For people who remember José Andrés’ earlier incarnations — as the brash young Spanish chef with a huge personality whose cookbooks and TV series “Made in Spain” encouraged Americans to try making tapas at home, or as the Midas-touch entrepreneur behind more than 25 popular U.S. restaurants — his transformation over the past decade into one of the world’s most prominent humanitarians might seem surprising.
Yet, as Ron Howard’s inspiring new documentary portrait “We Feed People” reveals, Andrés’ impulse to help those in need was instilled in him many years before the world got to know him as the gregarious guy in the cargo vest supplying meals in disaster zones “one plate at a time” with his relief organization World Central Kitchen.
Andrés learned to be of service early in life, long before President Barack Obama awarded him the 2015 National Humanities Medal, and decades before he took his first trip to Haiti after the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake and discovered he had a knack for “seeing opportunities where others see mayhem.”
Both of Andrés’ parents were nurses who worked in the same Barcelona hospital. In “We Feed People,” streaming on Disney+ starting Friday, May 27, he describes spending time in those halls as a child observing the nurses’ “small gestures of empathy” for patients and their commitment to “going the extra mile” to ease someone’s suffering.
So, even as an ambitious 24-year-old immigrant chef in Washington D.C. (he became a naturalized American citizen in 2013), Andrés volunteered at Robert Egger’s groundbreaking DC Central Kitchen, transforming collected food waste from city restaurants into meals to feed the homeless.
“Cooking, feeding people and being of service — those are the things I know how to do very well,” Andrés said during a video call with The Chronicle from New York. “I’m a very impatient guy for little things, but I’m very patient for the long-term, bigger things,” like transforming inept bureaucracies that have historically kept crucial aid from getting to those who need it most. (The film shows him on the phone with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arguing that “food is a national security issue.”)
Andrés sat during the interview next to Howard, who has made more than 30 films, including his Oscar-winning dramas “A Beautiful Mind” and “Apollo 13,” as well as his 2020 documentary “Rebuilding Paradise” about the aftermath of the deadly 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California.
The director recalled hearing Andrés speak at a conference seven years ago and being impressed by the chef’s charismatic enthusiasm and the astonishing efficiency of his mobilization efforts.
“We Feed People,” which screened at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, highlights not only Andrés’ incredible drive to deliver food to people after disaster strikes but also the extent to which he adapts on the fly to unforeseen conditions — like abandoning a delivery truck filled with hot meals for stranded North Carolina residents after Hurricane Florence floodwaters almost overturned it — and, perhaps most important, how he learns as he goes.
Howard first witnessed Andrés in action in Butte County while filming “Rebuilding Paradise.” “Seeing him on the ground was the final catalyst,” said Howard, for deciding to make a movie about him, including the personal toll on someone who admittedly doesn’t slow down until he comes close to breaking down, as he does in the film on the phone with his wife. (His three telegenic daughters admit to checking Twitter to see where their dad is.)
“Making ‘Rebuilding Paradise,’ we followed certain individuals and families as they tried to cope with the aftermath and tragedy of the fire, and the people who participated (serving and distributing meals), they did better,” Howard said. “World Central Kitchen activates something in people that doesn’t just confront the emergency, they expedite healing through engagement.”
Andrés echoed the same sentiment about what he’s learned about the reciprocal, at times surprising, nature of service after 12 years as a globetrotting relief worker.
“I remember being there (in Butte County) with my daughters on Thanksgiving,” Andrés said, “and we did tens of thousands of Thanksgiving meals. But for me, the most powerful moment was when all these firefighters who were finally having a day off came to serve the food themselves to the people they saved. When you see people like that, it’s very humbling. You can feel guilty making a movie that portrays me as a savior.”
Despite his charisma and being a natural in the spotlight — he’s a frequent draw on BottleRock Napa Valley’s Culinary Stage — Howard’s film has a larger mission itself than casting Andrés as a hero.
“It’s really about the importance of volunteers and volunteerism,” Howard said, and what urgent, yet compassionate, aid really looks like.
An early scene recounts the powerful lesson Andrés learned during his first relief trip to Haiti, when he learned to make beans from local women using their traditional methods, rather than his own. “To this day, we make sure what we are cooking is what the locals want to eat,” he says in the film.
That scene is juxtaposed with footage of President Donald Trump tossing paper towels at Puerto Ricans in 2017, while drone shots show pleas of “We need water and food” written in the streets.
“We Feed People” reminds viewers that, whether in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, following volcanic eruptions in Guatemala or in Navajo Nation during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the planet has no shortage of opportunities for Andrés, WCK’s CEO Nate Mook and a committed tribe of volunteers to catalyze relief efforts.
“We are doing close to 400,000 meals a day,” Andrés said, getting even more animated and garrulous as he touts WCK’s accomplishments. “We’re in 110 cities, 800 shelters and at 40 border crossings. We were the first people in Bucha (Ukraine) after the war started.”
“Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24,” said Andrés. We were there serving meals on the 25th.”
“We Feed People” (Unrated) is available to stream on Disney+ starting Friday, May 27.
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