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Immigrant Chef Feeds The Hungry During the Pandemic

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Not all heroes wear capes. In fact in this hero’s case, he wears an apron and chef’s hat. Meet José Andrés, an immigrant chef that despite his own shortcomings, has always made it a priority to help others the way he knows best: by feeding them.

Since the COVID-19 Pandemic started, José Andrés and his organization, World Central Kitchen, have fed more than 150,000 people in various cities across the country. But this isn’t the first time José Andrés has stepped up to help those in need. 

It all started 20 years ago, when José Andrés was working in his home country, Spain, as a chef. It was a great gig; he loved the restaurant, he had creative freedom with his recipes and he became close friends with the owner of the restaurant. However, the friendship went awry when one night, José Andrés’ boss asked to meet with him. 

José Andrés arrived early, but seeing no sign of his boss he went to find a payphone. When he came back, his boss was upset that he wasn’t there to meet him when he arrived, and accused him of lying when José Andrés said he had gone to find a payphone to call him. 

Be it destiny or bad luck, José Andrés found himself unemployed at 21. 

“So there I am in the middle of Spain, it’s raining, and I’m out of a job at a place I thought I would spend my entire career,” José Andrés wrote in a guest column for Newsweek in 2011. “Within a week, I moved to New York to try something different. I had never thought about trying to be a chef in America, but I thought now was the right time, and I didn’t have any other choices.”

Flashforward two decades later, and José Andrés’ decision paid off. Now, he can fill up theaters with his speeches, is a prolific author and has even appeared on TV a couple of times. By all standards, he is an example of the American dream. However, what makes José Andrés so well-loved has less to do with his entrepreneurial skills and a lot more to do with his generous heart. 

Many will remember how, in 2017, Hurricane Maria unleashed chaos in the island of Puerto Rico, leaving thousands of deaths and thousands more without a home. The region was devastated, and yet, the local and federal government’s response was underwhelming; the White house failed to pass enough money to help the island recover from the hit while the local government was accused multiple times of withholding resources from its people. 

“I would say if people want to donate, be it money or supplies, don’t do it with a  government entity,” warned Claudia Gurrero, a Puerto Rican journalist, who spoke to Revolution English earlier this year. “If you want to donate, do it through non-profit organizations, community organizations and such.”

And that is exactly what José Andrés did. As soon as it was safe to fly, he mobilized a team of volunteers to help feed the people that needed it most in Puerto Rico. The effort was so successful that it ended up being documented in a book written by Richard Wolfee and Joe Andrés himself, called We Fed an Island.

“Chef José Andrés arrived in Puerto Rico four days after Hurricane Maria ripped through the island,” the book read. “The economy was destroyed and for most people there was no clean water, no food, no power, no gas, and no way to communicate with the outside world. Andrés addressed the humanitarian crisis the only way he knew how: by feeding people, one hot meal at a time. From serving sancocho with his friend José Enrique at Enrique’s ravaged restaurant in San Juan to eventually cooking 100,000 meals a day at more than a dozen kitchens across the island, Andrés and his team fed hundreds of thousands of people, including with massive paellas made to serve thousands of people alone.”

Three years later, when the COVID-19 crisis hit the U.S., José Andrés stepped up again to help. When the passengers from the Grand Princess cruise ship arrived in the U.S. on March 7, they didn’t know when they would see their loved ones again, as Donald Trump had ordered for the 21 infected passengers not to be taken off the cruise for medical purposes. “I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault,” said Trump at the time.

But that didn’t sit right with José Andrés.

“We have a President more worried about Wall Street going down, than about the virus itself,” José Andrés told Sean Gregory of TIME.

As soon as the passengers arrived in the U.S., José Andrés took a flight from New Jersey to San Francisco to begin helping. When he arrived at the port, he and the team set up a tent at the side of the ship, in which they used a forklift to deliver fresh meals for the quarantined passengers and the crew that remained on the boat. 

“When we hear about a tragedy, we all kind of get stuck on ‘What’s the best to way to help?’” playwright and producer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who first connected with José Andrés in 2017 during the Hurricane Maria relief efforts, told TIME. “He just hurries his ass over and gets down there.”

So far, José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen charity has become active in 22 cities around the U.S., including Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Miami, Boston and New Orleans. His ambitions are only growing stronger, and hopes that in the future, World Central Kitchen can provide food for millions of people in the most affected areas around the globe. 

“What we’ve been able to do, is weaponize empathy,” José Andrés told Gregory. “Without empathy, nothing works.”

And as for that job he lost? José Andrés revealed that he is now best friends with his ex-boss. He said that he is grateful for that moment, because it pushed him to start his immigrant journey in the U.S. and has allowed him to serve more than 20 million free meals to people in need. 

“Maybe the mistake was leaving to find a pay phone. Or maybe it was his mistake for not believing me. It’s still my favorite,” José Andrés wrote. “There are those occasional moments in life where something happens that feels like the end of your life and career. But it started something entirely new for me. It pushed me onto a different path that was even bigger.”

Alexandra Tirado Oropeza is a Venezuelan journalist covering politics, immigration, entertainment and social justice. She moved to the U.S. in 2014 to pursue a Writing degree at The University of Tampa, and after graduating, she moved to Los Angeles where she works in broadcast and as a freelance writer. She’s passionate about equality, freedom of speech, art and dogs.