FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – When Jose Andres first came to New York City, the wide-eyed sailor in the Spanish navy docked on West 30th Street full of ambition. Decades later, the award-winning chef has an upscale food hall on that very street and will serve 40,000 meals this week across the city where he built his dreams, and which is now the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus.
Andres, whose restaurants in the United States include The Bazaar, Jaleo and the two Michelin-starred Somni, founded World Central Kitchen in 2010. It has served over 15 million meals worldwide after hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters.
Since the pandemic, his organization has served more than 750,000 meals from Miami and Los Angeles to Little Rock, Arkansas, and Fairfax, Virginia. It works out of places like libraries, food trucks and shuttered restaurants, feeding 125 hospitals, students in school lunch programs and even quarantined cruise ship passengers.
Andres has amassed an A-list network around the world, relying on celebrity chef pals including Rachael Ray, Guy Fieri and Marcus Samuelsson to feed the hungry and buoy the humble restaurant kitchens across America where many started their careers.
“I’m in debt to America. ... That’s the best I can give to America because America gave me a home. America gave me opportunity," Andres told The Associated Press in a recent phone interview.
In New York City, he set up a cafe to serve the Mount Sinai field hospital in Central Park. In Harlem, he's using “Chopped" TV judge Samuelsson's Red Rooster restaurant to feed families.
Samuelsson's Miami restaurant hasn't opened to the public yet, but instead of leaving it empty, he turned it over to World Central Kitchen. They are serving sandwiches and salads there to laid-off hospitality workers, homeless residents and Uber drivers.
Even in crisis, these top chefs aren't serving bland porridge. Recent meals at senior centers in Washington, D.C., included creamy tomato pasta with spring vegetables, and cilantro rice bowls with spiced chickpeas and spinach topped with citrus vinaigrette and crispy tortillas.
Andres was among the first to close his restaurants, hoping to create a blueprint for chefs around the world on how to use their restaurants and employ workers while feeding the hungry.
“This operation is growing every day," he said. “We want to put America to work in the process of feeding America."
In California, Fieri is on standby, ready with a 48-foot-long (15-meter-long) rescue kitchen and support team. “Guy is ready to go," Andres said. “This is like war. You need to have troops ready for action."
Fieri compared his longtime friendship with Andres and other famous chefs to “playing in a band."
“When you hang out with generous, philanthropist warlords like Jose Andres, all you want to do is go bigger, go better," said Fieri, who cooked alongside Andres during last year's California wildfires.
In the early days of the outbreak, Fieri, the TV host of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," also wanted to do more. He bought $50,000 in gift cards to support local restaurants. He sent dozens of personalized videos to CEOs from big food companies seeking donations.
His Restaurant Employee Relief Fund quickly raised $10 million, with a goal of raising $100 million, to offer $500 grants for laid-off workers. The first checks were handed out last week.
“As diners, we’re always the ones asking restaurants for help. … We ask the servers to take special care of our tables, the bartenders to listen to our stories and the bussers to clean up our messes," Fieri said. He described the program as “a big warm blanket, as if to say, ‘Hey, we got you. It’s our turn to help you for once.’"
Ray announced a $4 million donation Tuesday from her two charities. Half will go to feeding and nutritional programs, including World Central Kitchen. The other half will support animal rescue, feeding and veterinary programs.
“We are not a disaster relief fund by origin or desire but that’s what we’ve become quite frankly in the last couple of years," she told the AP in a phone interview.
Andres' organization is one of the largest recipients.
“He’s just there around the clock all over the planet and I love Jose. I’m so devoted to him," Ray said from her home in upstate New York.
In Minnesota, Chef Andrew Zimmern was among the first there to shutter his restaurants, fearing for his workers' safety. Next, he cobbled together the Independent Restaurant Coalition, hiring lobbyists to be a voice in Washington for restaurants, especially mom-and-pop ones. He noted that such restaurants are many people’s first jobs, as teens, and are top employers of single moms and those transitioning from prison.
“We can’t fail. (Restaurants) have to be open and ready to welcome their workers back," said Zimmern. “If we can’t do that, it will be an economic and humanitarian cultural catastrophe."
This story has been edited to clarify that Jose Andres was among the first chefs to close restaurants in the U.S., not Spain.