I sat down with the brilliant chef-humanitarian-teacher-author-renaissance man Chef José Andrés to talk about his culinary journey, veggie-centric restaurant Beefsteak, our shared love of Haiti, and harnessing the power of food to better the world! Read on for some incredible insight that takes food to new heights…
“You should be investing in good things for people and planet.”
Those are not words one may expect to hear out of the mouth of one of the world’s top chefs, but José Andrés doesn’t fit many molds.
“Our motto is to change the world through the power of food,” he stated plainly over a drink at a sidewalk café in Paris, in town to cook dinner at the U.S. Embassy and conduct interviews for his role as Ambassador for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.
Known for his creative cuisine, many credit the Spanish chef with pioneering small plate dining in the United States. He has built a veritable empire with over twenty restaurants from Vegas to Puerto Rico, as well as cookbooks, product lines, university culinary curriculum, and television series.
With the same dexterity that the James Beard Award-winning chef masterfully creates exotic cuisines, Andrés seamlessly transitions between diverse global environments to work on food-related issues. His company ThinkFoodGroup is not only the umbrella for restaurants, hotels, products, and media, but also behind a wide array of educational initiatives and philanthropy. The business is “committed to fostering future generations of innovators and activists changing the world through the power of food,” per the TFG website, a notion that is repeated in conversation.
On vacation with his family when the major earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, Andrés had the sudden realization that he could be using his skills as a chef to help the island nation, similar to what he has done for 22 years in his hometown of Washington where he is Chairman Emeritus of the DC Central Kitchen. DCCK is a leader in combating hunger and food waste, improving urban food systems, training and employing culinary professionals, and serving quality school meals through social entrepreneurship.
In response to the earthquake, Andrés launched the World Central Kitchen to nourish and empower vulnerable people enduring humanitarian crises worldwide. The non-profit focuses on ‘smart solutions to hunger’ and poverty and teaches about culinary techniques, food safety, sanitation, and health in multiple countries around the world: Zambia, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Haiti, and the US. He struggles to be a chef and champion in the food business when he knows that so many lack access to basic nutrition and jobs.
Andrés believes in innovation and entrepreneurship to bring about food security, raise up local communities, strengthen economies, and drive development.
Having returned to Haiti over twenty times—and delving into its rich culture in his PBS special “Undiscovered: Haiti with José Andrés”—he recently took his three daughters there for Thanksgiving to open a new arm of his growing set of projects at an orphanage, adding to a bakery, canteen, culinary school, and chicken farm.
One of his focuses in Haiti is clean cookstoves, whether in homes, schools, or restaurants. Solar and clean energy-powered cookstoves with low-cost energy and zero emissions that do not further deforestation excite him—and he is showing solutions off to the public through installations at popular events like the Life is Beautiful festival in Las Vegas. The active Culinary Ambassador for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves an initiative of the United Nations with a goal of reaching 100 million homes by 2020, Andrés seeks to make the healthy, efficient stoves and fuels more accessible to save and improve lives. With cost savings of 30 to 70%, according to Andrés, solar and natural gas solutions are a win-win for communities and the environment.
One of Andrés’ latest ventures is Beefsteak, is the chef’s first foray into fast casual, or fast good, as he calls it. Beefsteak is not a salad or grain focused idea, but rather veggie-centric. Beefsteak has the tagline “vegetables, unleashed,” as he introduced on Twitter nearly a year ago.
Why vegetables, I asked the man who has a restaurant dedicated to meat and has posed with the famed jamón?
Because he sees vegetables as a low-hanging fruit, calling them “sexy, fun, crazy, funky.” Andrés believes that vegetables can be just as flavorful as a cut of meat and respects the integrity of fresh, seasonal offerings and puts them center stage.
Andrés acknowledges that change happens slowly, but asserts that food can take down the “walls of misunderstanding.” He frequently collaborates with President Obama and work with the likes of Laurene Jobs and Alice Waters, rallying diverse stakeholders to take on massive, meaningful projects in the areas of food policy, access, agriculture, nutrition, jobs, technology, and the like.
Hey, I’m a guy who sees the glass of water halfway full.
He recognized the enormous complexity of global development challenges, but refuses to be daunted by failure: “stop giving me the speech of the past twenty years.” He has studied the economics of food waste and distribution from the vines to the kitchen that gouge growers and destroy generations of cultivation, citing examples of rice subsidies and slashing orange prices. Andrés and his team work with farmers and entrepreneurs on simple business plans to do, what he calls, smart good.
He admits that he talks a lot and bores easily, but his track record of action speaks for itself. “I’m a guy who likes to start things”—and these ‘things’ are not only successful restaurants and culinary products, but also movements for social and environmental justice. Andrés and his team, who he praises constantly and remains in close contact with via text and email as he speaks, stand for action at all levels of government, international agencies, small and large NGOs, business, and community.
Andrés is a cultural force—and food is his medium of choice.
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