January 22, 2018

José Andrés Fed Puerto Rico, and May Change How Aid Is Given

José Andrés Fed Puerto Rico, and May Change How Aid Is Given

In addition to sending money or showing up to hand out blankets or boxes of food, companies like UPS and IBM are designing ways to quickly supply logistical and technical aid.

“Chefs are part of that trend now, too,” Mr. Ottenhoff said. “They’re starting to say, ‘Look, people are in need of not just food but good food, and we know how to serve large quantities of good food very quickly.’”

Kimberly Grant, the chief executive of Mr. André’s Think Food Group, which runs 27 restaurants, put it like this: “Who else can take raw ingredients that are seemingly unassociated and make them into delicious food and do it under extreme pressure?”

Restaurateurs have long offered food when trouble hit their communities.

Kitchens near the World Trade Center in New York served thousands of meals each day to emergency workers after 9/11. In response to the 2004 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, the celebrity chef Cat Cora started Chefs for Humanity. Competition barbecue teams that headed to Joplin, Mo., after the 2011 tornadoes organized themselves into Operation BBQ Relief, a nonprofit group that has since responded to more than 40 disasters.

Two weeks ago, a food writer in Northern California tapped the region’s best chefs to provide a steady stream of meals for people who had lost homes to wildfires. The restaurateur and TV personality Guy Fieri, who had to evacuate his Santa Rosa residence, organized a team of volunteers and began serving mashed potatoes and pork loin to firefighters and others in a parking lot.


Mr. Andrés (in the light green cap) and volunteers from a church consult a map to decide where to deliver food cooked by congregation members to the areas around Naguabo.

Eric Rojas for The New York Times

Mr. Andrés helped out after Hurricane Sandy, but his first big lesson in emergency food relief came in August, when he rallied local chefs in Houston to help feed survivors of Hurricane Harvey.

Other Houston chefs and caterers started a website called “I Have Food I Need Food” and used social media to create a system to organize donations, cook food and get it delivered. They codified their effort in a manual and send it to chefs in Miami who were staring down Hurricane Irma, which landed 16 days later.

Mr. Andrés went to Houston in part to study how to expand the scope of World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit association of chefs he established in 2011 after helping Haiti earthquake victims a year earlier. The idea was to learn how he and Brian MacNair, World Central Kitchen’s executive director, could add emergency food relief to an agenda that already included building school kitchens, organizing culinary training and offering other forms of support in several countries.

But nothing prepared Mr. Andrés for what he faced in Puerto Rico. After taking one of the first commercial flights to the island after the storm, he realized that things were worse than anyone knew.

He found his friend Jose Enrique, the chef who has been leading Puerto Rico’s farm-to-table resurgence. Mr. Enrique had no electricity to run his Restaurant Jose Enrique, in the Santurce district of San Juan. Rain poured through the roof. But he had food in the freezer. Other chefs did, too. Someone had a generator.


Mr. Andrés called food trucks like this one, owned by Xoimar Manning and Michael Sauri, the “Delta strike force” of his feeding operation in Puerto Rico. Here, he helps serve what will be the only hot meal of the day for people in the community of Tocones.

Eric Rojas for The New York Times

“We decided we would just start cooking,” Mr. Enrique said.

The next morning, Mr. Andrés went to a food distributor and loaded up his car. “I was already smart enough to know I would need aluminum pans, so I bought every aluminum pan I could,” he said.

They began cooking big pots of the classic island stew called sancocho on the street in front of Mr. Enrique’s small restaurant. Word spread and the lines grew. They sent food to people waiting in 10-hour lines at gas stations. They heard that workers at the city’s biggest medical clinic were going hungry, so they added it to what was now a makeshift delivery schedule. “Every day it would just double,” Mr. Enrique said.

Mr. Andrés didn’t realize that his was the biggest hot-food game on the island until a week or so after they started. Someone from the Salvation Army pulled up and asked for 120 meals.

“In my life I never expected the Salvation Army to be asking me for food,” he said. “If one of the biggest NGOs comes to us for food, who is actually going to be feeding Puerto Rico? We are. We are it.”

More cooks arrived to help. Partnerships were forged with other aid groups and large food companies. Sandwiches and fruit were added to their repertory of rice dishes.


A boy holds a plate of food that volunteers from the Jesucristo Monte Moriah Pentecostal Church cooked and delivered to places like a public housing project in Naguabo.

Eric Rojas for The New York Times

The team moved its base of operation to the island’s largest arena. To pay for it all, at least in the beginning, they used Mr. Andrés’s credit cards, or cash from the pockets of the Orvis fly-fishing vest he wore like a battle jacket.

Mr. Andrés left the island only a few times, the first after 11 days on the ground. He had lost 25 pounds and became dehydrated.

His team deployed food trucks, like a strike force, to isolated neighborhoods and towns that needed help. Agents of Homeland Security Investigations, a division of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, were serving as emergency workers, and staying in the same hotel as Mr. Andrés’s crew. The chef persuaded them to load food into their vehicles every morning as they headed out to patrol.

With limited ability to communicate, the crew organized everything with satellite phones, WhatsApp and a big paper map of all the feeding stations on the island, which Mr. Andrés carried like a general at war.

He negotiated with a chain of vocational schools around the island to let culinary students cook there. During visits to his kitchens, 18 in all, he admonished volunteers to add more mayonnaise to sandwiches, keep the temperature up on the pans of rice or serve bigger portions.


Mr. Andrés, holding a rum sour, poses with admirers at La Placita de Santurce, a club in San Juan.

Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

The Compass Group, a giant American food-service operation that Mr. Andrés recently partnered with, sent someone who understood what it takes to feed several thousand people at a time.

Mr. Andrés recruited his own chefs, too. David Thomas, accustomed to making $540 suckling pigs as the executive chef at Mr. Andrés’s Bazaar Meat restaurant in Las Vegas, suddenly found himself trying to figure out how to make meals out of donations that might include 5,000 pounds of lunch meat one day and 17 pallets of yogurt the next.

The operation grew so big that at one point you couldn’t find any sliced cheese in all of Puerto Rico. The team had bought it all up for sandwiches.

Eventually, the effort would cost World Central Kitchen about $400,000 a day, paid for by donations from foundations, celebrities and a flood of smaller donors, as well as two Federal Emergency Management Agency contracts — one early on to cover the cost of 140,000 meals, and another for $10 million to cover two weeks’ worth of meals while Mr. Andrés’s team scaled down the operation.

Mr. Andrés, who often rolls right over regulations and ignores the word “no,” clashed more than once with FEMA and other large organizations that have a more-seasoned and methodical approach. In meetings and telephone calls, FEMA officials reminded him that he and his people lacked the experience needed to organize a mass emergency feeding operation, he said.

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