In a Tell More More podcast, the chef and humanitarian talks food stamps, chowder recipes, and how he fed a devastated island
JULIE FLAHERTY: Back in September of 2017, the news from Puerto Rico sounded like this:
NEWSCASTER: Hurricane Maria slamming into the island and as you heard one official saying, the island is destroyed. One-hundred-and-fifty mile an hour winds ripping buildings apart, knocking out power everywhere. All of the electricity is out tonight.
FLAHERTY: Fifteen hundred miles away, sitting in front of his television in Washington, D.C., was world-renowned chef José Andrés. But instead of just tweeting out his concern, he decided to jump on a plane and be one of the first people to arrive on the island to help.
JOSÉ ANDRÉS IN 2017: And we’re gonna make ten thousand meals a day and we’re gonna keep feeding this area every day for the next week or two until the need goes down.
FLAHERTY: This is Tell Me More, the Tufts University podcast where we catch up with our favorite guest speakers on campus. I’m Julie Flaherty.
Today, José Andrés is talking with Alan Solomont, dean of Tisch College of Civic Life, about his career as a chef and as a boots-on-the-ground humanitarian.
ALAN SOLOMONT: Tell us a little bit about your story. You came to the United States with just a few dollars in your pocket. You became a Michelin star chef, a James Beard award-winning chef. You were named one of the hundred most influential people by Time magazine.
ANDRÉS: Yeah, right. I cannot even create the menu in my house without everybody disagreeing with me of what we should eat.
SOLOMONT: So, tell us your story.
ANDRÉS: My story is like the story of one more immigrant. To a degree, I believe we are all immigrants in more ways than we think. I was born in north Spain, Asturias. And very quickly when I was five, my father and mother moved to Barcelona. Right there I was already an immigrant. Because while Spain is a very small country, every single place, every single region has different customs, different ways to talk, to eat, different foods.
And so I grew up again in a foreign land that welcomed my family and me, my mother, my father, they were nurses. And I had a good, great childhood. My father always cooking on the weekends. My mother more or less during the week, when going to a restaurant was a luxury. For me cooking at home was just a blast. Every time peeling, helping my mother and my father peel peppers after my mother roast them, going to the market. Say, go for one more bread loaf, and getting on the bike and going for the bread. That was for me fascinating moments and probably the moment that the seed of love for food was planted.
And where I tell the story often about my father always putting me in charge of making the fire on the weekends. Make this big paella—but he never let me do the cooking. One day he got very upset after many years of only doing the fire. Went to the forest gathering the wood, and my father very much told me, “If you’re going to get upset, go away. I’ll finish the paella on my own. We’ll talk later.”
My father grabbed me on the side after he fed all his friends and family members. And my father told me something that really didn’t sink in until probably many years later. But he said very much that, yes, I wanted to do the cooking. But that he needed me to do the fire. That controlling the fire and tending that fire was what really was important.
In that moment he told me, “My son, if you control the fire, then you can do any cooking you want.” For a chef, later on in life, I’m sure this is a very practical lesson. But that lesson very much having taken that with me to every part of my life. Let’s learn what our fire is. Let’s try to control it. Then, only then, we can do any cooking we want.
FLAHERTY: Andrés started culinary school at fifteen and was still a teen when he went to work for legendary chef Ferran Adrià. He then joined the Spanish Navy as a cook and sailed around the world, eventually settling in the U.S., cooking in fine restaurants in New York, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.
SOLOMONT: And maybe eighteen years later, you were cooking for King Juan Carlos and President Obama at the White House.
ANDRÉS: Yeah. Yeah. That was—that’s these kind of things. I mean, you know the king is a great guy. He’s a great person. And President Obama too. And when they give you those opportunities sometimes, they didn’t even call me. I called them. You know what I learned in life, that if somebody don’t call you, you the only thing you have to do is knock on the door. And I’m a good door knocker. And if they don’t open the door, you say go through the window. And so I knew who was coming, and I called the White House, because that was a very small lunch, as you know. And I’m like, “Guys. I want to go and cook.”
And they said, “But José, the menu is already decided.” I say, “I don’t care! I want to go and cook.” And anyway, I was so persistent that they say, “We don’t want to have more one headache. Yes, you come and do whatever you want. Those are the ingredients.” And it was great. It was just good to be there when the king of the country I come from was having lunch with the president of the country I belong. And these are things that sometimes you celebrate. And for me was very special obviously to be there that day.
FLAHERTY: If you’ve ever been to a tapas restaurant, then you have José Andrés to thank. He made small-dish dining popular in the United States through his restaurants like Jaleo in Washington D.C.
ANDRÉS: You know who was the first person that I served in Jaleo the first weekend we opened in 1993? It’s this guy with these jeans halfway broken. Tall guy, beautiful blue eyes, yellow hair, beautiful brown glasses, tall and skinny like hell. Happy—
SOLOMONT: I remember when I was there.
ANDRÉS: Happy face. And he began telling me about Franco and Mao Zedong, and I’m like, “Man. This guy is really crazy. If every customer we get is like him, we’re broke.” It took me like two weeks to find out he was Senator Patrick Moynihan [A48, F49, F61, H68]. It was amazing because the things I learned from him were forever changed me. He told me, “José, it’s very simple.” When I was having conversations about how to fit in America he said, “If you love America, America will always love you back.” I follow his words to heart.
FLAHERTY: As lovingly as Andrés talks about food, he is just as passionate when he discusses his adoptive country. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2013 and often speaks out about the plight of undocumented immigrants.
ANDRÉS: Because sometimes being American or belonging to a country is not by the passport you own, but by the heart you put in the every day in your community. That’s what make a person belong to a place. And those people, they are ghosts in our own community. Our senators and congressmen today are being fed on the shoulders of eleven million undocumented, underpaid, sometimes mistreated, et cetera, et cetera. We have to put an end to that unjustice. So I just see food is immigration reform.
FLAHERTY: As an advocate for food justice, Andrés had plenty to say about new federal rules that would remove 700,000 people from nutrition assistance.
ANDRÉS: In the first hand, I wish we didn’t have to give anybody food stamps. I wish that everybody will be making a good living wage, that will have a job, that people on their own can provide for themselves.
We forget that people don’t want our pity. People want our respect. The way to give respect to people is making sure that we create the framework that they can be providing for themselves.
Food stamps, we understand why they are there. These people, these men, especially women, single mothers, that even working in one, two jobs, they get at the end of the month and they cannot make ends meet.
That’s why to take away food stamps from 700,000 recipients, it’s so unfair to the principle of “we the people.” “We the people” is in the constitution to say, “We the people, all the people.” We, when we do well, and we, when we don’t do so well. To take away 700,000 people food stamps is the most un-American thing that anybody can ever do.
FLAHERTY: Andrés has found fame as the culinary mind behind several acclaimed restaurants. But he is just as well-known as the founder of World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that has served more than ten million meals to the victims of hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters throughout the world, including Puerto Rico.
ANDRÉS: When Maria happened, what we saw was entire island apart of America and the Caribbean, 3.7 million people with no water. No light. No electricity. No food. A port that was non-functional. Hospitals with no generators. Doctors operating with iPhones. Chaos as you can understand chaos.
And food was broken because the systems of distribution was broken. When everybody was trying to bring food from overseas, what we did, you know what it was? Very simple. We’re cooks. We know how to gather helpers. We know where to find kitchens. And more important, we always know where to find food. That’s the only thing we did. We very much stole four generators. We were able to give it to the four big bread factories. And in twenty-four hours we were making bread in Puerto Rico.
Things like that began showing us simple solutions. We went from one kitchen to twenty-six. From twenty friends to 25,000 volunteers. From a thousand meals the first day to more than 150,000 meals a day. We reached almost four million meals in a month and a half. And at the end, what we did was not only take care of hospitals, of elderly, of forgotten places all across the island. At the end, what we did is plant the seed and also to show others that what they had to do was to do what we were doing. Boots on the ground, stop talking, stop planning, and start cooking.
In the process, the plan shows up. In the process, we are able to make almost the impossible possible.
FLAHERTY: Besides Puerto Rico, the World Central Kitchen relief team has responded to emergencies in more than two dozen places, including Haiti, Peru, Indonesia, and Mozambique. Although the details change, they always use local chefs and resources to quickly get fresh meals to those in need.
ANDRÉS: I’m so proud that today we have these men and women that when something happens, we get in a plane, we land, and with one plate of food at a time, we start building a better tomorrow. Those men and women to me, those are really my family and those are my heroes, and those are the ones doing it. Not me.
Every one of us, we can do something. You don’t need to go and feed four million people in Puerto Rico. I didn’t wake up in the morning and told myself, “Today I’m going to feed four million people.” It doesn’t behave that way. What you have to have is the spirit inside you to stop talking and start doing.
SOLOMONT: And how do you find time to run thirty restaurants?
ANDRÉS: I don’t really run them. They’re highly mismanaged probably by now. You know, I always—I am good at putting things in place. That’s my only talent, maybe. And I do it really for self, egocentric interest. So if I hire somebody that’s better than me, I look good, because whatever is happening happens. And happens better than if I did it, so I’m very smart on that front.
SOLOMONT: What aspects of traditional Spanish cooking go into the creation of an original José Andrés dish?
ANDRÉS: It’s something difficult to explain. When I smell the finish fabada asturiana, this amazing pot of the stew with blood sausage and chorizo and bacon, or the arroz con leche, that amazing, dense milk, sugar, cinnamon, and rice dessert. And when I close the eyes and those smell come through my nose, and it’s something—like it’s planted in our DNA to the connection of where we are and where we come from.
So I will not tell you so much ingredients, but it’s that kind of feeling that is almost impossible to explain, because it’s not a tangible. It’s an untangible. And I do believe we all have this connection. And if we are really able to think and listen and smell, we will all somehow be connected to that early childhood of ours, almost from the moment our mother fed us for first time. And this is the feeling I have when I go to Spain. So it’s like a sensation. It’s a feeling, difficult to explain with words.
But when I go, it’s like something goes down my spine that just—yeah, that’s what makes me overweight. Because my animal side cannot control himself. But obviously Spain is olive oil, Spain is pimentón, is smoke. Spain is baby lamb. Spain is Ibérico ham. Spain is the smell of the ocean in a beautiful morning, where the waves are hitting the rocks and bringing the seaweed. Spain is the deep aromas of sherry cask. Spain is getting deep in the cheese cave and deep in the mountains where the penicillium can behave and be free and create that amazing Cabrales, blue cheese.
Spain is all those things. But so is everywhere else, right? Today I got New England clam chowder. And I love clams, and I fall in love with New England clam chowder. And first time I came Boston to cook with chef [Ken] Oringer, one of my favorite men in the whole world, at Clio. And the dish I made at Clio was New England clam chowder José’s way. And I know some people there were bitching going, “What the heck.” They were saying, “Where is the clam chowder,” and I’m like—that’s my interpretation.
SOLOMONT: What’s José’s way of clam chowder?
ANDRÉS: It’s amazing. The clams are raw. So we get the water, we get—gelatinize the clam with the own water. We make this amazing bacon cream. We make this onion puree. We make this amazing espuma, a foam of potato puree. We do this brunoise of potatoes, and we fry them and we make them very crispy. We make this chive oil. I mean, guys, at the end when you close your eyes, yeah, yeah.
FLAHERTY: That’s José Andrés, visiting Tufts University as part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speakers Series. Tell Me More is produced by Anna Miller and Julie Flaherty. Web production and editing support by Taylor McNeil and Sara Norberg. Our music is by DeWolf Music and Blue Dot Sessions. And as we start our second season of Tell Me More, we’d love to hear what you think. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. Or shoot us an email at email@example.com. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Thanks for listening.