After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, chef José Andrés was one of the first high-profile relief workers to arrive. In the storm’s aftermath, Mr. Andrés and his organization, World Central Kitchen, set up a local relief network that would eventually total 26 kitchens turning out more than 150,000 meals a day.
And as Hurricane Florence slammed into the Carolinas on Friday night and Mr. Andrés prepared to visit kitchen locations in Wilmington and Raleigh, N.C., he stopped at the George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium to discuss his new book, “We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time.”
One of the most important lessons he learned, Mr. Andrés said, was to “embrace complexity.”
“If you follow a recipe and nothing happens as you planned, you can do two things,” he said. “You can complain about how bad the recipe was and how bad the chef writing the recipe was and how bad your kitchen is…or you can change the name of the recipe.”
Improvisation was necessary. Because the kitchens were embedded in local communities and employed local residents, they were quickly and intimately aware of other needs on the island, like water, electrical power and even medical supplies. A community might need to trade food for diesel to run a generator, for instance. Or it might have residents who needed medication.
That ability to gather necessary intelligence, Mr. Andrés said, was an essential benefit of the kitchen network model.
“By going there every day with a hot plate of food, we were not only giving hope, we were not only telling them that the rest of America cared for them, in the process we were gathering important information that helped us and others to provide quicker, better, smarter help,” he said. “We were not dropping food and leaving, we were there supporting communities for weeks and months. That way we learned how to help the island.”
Not all of his relief efforts, Mr. Andrés admitted with self-deprecating charm, fell entirely within the range of official sanction. “It was a good moment to bribe somebody,” he said, shrugging.
Mr. Andrés conceded that his book contains criticism of the response to Maria by large governmental and nonprofit organizations such as FEMA and the Red Cross. Though he said he believed their intentions were good, he also believed bureaucratic inefficiency and red tape had contributed to preventable tragedies.
The abandoned cases of water recently discovered on an airstrip were an example, he said. The government told Mr. Andrés they could not donate water to World Central Kitchen, because they had no contract with the organization. But they also couldn’t sell it, because the federal government does not sell water.
Still, Mr. Andrés also praised the individual aid workers, service members and federal employees with whom he worked.
“We had people from the National Guard helping us cross rivers without bridges to bring food to very remote areas,” he said. “We were getting help from the private sector to provide helicopters to transport food to mountaintops. We had army engineers giving us maps, so we knew in real time where we had kitchens and shelters and different communities that needed food. In the end, it took a village to do what we did.
“The first day, we were 20 people,” Mr. Andrés said. Eventually, their ranks swelled to “an army of 25,000 strong.”
But ultimately, Mr. Andrés said he rated his own performance in Puerto Rico only a “five out of 10.” Watching the devastation the storm would ultimately wreak, he said he constantly questioned whether he could have activated more kitchens, moved more supplies and helped more people. Watching surgeons use phone flashlights to operate on patients in hospitals without electricity, while off the coast of Puerto Rico a huge ship hospital floated vacant, brought home to him the resources he could not provide.
“I know I failed them because I saw it with my own eyes,” he said.
And that firsthand knowledge contributed to his disappointment with the self-aggrandizement of President Donald Trump and others.
“A leader is there not to praise themselves, but to serve the people,” he said. “If you don’t have empathy, you cannot be a leader.”
Mr. Andrés, who famously pulled out of a Trump Hotel collaboration over the president’s treatment of immigrants, said he does question sometimes whether he should have kept his restaurant—and, with it, a more direct line to Mr. Trump.
But ultimately, Mr. Andrés, who became an American citizen in 2013, said he had become more hopeful after the disaster.
“I actually saw some of the best of the America I know right there in Puerto Rico,” he said. “I believe now in America more than ever.”