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After Hurricane Maria, Chef José Andrés Had A 'Crazy Dream' To Feed Puerto Rico

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, chef José Andrés and the groups he founded, World Central Kitchen and Chefs for Puerto Rico, sprung into action.

"We began serving hospitals, because the doctors and the nurses — nobody was feeding them," Andrés says of the initial effort.

But then calls started pouring in from places that were hours away from San Juan. Andrés says the message was clear: "The island is hungry. With one restaurant alone, we have not enough."

So Andrés and his group expanded their operation, commandeering kitchens from restaurants, schools and even a basketball stadium. "At one point, we had 18 kitchens functioning at the same time," he says. "We would [serve] over 150,000 meals a day."

Andrés received the James Beard Award for outstanding chef of the year in 2011; this year, he was named the James Beard humanitarian of the year for his work in Puerto Rico. His new memoir is We Fed an Island.

Interview Highlights

On why chefs are particularly adept at helping with disaster relief

Restaurants are chaos and chefs — restaurant people — we manage chaos very well. After a hurricane, you see a lot of chaos, and people go hungry and people go thirsty. But what we are very good at is understanding the problem and adapting. And so a problem becomes an opportunity. That's why I think ... more and more you're going to be seeing more [chefs] in these situations. We're practical. We're efficient. And we can do it quicker faster and better than anybody.

On why getting access to an arena in Puerto Rico was so important to his operation

Everybody thinks an arena is where an NBA team plays. No, no, it's a lie. An arena is a gigantic restaurant that happens [to have] NBA players for entertainment. So every arena potentially is a restaurant. It takes only a few hours to activate ... the arena in case of an emergency. ...

I got in an arena [in Puerto Rico] to use as a kitchen, to use as a place to gather all the food that was being donated, all the food we were buying. And there we created a crazy dream. For a few weeks, I think it became one of the biggest restaurants in the world.

On the way that the death toll associated with Hurricane Maria was grossly underestimated — and how that underestimation stymied the recovery process

President Trump [said] 16 bodies. And by the time he said that, myself, without even looking, I saw four [corpses]. ... Here, in [a] few days ... I saw 25 percent of the official death toll that President Trump [cited]. Obviously this didn't happen that way.

And by somehow keeping the real number away from the public, what this did was almost not [recognize] that the problem in Puerto Rico was huge, that the hurricane was amazingly big. ... If we knew there [were] 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 deaths, I'm sure the weight of the federal government to support the fellow citizens of Puerto Rico would be quicker, faster, and they would devote more infrastructure, money and bodies to try to help Puerto Rico to be back.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Maria Godoy adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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