In the sea of despair that is Ukraine, Chef José Andrés and his World Central Kitchen are a lifeline. They have been on the ground there for months, feeding thousands of Ukrainians whose lives have been upended by the war.
Since Russia’s invasion began in February, Andrés has traveled back and forth, spending more than 40 days in Ukraine. And for him, that’s not all that unusual. For the past 12 years, Andrés has brought his not-for-profit kitchen to the front lines of catastrophe. They have served more than 60 million meals, from earthquake-ravaged Haiti to hurricane-battered Houston.
But Ukraine is a little different: it’s the first time chef Andrés and his people have operated in a war zone.
On April 16, one of the kitchens his organization was running in Kharkiv was hit by a Russian missile. “The people that were with World Central Kitchen, we had four wounded persons, and they went to the hospital, and thank God everybody was fine,” he said.
Truth is, the attack barely slowed them down. “What happened in the hours after was unbelievable,” he told correspondent Tracy Smith. “When the owner of that restaurant asked all the team members, ‘What do you want to do?’ they said, ‘We wanna keep cooking. We wanna keep fighting.'”
That drive to keep serving against all odds is the subject of a documentary streaming this month on Disney+ called “We Feed People,” from director Ron Howard.
Smith asked, “Is it tough for you, as a documentarian, to remain detached from this?”
“I wasn’t really trying to be detached,” Howard replied. “I mean, I was trying to share what I was learning and experiencing and feeling.”
And that feeling apparently is contagious; the camera crews shooting footage for the film would often put down their cameras and start helping out. “I said, ‘Okay, I get it. It’s infectious, this spirit, but we only have so many shooting days!'” Howard laughed.
Andrés said, “We needed every single hand to do what we did. So, more often than not, that camera was always put away. They became part of the humanitarian aid.
“Life is not a movie itself. Life is real pain, is real suffering. And what we have to do is to spend every single second trying to relieve people from those hard moments they are going through.”
It’s hard to imagine how he finds the time. The Spanish-born Andrés is also a wildly successful restauranteur, with nearly two dozen restaurants or food trucks from coast to coast. But his World Central Kitchen has become his calling card. He started it in 2010 after the Haiti earthquake. Andrés and his team will typically salvage whatever’s left of restaurant kitchens on the ground and, using locals’ recipes, work with them to make comfort food for thousands.
Andrés said, “You know why I love to go to these places? Because I always say that the best of humanity usually shows up in the worst moments of humanity. And what I get, the inspiration I get from every one of the World Central Kitchen members, but [also] the new people that join us in the middle of the chaos, this to me is a gift I will never be able to pay back.”
Smith met up with the chef for a brief moment in New York City: he was on his way to Spain, and eventually to Ukraine again.
“And now you’re part of it too, Ron?” she asked.
“Well, I’m thrilled to be part of it,” Howard replied. “It’s an honor.”
Howard said he was drawn to Andrés’ unbelievable story, but at first the chef balked at doing the film, worried that it’d be all about him. “He was hesitant; he said, ‘This is really World Central Kitchen. And I don’t want a camera following me around, trying to tell ‘The José Story.'”
Howard managed to convince him, by bringing up another movie he’d once made: “Apollo 13,” about an explosion aboard a spacecraft, and the people on the ground who gave their all to bring the astronauts home alive. “This is what I love, are teams coming together and solving a problem,” Howard said.
“Apollo 13” is also the movie that got Howard interested in telling real-life stories, even though, at an early test screening, one of the audience members actually thought Howard had made it all up: “I remember, it was a 23-year-old Caucasian male, rated it poor, wouldn’t recommend it. He [wrote], ‘Terrible! More Hollywood bulls**t!!’ With two exclamation marks. ‘They would never survive!!!’ Three exclamation marks! I realized he didn’t know it was a true story, and to him it was hokey. And I thought, ‘This is why you choose these subjects, this is why you tell a story based on real events, because you choose the subject where you say, How the hell could that have happened?‘”
Smith said, “That’s a great question for World Central Kitchen. How the hell could this have happened? Really?”
“I mean, I know that very often people think we do the impossible possible,” said Andrés. “And I would love to tell you that what we do, we are the only people capable on planet Earth to do it. But this is far away from the truth. What we do is not so special.”
What makes them special is that they step up to help: not next week, not tomorrow, but right now.
Smith asked, “Why do you think it works? I know you say, ‘We don’t have meetings, we don’t make announcements, we just go’?”
“If we say we don’t plan, it’s because, every hour you are planning for something is one hour you are missing of being on the ground, feeding people,” he replied. “And sometimes you say, ‘But you need to organize to start feeding people.’ Well, not really.
“You can always be driving, and you may decide to make right or make left, and you don’t know if you’re taking the right turn. But let me tell you one thing, my friend: you will only be able to turn right or left if you are moving forward. It’s never a wrong decision in an emergency if actually you are making things happen. Because you have the next day to correct that decision. At the end, it’s always good, because you are moving. You are driving forward. You are meeting the needs of the people.”
To watch a trailer for “We Feed People” click on the video player below.
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Story produced by John D’Amelio. Editor: Ed Givnish.