Editor’s note (from Gail Rosenblum): I’ve (happily) gone to the dogs this week to report our cover story on some of the hardest workers with the Transportation Security Administration. In place of my Problem Solvers column — which returns next week — we’re introducing you to Jose Andres, president of Think Food Group. As interviewer KK Ottesen notes, Andres is an award-winning chef with restaurants across the United States and Mexico. His book, “We Fed an Island,” details efforts through his nonprofit group, World Central Kitchen, to help Puerto Rico recover after the 2017 hurricane. Andres was recently nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
Q: You were pretty candid about calling out leadership failings at the federal level after the devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico. Did you feel inhibited about being so frank in your book?
A: Actually, I think I contained myself a little. At a certain level, it’s controversial. But in part it’s why I did the book, no? To tell the story of what was happening, and how a little nongovernmental organization (NGO) that was not supposed to be there grew into the biggest operation feeding people. Some stories are hard stories, but at the same time you try to be pragmatic and a bridge builder. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without many of the great men and women of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The book is very clear that what I’m saying is that the leadership of FEMA failed. You know, if something goes wrong in my company, I don’t give excuses or begin finger-pointing. The buck stops with me. My board members criticize me if one quarter we don’t deliver earnings. I take the blame; it’s my responsibility as a leader to try to keep moving my company forward. Our federal government leaders, that’s what they are there for. And I think this is the role of every citizen, to push our federal government to work better.
What is funny is that everybody began calling us disrupters and, actually, inside me I don’t see ourselves as disrupters at all. We are doers. We were there and we were making things happen, versus meetings and roundtables that were not having any real effect. We are talking about water and we are talking about food. Just feed them! If being a doer is a disrupter, we have a big problem because if the only thing it requires to make things happen is that you stop talking and start doing, pfffff, then life is very simple!
Q: Your approach was clearly effective, feeding millions of people, but drew some criticism as well. I saw one FEMA official said of you: Oh, he’s a businessman out to draw attention to his business.
A: But they came back and apologized. I’m an American citizen. My role was to bring light to what I felt was a lack of effort from the federal government. I didn’t do press releases about what we were doing. Yes, you do tweets. And yes, it’s beneficial that people know what you’re doing. And then you have people that say, Ah, you’re not humble, you’re doing it to show everybody. I’m like, OK, if that’s how you see it, but the vast majority of the people see it as thank you for keeping light on this issue, and we’re going to support the efforts. That’s the 25,000-plus volunteers, that’s how we got all the people that help us with donations.
Q: How do you juggle your business and all your restaurants with your expanding humanitarian work?
A: Probably my company should fire me, my partners should fire me, my board should fire me. But, you know, it’s nothing new. I mean, now we are getting more notoriety, but I’m not behaving any different than I used to behave 25 years ago. I used to donate my time to help Robert Egger at D.C. Central Kitchen and we opened LA Kitchen and I keep helping and I raise money, and I give talks and I’m moving people, but then the ball gets bigger, yes? You know, it’s OK to be crazy and bold because sometimes it takes you the same effort. And your actions maybe reach more people. Effort is time. And if you’re smart, do more and better and more efficient.
Q: What do you think surprises people about you when they meet you?
A: I don’t know anymore. I used to be more chitchatting. I don’t think I chat too much anymore. More introvert lately. I mean, introvert for me. When I’m out, in the subway or in the street, a lot of people approach. People that they want to celebrate with you, be with you, support you in your restaurants, shake your hands, thank you for life, thank you for your cooking, thank you for Puerto Rico, thank you for whatever, and it’s beautiful, you know, but it takes a toll. Sometimes you want to have a little coffee and just be one more guy in the street. And it’s kind of funny because I’m not that Hollywood guy; I don’t have a TV show. It seems everybody is looking for wisdom. Even in the plane, you cannot say hi to 30 people.
Q: Right, you just want to sit there yourself and let your mouth hang open when you sleep.
A: Exactly. Maybe that’s why I’m becoming more of an introvert. I hope it doesn’t sound pretentious. On the contrary, it’s that I’m just one more guy in the beautiful universe of people.
Q: Do you have advice you live by?
A: I think of John Steinbeck: Wherever there is a fight so hungry people may eat, I will be there. That, for a cook, is like the commandment.