and strengthen World Central Kitchen while demanding a better response from world leaders and legacy organizations.
“I’m going to make sure I’m the light in the darkroom,” he says. “I cannot try to solve every problem. But water and food? We are good at food, and we are good at it because we are cooks. We understand the food systems. … We maximize response in the most difficult situations. And we always seem to be able to adapt.”