In September 2018—before he would be invited to the Oscars, before Jeff Bezos donated $100 million to World Central Kitchen and before President Joe Biden would appoint him co-chair of the President's Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition—chef and WCK founder José Andrés was organizing emergency relief efforts in Wilmington, N.C.
“What’s your name, dear?” asked a reporter covering the impact of Hurricane Florence, which ultimately caused more than $24 billion in damage and resulted in more than 50 deaths.
“What’s your last name?” she has to ask twice.
“What’s your title at this …?”
“I don’t have a title.”
For longtime fans of Andrés, the subject of a June 2011 Wine Spectator cover story, it’s a jarring vignette that opens We Feed People, the new Ron Howard–directed documentary about Andrés and World Central Kitchen that premiered earlier this month in New York and will be released May 27 on Disney+.
It’s not that the celebrated chef and humanitarian is camera-shy—far from it—but it exemplifies Andrés’ focus on the task at hand when he’s in the trenches, sometimes literally. “I am good at seeing opportunity where others see mayhem,” Andrés later says in an interview from his home in Bethesda, Md. “I am good at simplifying the big problems and understanding that the big problems actually have very simple solutions. … For me, being a cook is the best honor I can give myself. I cook, and I feed.”
The 90-minute film includes a year’s worth of footage shot by Howard’s Imagine Documentaries and National Geographic, including interviews with Andrés, his wife, Patricia Fernandez de la Cruz, their daughters Carlota, Inés and Lucia, as well as with journalists and many of Andrés’ collaborators. Howard covers Andrés’ 1993 arrival in Washington, D.C., where he became the face of the tapas trend in the U.S. at his Jaleo restaurant, and where he was a volunteer chef at DC Central Kitchen. Jaleo became the early flagship of Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup, which now represents nearly 30 restaurants.
The meat of We Feed People, however, is World Central Kitchen. Thanks to a deep well of archival footage, viewers get a frontline perspective on the 2010 founding of World Central Kitchen in response to the devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti. We then follow Andrés and his army of volunteers to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria and Guatemala after the eruption of Volcán de Fuego. By the time Hurricane Dorian is bearing down on the Bahamas in September 2019, Andrés and his team are already on-site and preparing relief in advance of the disaster.
We also witness the emotional toll exacted from working long hours in the world’s least hospitable conditions. Andrés frequently appears to place himself in dangerous situations, and at times suffers from exhaustion and frustration, engaging in heated exchanges with his staff (all seemingly resolved amicably).
By the time Andrés is responding to the COVID pandemic—in Navajo Nation, then serving quarantined cruise ships, then helping convert restaurants in New York into community kitchens supplying hospitals with food—it’s clear that backbreaking volunteer labor isn’t the only sacrifice he’s made for the cause of feeding the hungry. We Feed People offers an intimate look at his life off the road as well, at home with his wife and three daughters, and their commitment to taking care of the Andrés family, including José, so that World Central Kitchen can take care of those in need.
“There are intense moments in the film,” Howard said in a promotional Q&A, “caught, like so much of the footage, by WCK’s own team, when we see how José is just so emotionally spent and feeling the pressure to take on what they’re doing. But I think that makes the achievements of World Central Kitchen all the more laudable. … When it comes to the type of work World Central Kitchen does, I’ve never seen anything like it, or known anyone who has made that level of commitment.”
Back on the front lines, Andrés was cooking several gallons of Catalan fish stew to feed WCK volunteers. “This is the spirit of World Central Kitchen,” he says. “A pot that will feed the world.”
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