I have mixed feelings whenever I’m back in D.C. After living there for 8 years, it is a second home to me. But after visiting this past May, it’s clear that the D.C. which I came to know and love has changed a lot. Restaurants have come and gone, neighborhoods have become more gentrified, and there’s a difference in the makeup of the city. In some ways, this should come as no surprise – the city is a transient one, changing with the waves of a new administration. The constants that remained, though, are the themes of advocacy and fighting for change.
This was extremely evident when I heard José Andrés speak while there. Andrés arrived in Washington in 1993, when he started as the head of the kitchen at Jaleo – establishing tapas and Spanish small plate culture in the United States (send your gratitude or anger for this – at times – expensive trend to him, folks). Prior to my arrival in D.C., Andrés won his first James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2003 and is inducted into the Who’s Who in American Food & Wine by the James Beard Foundation in 2007. In addition to operating more than 30 restaurants throughout the U.S., Andrés started World Central Kitchen, a non-profit focused on eliminating hunger and poverty. If none of that rings a bell for you, you might also know him as the chef who fed Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
I was pretty stoked to hear Andrés speak. I’ve eaten at several of his D.C. restaurants and even passed him in the Chinatown Holiday Market one year (and was still too chicken sh*t to actually talk to him). He is a figure of the D.C. establishment, helping to change the way in which chefs and locals define food in that city.
Andrés began by telling a crowd of international educators that he was a bit intimidated because he had not necessarily stayed with formal education. “I am who I am because of people telling me things I don’t know and I’m always learning,” he stated. Andrés shared that cooking is full of failures and that moments are more about feeding our soul than anything else. And while he may not have stuck with formal education, he has recognized that a proper education cannot exist without a proper meal. Which is the foundation for the work he has done with World Central Kitchen.
While working with World Central Kitchen, Andrés learned quickly that the best way to help those that were receiving his assistance was to listen. Listen to what the people wanted. And so with each deployment post-disaster, the chef team listened to the locals as they identified the comfort foods best served to feed their communities.
Aside from understanding the communities and their food cultures, Andrés shared with the crowd the biggest lesson learned – that charity should be about the liberation of the receive and not the redemption of the giver. He emphasized the point and purpose of World Central Kitchen by sharing a quote by a French philosopher – “The future of the nations will depend on how they feed themselves.”
Many parts of Andrés speech struck a chord in me. After studying abroad in 2003, I wanted to learn as much as possible about the world, exploring areas that I had never thought about previously. My graduate academic work sought out how to resolve international genocides, and potentially prevent them. There have been times throughout my career where I’ve considered shifting entirely into humanitarian relief, an area that unfortunately seems to be growing out of sheer need due to the effects of global warming. It’s still not out of the realm of possibility.
Andrés ended by sharing a second quote by a French philosopher – “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”
What do my meals say about me?