'We Fed an Island' sinks its teeth into disaster relief in Puerto Rico

Award-winning chef Jose Andes writes a bold memoir about feeding millions after Hurricane Maria, and about the federal government's failure to help its citizens.
Published November 8 2018

On Sept. 29, 2017, Donald Trump was explaining why federal relief to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria was moving so slowly: “This is an island surrounded by water — big water, ocean water.”

By that time, chef José Andrés had already been on the ground in San Juan for five days, after wangling a flight into its heavily damaged airport. In four days, as government and nonprofit officials held meetings and issued statements without leaving their hotels, he and a team working out of a small restaurant kitchen had prepared 21,000 meals and found ways to deliver them to the city’s devastated and hungry population.

Soon Andrés’ organization would be cooking out of a dozen kitchens (including San Juan’s largest arena) and delivering 100,000 meals a day all over Puerto Rico, using local products and workers to help stimulate a stalled economy. In the first month after the storm they produced 2 million meals — on an island where electrical power and running water were virtually unavailable.

Andrés’ new memoir, We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time, is an inspirational book, but it’s also an angry one, a call to arms for reform of how our government and other organizations respond to disasters.

Andrés has plenty of experience at that, having been involved in relief operations after such catastrophes as Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the massive 2010 earthquake in Haiti. That led to his founding a food relief organization, World Central Kitchen. This year WCK served 300,000 meals in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence and, within five days of Hurricane Michael’s landfall, 45,000 meals in the Panhandle.

Disaster relief is not Andrés’ career. He is a James Beard award-winning chef who operates more than two dozen acclaimed restaurants in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami and elsewhere. Born in Spain, the 49-year-old chef received a National Humanities Medal at the White House in 2016.

Disaster relief is clearly a passion for him, though, and he writes about Puerto Rico’s post-Maria suffering as a heartbreaking example of how not to do it. Andrés makes a detailed case that the Trump administration’s response was an abject failure.

Andrés had clashed with Trump before. After Trump kicked off his presidential campaign by insulting Mexicans, Andrés pulled out of a deal to open a restaurant in Trump International Hotel in Washington. Trump sued Andrés, Andrés’ corporation countersued, and the whole thing ended in an undisclosed settlement.

Andrés takes the gloves off in We Fed an Island, describing not only the flawed government response but the racism, present and past, that underlies it.

He doesn’t just blame Trump. Both in government agencies like FEMA and in nongovernmental organizations such as the Red Cross, layers of self-perpetuating bureaucracy, turf wars and endemic corruption can prevent aid rather than enable it.

For some people, a disaster looks like an opportunity for profiteering. A state official from Louisiana helps Andrés get into a FEMA meeting that leads to a contract with WCK. Then the fixer names his price: For every meal FEMA pays WCK for, he gets a dollar. At that time, Andrés hoped to cook 1 million meals. “This was not the time or place for anyone to get rich,” Andrés fumes.

There is good news in We Fed an Island, too. Andrés and his team deliver freshly cooked meals to assisted living homes and to medical teams working round the clock in hospitals powered only by generators, their kitchens shut down. “Chefs understand how to create order out of chaos,” he writes.

Andrés is full of praise for the teams he works with, chefs and volunteers who make thousands of sandwiches a day in assembly lines, find food trucks and gas to fuel them when it seems impossible, wade through floodwaters and scramble over landslides to deliver meals. A Homeland Security officer assigned to escort Andrés helps him carry boxes of sandwiches through a river ford to a remote village and tells him, “I’m forty-six years old and this is the craziest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

The most joyful writing in the book comes when Andrés is writing about food. He notes that while in Puerto Rico he was dealing long-distance with the opening of a new restaurant: “One minute I was looking at photos of delicate avant-garde creations for luxury diners in Los Angeles; the next minute I was looking at a giant paella pan of chicken and rice for hungry Puerto Ricans.” His words practically sing when he writes about sancocho, the Puerto Rican comfort dish of meats and vegetables that was a staple of the relief kitchens.

“A plate of food is much more than food,” he writes. “It sends a message that someone far away cares about you; that maybe somewhere, something good is happening. It’s the hope that America will become America again.”

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.