Successful chefs know how to think small and think big—how to julienne and sauté, but also how to run a kitchen and run a restaurant empire. Few have managed that balance better than chef José Andrés. Since pioneering the small-plate revolution in the United States when he arrived from Spain in 1990, he’s opened more than 30 establishments across the country, from the Michelin two-star Minibar in Washington, D.C., to Mercado Little Spain, his critically acclaimed new food hall in New York City’s Hudson Yards (also a member of the American Express Global Dining Collection). But those operations are only part of the picture: Through his NGO, World Central Kitchen, Andrés has provided millions of free meals to victims of natural disasters around the world. (Minibar seats 12 people; in Puerto Rico, following Hurricane Maria, World Central Kitchen served 70,000 in a day.) He’s received many honors, including the 2015 National Humanities Medal, and this year was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. But Andrés argues even feeding the world is not thinking big enough.
What have you learned since founding World Central Kitchen in 2010?
JOSÉ ANDRÉS: One of the lessons we’ve learned is that bigger problems sometimes have fairly simple solutions. But that doesn’t mean that getting those solutions up and running is simple. Implementation is complex. If we just provide a plate of food we are doing good, but we are not necessarily doing smart good. If we are giving that plate of food in a place we are trying to help and all food is coming from overseas, all of a sudden local farmers go out of business because José Andrés is bringing food from outside for free. So if I don’t think things through, I may be feeding people in the short term, but in the mid or long term, I’m leaving people hungry.
If you could change one thing in the American food system, what would it be?
JA: First, we need to diversify the crops the government supports through subsidies. We need to help small farmers across America grow more fruit, more vegetables. And then put those fruits and vegetables into the school-lunch program and hire more veterans and train them to be cooks and work in those school kitchens, one rural school at a time, so that we are employing our veterans, giving our children better nutrition, which leads to better studies and a better future in the process. Right now we are investing in subsidies that go to just a few grains like corn. It’s making America unhealthy, and it’s making America less safe because without diversity of crops one day we will have a big problem with our food production.
How does food production become a national security issue?
JA: Let’s think about bananas. A lot of bananas come from countries that surround American borders, right? And today they’re cheap, a commodity. Now when you see the humanitarian crisis we may face on the border, is anybody thinking that this has anything to do with the price of bananas? Do you think anybody can make a living when we are paying 99 cents or less for a pound of bananas? What are we paying the farmers in Latin America? How are their living conditions? How are their health conditions? Or look at the price of coffee. In Guatemala, you have farmers who find it’s cheaper to leave the coffee beans in the tree than to collect them. You can wipe out entire rural economies of countries in a moment when the price drops 10 or 20 percent. The border crisis in America, or the border crisis in Europe with Africa and the Middle Eastern countries, has a lot to do with the food we produce and how we produce it. You see why I’m asking for diversification of crops. I do believe that it’s key.
Does food have the power to help people live together more peacefully?
JA: It should. I believe that all these foods we love, all these foods that are part of our identity, things that we feel make us genuinely who we are, they’ve all gone through the hands of other people from faraway places. So we need to be telling those stories in a powerful way. I think that’s something Tony Bourdain did very well through his shows. There is real power in sitting down with a stranger and sharing a plate of food. It can create a conversation that otherwise wouldn’t happen. And when people come from conflicts, when people come from darkness, the day you are able to cook a hot meal and share a table with the people you love, with your family or your friends or strangers that helped you somehow in your life, that’s one of the most powerful moments in the world.