This is part of Nation’s Restaurant News' special coverage of the 2018 MUFSO conference, taking place Oct. 1-3 at the Hyatt Regency at Reunion Tower in Dallas. Follow coverage of the event on NRN.com and tweet with us using #MUFSO. Stay connected on the go by downloading the MUFSO app.
Chef and multiconcept operator José Andrés had a simple message for the crowd of industry executives at MUFSO on Tuesday morning: “If you want to make a difference, you can make a difference.”
Andrés, who is the chef-owner of Washington, D.C.-based ThinkFoodGroup, shared his stories about his humanitarian efforts over the past few years, starting with feeding people after an earthquake in Haiti and again most recently after the hurricane in North Carolina and an earthquake in Guatemala.
Perhaps most notably, with the organization World Central Kitchen and countless industry volunteers, Andrés served millions of meals to residents of Puerto Rico, who were left without power, water, gas or food for months after a storm lingered over the island last year. As government agencies fumbled to provide aid, Andrés described how he simply showed up and started cooking, starting with one kitchen and growing to 26 across the island, eventually serving some 4 million meals.
“You only need to start fixing what you have in front of you, and, in a magical way, on its own, everything fixes itself,” he said.
Andrés also pointed to the power of the private sector and its ability to make things happen.
When grocery stores were empty, Andrés found the island’s biggest food distributor, happily discovering that their families were from the same region in Spain. The chef opened a line of credit and got supplies flowing.
He found a generator for a bakery, bribing police with food to get gas to run it. The bakery was able to produce bread for sandwiches. The ports were a mess, Andrés said, but he was able to get fresh food in, and later food trucks to reach those in more remote regions. He tapped the talent pools of large foodservice contractors like Compass and Bon Appetit to send chefs with the skills for mass production.
Andrés said World Central Kitchen has also made more lasting investments in the communities victimized by natural disaster, giving farmers grants to plant and produce more food locally, for example, or building a school in Haiti with a bakery to teach professional skills.
“It’s a private-sector mentality, not just throwing money at the problem but developing a solution that can become a real business,” he said.
When asked how he manages the growing ThinkFoodGroup, known for concepts like the very high-end restaurants Minibar and Somni, as well as the fast-casual chain Beefsteak, Andrés said he has built a team on which he can rely.
“All my life, I always knew my shortfalls,” he said, adding that he surrounds himself with talented people whose strengths complement his own skillset.
The chef also touched on his legal tangles with President Trump, who sued Andrés for pulling out of the planned Trump project in Washington after the then-candidate disparaged immigrants in a speech.
Andrés said he understood that Trump did what he needed to do as a businessman. But Andrés expressed pride in being an immigrant who embraced the values of America when he first arrived 27 years ago.
He became an American citizen five years ago, but he said, “I didn’t need a passport to feel American.
“America told me we always have to respect each other. America told me that we have to give opportunity to others. It’s the most generous country I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “America stands by three important words: We the people.”
And those values have driven Andrés to try to make a difference. He urged the audience to do the same, saying the food industry has many of the solutions for global issues like hunger, poverty and unemployment, but it takes a unified effort.
“Food very much can be on its own the key to a better future,” said Andrés. “And all of us in this room, if we believe in it and if we work together as one, we have this amazing opportunity in this century to make our world better.
“And everything starts with a plate of food and a table where everybody shares who they are and the dreams they have, and what everybody can bring to that table to make America and the world better,” he continued. “Only one plate of food at a time. The only thing we have to start doing, guys, is start cooking.”
Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout
The MUFSO bag insert sponsors are Jones Dairy Farm, Clemens Foodservice, Merisant, Gamay Food Ingredients and NRAEF
The track sponsors are Daiya and Omnivore
The track & session sponsors are Shift Pixy, MGH, Conversant, Oracle America, Inc., Zivelo, APSM Systems, Bringg and Ventura Foods
Breakfast is sponsored by Brill
Breaks are sponsored by Royal Cup and Smoothie King
The Hot Concepts celebration is sponsored by V&V Supremo Foods, Fonterra Foodservices (USA), Inc., Thomas Foods International and Impossible Foods
The lanyard sponsor is Clemens Foodservice
The hotel key sponsor is Matthew’s Real Estate
Shake, Sparkle & Stir is sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company
The Kitchen Hero Cook-off is sponsored by Texas Pete
The offsite tour of Legacy Hall is sponsored by Corrigo