José Andrés prefers to be known as a cook rather than a chef. The Spanish-American culinary master says he likes to “feel the heat”—his argument, apparently, being that self-designated “chefs” like to keep a polite distance from the discomfort of a live kitchen. Whether that’s true or not—and an argument can be made that contemporary celebrity chefs are in fact in some kind of competition to show how “real” they can “keep it” in the kitchen—Andrés clearly doesn’t exaggerate with respect to just how much into the thick of things he can and will get.
“We Feed People,” directed by Ron Howard, is a pretty good access documentary showing what Andrés has done with his fame: used it to power an awesome philanthropic project. The World Central Kitchen, founded by Andrés in 2017 and informed by the chef’s—okay, let’s say cook’s—less than entirely successful charitable efforts in the wake of 2010’s Haiti earthquakes, delivers fresh meals to disaster areas the world over. And as one of the talking heads in the movie reminds us, these are getting more plentiful all the time. Category five hurricanes used to occur once a decade. They are on a much more aggressive timetable now. In California, there used to be a “wildfire season.” Now it’s more like “when is it NOT wildfire season.”
“No one was calling on the chefs and cooks of the world when people were hungry,” Andrés notes when discussing how he found his mission. Yes, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army and other organizations made efforts to feed people, but it’s not really what its workers and volunteers are trained in. After his efforts in Haiti hit a snag—one of his mistakes, he realized, was preparing food that the residents of the affected areas weren’t familiar with, or just plain didn’t like—he took the lessons and conceived how he and his nascent organization could “create systems”—discrete systems, it should be emphasized—to get food out. And from there, to strengthen community bonds so that the affected places would be better prepared and more self-sufficient in future crises.
Howard’s film gives a mini-bio of Andrés, explaining that he loves tapas, the Spanish tradition of small dishes with which he made his name, because of his enthusiasm about sharing things. He has a forceful, brash character. And the movie does capture him losing composure. It’s not a petulant, Gordon-Ramsay-style fit, but an upbraiding of a worker who hands food to someone out of turn. Doing so, he explains with slightly more equanimity later on, disrupts the all-important distribution system, and can throw the feeding efforts into chaos. He’s right of course, and the sequence shows the little ways in which this work can induce massive stress.
There’s footage from disasters in Puerto Rico, and Guatemala. The movie settles in the Bahamas for its lengthiest sequence. It’s inspiring and daunting. “Feed the People” might be more discreet than it needs to be. While there’s some short footage of former President Trump doing his clown act in Puerto Rico after the 2017’s Hurricane Maria, the movie doesn’t go into Trump’s petulant Twitter attacks on Andrés. Maybe it’s not worth going into in this humanitarian context. But the incident does underscore certain truths about what actual leadership looks like.
And Andrés really does lead, as the World Central Kitchen expands. It’s refreshing to see an account of a famous food guy who doesn’t wallow in his own character defects.