Chef José Andrés distributes food to hospitals, communities in Puerto Rico
By Andrea Moya Muñoz
SAN JUAN – José Andrés barked out orders, pointing at a sheet of paper tacked to the wall with the lists of communities, hospitals and retirement homes they would be taking food to Thursday. Behind him, on long tables, groups of volunteers assembled sandwiches. Hidden from sight was the sancocho, or stew, station and out on the parking lot three massive paellas were being cooked in aluminum foil-wrapped pans while cooks soaked in sweat stirred the rice, meat and broth.
The dining room at José Enrique, a San Juan restaurant next to La Placita de Santurce, one of the island capital’s oldest farmer’s markets, has become the command center for the chef’s World Central Kitchen nonprofit, which is currently preparing hundreds of sandwiches and hot meals for those affected by Hurricane María on the island.
Distribution covers marginalized communities, elderly people, hospitals and even police officers and federal agents out on the streets everyday and not necessarily able to eat during this shortage crisis. The name of the project, #ChefsForPuertoRico.
The ingredients are either donated or purchased. Fuel is a problem to acquire, an unfortunate new normal at this time, which hinders efforts to reach more people. “The food arrives but then we don’t have gasoline, so we have it, but it’s complicated. You have one thing and not the other,” he said.
The chef of Mi Casa by José Andrés–at Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve–part of his ThinkFoodGroup restaurant empire, has been on the island since Monday organizing these food-based relief efforts with the help of local chefs. His friend José Enrique donated his restaurant (also called José Enrique), which bears the scars of the Category 4 storm in the form of shattered glass-door panels covered in a white tarp.
Yareli Manning López, owner of The Meatball Company food truck, was organizing deliveries, while Manolo Martínez Bonet of catering company Paellas y Algo Más was in charge of the paella unit. Other restaurateurs have also collaborated with the effort.
On Wednesday, they were able to feed nearly 3,000 people and their goal Thursday was 5,000, expanding beyond the metro area to Caguas and Patillas. Where they go is based on who they know and who shows up. Several retirement homes come by for pick-up, while communities such as El Gandul and hospitals, including San Jorge Children’s Hospital and the Pediatric Hospital, have the food delivered by volunteers.
“Puerto Rico is too big. We’re going to G-8 [8 poverty-stricken communities near Martin Peña Canal in San Juan], to different neighborhoods to hand out 500 sandwiches. [We’re going to] zones where there’s nothing and no one [helping]. And it’s a little bit to cover that,” José Andrés told Caribbean Business.
“We’re trying to be organized, that’s why we’re doing this here. This [La Placita de Santurce] is not an ideal place because it’s very busy but it’s a place that’s close to everything. I could’ve done it in a place with more space but it would’ve been less centric. People can come here walking to help,” he added.
José Andrés organized a similar relief effort under World Central Kitchen–which is currently accepting donations online, at https://www.worldcentralkitchen.org/chefsforpuertorico/–in Houston after Hurricane Harvey devastated the city. While logistics were complicated in Texas, José Andrés admits that what he is witnessing in Puerto Rico is somewhat worse.
“This has been very hard. [In] Houston, there was flooding, but this has been very hard. [In Houston] the telephone service worked perfectly, we didn’t have problems with electricity. Here I see kilometers and kilometers of fallen utility poles. It’s very difficult,” he admitted.
He expects to be on the island at least this week and next and “until we can be” and collaborating with more local chefs.