Spanish native José Andrés became one of the most celebrated chefs in the world, popularizing tapas – small plate dining – in America. But of late he’s been focusing on comfort food. Comfort food in the truest sense, the kind the nonprofit he founded, World Central Kitchen, makes for people in times of disaster.
“Food relief is not just a meal that keeps hunger away. It’s a plate of hope,” Andrés declares on the WCK website. “It tells you in your darkest hour that someone, somewhere, cares about you. This is the real meaning of comfort food.”
Andrés’ remarkable journey from high-profile chef to humanitarian on a global scale is told in the documentary We Feed People, directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard. The National Geographic film, now streaming on Disney+, is a contender for Emmy nominations in multiple categories.
“It’s been fascinating to help share this kind of origin story of World Central Kitchen and the way it began with his drive and a good idea and a good heart and his credit card,” Howard tells Deadline. “It’s evolved into something so extraordinary.”
The idea for the documentary sprang from Howard’s earlier NatGeo film, Rebuilding Paradise, about the wildfire that destroyed the bucolic town of Paradise in Northeastern California in 2018. Andrés and his World Central Kitchen team responded to that crisis, just as they did in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian, Australia after brutal brushfires, in Beirut after a massive explosion, in South Africa after ruinous floods, in Tonga after the undersea volcanic eruption, and so many other catastrophic events.
“I’m looking at that footage,” Howard recalls of working on the edit of Rebuilding Paradise. “And I thought, there he was, there in Paradise, California as well. Incredible. It just made me want to go to the effort of reaching out and seeing if it was something that he was interested in.”
It was the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010 that led to the creation of World Central Kitchen. As the film explores, Andrés had been vacationing in the Caribbean when the disaster struck. He flew to Haiti right away and began to prepare meals for people left without food or shelter. In the process, he discovered an ostensibly simple truth: food is empathy. Making meals for neighbors in distress can have a profound effect.
WCK always partners with people on the ground – those directly impacted by a disaster – instead of parachuting in with a “We’re here to impose our ideas and save the day” mentality. “We build resilient food systems with locally led solutions,” the nonprofit’s website notes.
“I’ve seen that we inspire others to do something,” Andrés tells Deadline. “I have a feeling that’s one of the things we do by going in quick, by going fast and telling everybody there is no time to complain, no time to feel sorry about you and your community, no time for any sorrow. It’s time to start doing something about it… When you are able to make everybody believe that something can be done about their distress, about their mayhem, and they become part of the solution, this gives people a power that allows them to rebuild not just their homes or their businesses, but more important their feeling that together they can very much overcome any issue and that they are part of something bigger than themselves.”
Responding to the Covid crisis, WCK has served 40 million meals in communities from the U.S. to Spain, the Dominican Republic, India and Indonesia. It fed Afghan refugees in the Middle East and Europe after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan spurred a mass exodus. WCK has also set up relief operations in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico near the U.S. border, part of a wide-ranging effort to feed hungry immigrants as they await asylum hearings.
And when Russian invaded Ukraine in late February, World Central Kitchen leapt into action. It has provided over 37 million meals to date in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv, Kramatorsk and other Ukrainian cities, and at border crossings. Chef Andrés has been on the ground preparing food.
“We landed 12 hours after the invasion began,” Andrés says. “We were never in a war before. Every time we hear a missile, our phones — the alarm goes off, because we have a system that warns us when a missile [strike] is happening nearby. Life is like a lottery, right? Food gives hope to people that way. We call ourselves food fighters. The atrocities we saw are real.”
War intensifies the risks faced by WCK teams, but responding to any kind of crisis – be it man-made, natural, or climate-change driven – comes with peril.
“They face a lot of dangers. We have footage that shows a relief truck overturning. Sometimes a building can collapse,” Howard notes. “Now they’re facing combat [in Ukraine]. It’s mind-blowing. Frankly, it’s been inspiring and also humbling for me to recognize this organization, the way it’s grown.”
The director adds, “I’ve come to know the individuals involved, a handful of them very well, led by José. When you first meet these people, you would certainly be impressed — they’re smart, sharp people. They’re full of life and vitality — but you wouldn’t necessarily say, Oh, they’re going to create an organization that can really revolutionize things. But I believe that’s where World Central Kitchen is heading.”
Serving Up Hope: Ron Howard Documents Humanitarian-Chef José Andrés In Emmy-Contender ‘We Feed People’