The ‘margarita diplomacy’ of José Andrés

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José Andrés is Zooming from New York City, where he and Ron Howard are doing publicity for Howard’s new National Geographic documentary “We Feed People,” about Andrés’s emergency food relief organization, World Central Kitchen. Sitting on a hotel couch next to Howard, fresh from getting a rapid coronavirus test, Andrés explains why he’s running late.

He was supposed to get into New York the night before, “but I didn’t,” he says. “Because I hosted — for two hours that became five hours — 13 senators in my restaurant.” In the Brillat-Savarin room at Andrés’s restaurant Oyamel, he convened a bipartisan discussion on issues including the conflict in Ukraine, where World Central Kitchen has been a presence since February; immigration reform; and the upcoming White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, which Andrés has been instrumental in resuscitating (the last one was held in 1969).

“For me to invite the senators and that they would show up?” Andrés says with his characteristic passion. “I mean, you never see 12 or 13 senators outside the Senate together, Republicans and Democrats. … I call it margarita diplomacy.”

At a time of nearly unprecedented polarization and vitriol on Capitol Hill, margarita diplomacy might be America’s last best hope. Indeed, the Oyamel convocation harks back to another political age in Washington, when R’s and D’s regularly put the arguments of the day behind them over drinks and a meal. Andrés recalls opening his first restaurant, Jaleo, in Penn Quarter in 1993, when Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York would occasionally stop by for chats at the bar.

“He’s the guy that taught me [that] if I love America, America will love me back,” Andrés recalls. “When I was telling him, ‘I’m trying to find a way just to belong here,’ he’d say, ‘Don’t worry. Love America, and America will give you the opportunity to be part of it.’”

Andrés has proved Moynihan right over the past 30 years, as he has become an increasingly vital part of the American culinary landscape. Born in Spain, he came to Washington after a brief stint in New York. Since opening Jaleo, he has introduced several highly regarded eateries throughout the D.C. area, as well as in Chicago and Los Angeles. In April, his signature paella fed the crew of the first private mission of the International Space Station. But over the past decade or so, his biggest impact has been in humanitarian work, through the grass-roots rapid-response efforts of World Central Kitchen and his canny understanding of the power levers in Washington.

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In “We Feed People,” premiering May 27 on Disney Plus, there’s a brief scene of President Bill Clinton giving Andrés a shout-out after signing the Good Samaritan law of 1996, which protects food donors from civil and criminal liability. The next day at Jaleo, Andrés donated a truckload of food to DC Central Kitchen, founded by Robert Egger to create a nexus between feeding the hungry, combating poverty, providing employment training and creating jobs. To Andrés, the significance of the Clinton scene isn’t the presidential name-check as much as that it encapsulates the ethic that has informed both his business and his activism.

“That’s why you will see me over the years knocking on the doors of the Congress, knocking on the doors of the Senate, trying to become a voice and sometimes just partnering with organizations doing a good job,” he says, describing his political education as “slowly learning the process of how, if you’re constant and you know what to ask for and how to articulate your message, eventually we may be successful in helping policymakers to create better policy.

“We don’t have lobbyists,” Andrés continues. “We don’t hire lobbyists. We pick up the phone and we invite them. ‘Guys, we want to bring all of you together. Can we move the needle on this important issue?’”

Howard has been listening intently as Andrés speaks. He first got the idea for “We Feed People” when he was filming “Rebuilding Paradise,” his 2020 documentary about the California community that was devastated by wildfires in 2018. There’s a brief shot of Andrés serving food in the film that, he says, “coalesced my thinking” that it was time to do a documentary about him. After overcoming Andrés’s initial reluctance, Howard went into the project planning to embed with Andrés for at least a year as he responded to crises, called “activations” in World Central Kitchen-speak.

“We’re going to do the definitive boots-on-the-ground, granular look at what an activation is really like, top to bottom,” Howard recalls thinking. Instead, he says, the shape of the film changed under his feet.

“In looking at the research footage, I began to see something else,” Howard explains, adding that World Central Kitchen was founded in the age of social media, in many cases by people with experience in documentary filmmaking, which meant that there was a plethora of filmed material already on hand. “[I was] finding not only footage following José, but also individuals who had grown with the organization — locals who had become really active. It became a very different film. It became the origin story. And I think it’s a better story.”

“We Feed People” traces the evolution of World Central Kitchen, which began with rapid responses to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and especially to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017, when the organization’s efforts mobilized more than 20,000 volunteers, many of them local chefs, who prepared and distributed more than 4 million meals. The film chronicles World Central Kitchen activations in Guatemala, the Bahamas, North Carolina and covid-ravaged New York; what emerges is a portrait of suffering and deep human need, but one that goes beyond passive concern.

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“I had seen José speak, and I understood his great work and the entrepreneurial spirit he brought to what became World Central Kitchen,” Howard says. “But I didn’t understand how empowering it was for people. That the way the organization operated, the way it deputized people and encouraged them to join — how healing that was. … That was something I recognized in [‘Rebuilding Paradise’]. Because in that case, we did embed teams for a whole year there. And I could see that the people who did get involved in their community … did better. They coped better. They recovered sooner.”

“We Feed People” wrapped before Andrés went to Ukraine, where he began by distributing soup, tea and flour. That work has expanded to eight countries, serving more than 24 million meals in Ukraine alone and engaging nearly 500 restaurants, food trucks and caterers over 3,000 distribution points. Andrés is eager to get back to the front lines. “Frankly, I was very close to canceling all of this, I’m not going to lie to you,” he says, referring to the marketing push for “We Feed People.” But, he says, he needed to come home to reconnect with his wife, Patricia, and their three daughters. He would soon depart for Spain, where he’s filming a series for Discovery Plus; then, it’s back to Ukraine, where he says daily life is almost surreally bifurcated.

“You see a father and a mother walking in the park and they’re laughing with their children … and it seems life is normal,” he says. “Then across the street is a place hosting refugees that just left Mariupol. That’s the reality. It’s many stories living with each other at once. Not everything is mayhem. But at the same time, not everything is chocolate and roses. But the good thing is [these] amazing stories of empathy and humanity, where everybody seems to find a reason to serve.”

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