The warm scent of chicken and chorizo in a broth of saffron and cumin wafted from outside the National Portrait Gallery on Thursday night as workers from José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen tended a giant paella pan over an open flame. It’s a similar sight to the one currently seen in cities across Eastern Europe, where the non-profit organization distributes hundreds of thousands of meals to refugees every day.
But on Thursday, the staff were at “Jose’s Corner of the World,” one told me, for a screening of “We Feed People,” a National Geographic documentary about the superchef’s amazing humanity. Oscar winner Ron Howard directed.
Andrès took a break from his work in Ukraine to visit the Portrait Gallery (where a portrait of him will appear later this year). Other high-profile guests included Jeff Bezos, Sonia Sotomayor and Nancy Pelosi.
Distilled from thousands of hours of footage, the 90-minute film traces the arc of World Central Kitchen, from its rugged beginnings as a DC startup to its current state as an influential nonprofit with teams around the world. “It’s a story about volunteering that makes a simple concept work on an amazing scale,” said Ron Howard in a message ahead of the film.
However, it’s also a story that can’t be told without pieced together the personal story of Andrés – an immigrant who started with little and now alternates between managing some of DC’s liveliest restaurants and creating soul-warming meals for people in danger. Archival footage and photographs trace his journey, from his beginnings as a boy in Spain raised by a family of nurses; his ambitious start in America as a young, boisterous nerd climbing the ranks of Washington’s food scene; to his embrace as a celebrity restaurateur, endowed with his own TV show, a New York Times Best sellers, political connections, and an empire of acclaimed restaurants (Jaleo, Minibar, Zaytinya, and Oyamel, to name a few). As a matter of fact, Andrés’ ambition and optimistic zeal have taken him far in both his culinary and humanitarian careers. “I see opportunity where others see chaos,” he says at one point in the film.
“He’s someone who’s so ambitious, doesn’t take no for an answer, has a big dream, a big vision, and he just keeps pushing,” said Nate Mook, CEO of World Central Kitchen Washingtonians. Mook was a documentary filmmaker in his earlier career and served as the film’s executive producer.
But while it might be easy to idolize the chef, the documentary doesn’t lose sight of the team and inspiration behind it. The film introduces us to several World Central Kitchen volunteers as well as one of Andrés’ greatest mentors, Robert Egger. Founder of DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that feeds and educates unemployed DC residents, Egger is credited with teaching Andrés that “it’s not about the salvation of the giver, it’s about the liberation of the receiver.”
Echoing this sentiment, another producer on the film, Sara Bernstein, narrates Washingtonians that “we didn’t want to do hagiography about José—that was never the mission.” She says TIt’s one of the reasons Andrés said “yes” to Howard after turning down several offers from other documentarians who were interested in filming him.
It seems Howard got the job. While Andrés is still the character driving the story, World Central Kitchen’s staff and partners get their fair share of the spotlight.
Featuring on-site footage at multiple disaster sites – from Haiti and Puerto Rico to the Navajo Nation of New Mexico – the film immerses viewers alongside the team as they work in chaotic, ever-changing environments. At several points, you’ll watch as the team improvise and miraculously build kitchens out of rubble. “It’s really a small group of people who just dive into a place with no preconceived ideas about how they’re going to bring it all together,” says Bernstein.
The team always manages to make it work, collaborating with locals to devise recipes to serve whatever comfort cuisine is preferred – a point stressed in the film, seemingly aware of the white rescuers’ criticism, which is sometimes practiced against western auxiliaries. For example, early on we meet several Haitian women who weren’t fans of the way Andrés — a Michelin-star chef, mind you — cooks his beans. It’s clearly a humbling experience for Andrés, who, after learning to mash the beans into the silky texture they prefer, vows to use local cooking techniques from then on.
We also meet local food vendors and producers that World Central Kitchen works with, and learn that the nonprofit is leaving behind infrastructure so the community can continue to cook for themselves. (Though, sadly, we’ll never be able to report back to those communities—instead, we’re being propelled to the next disaster.)
It remains somewhat unclear how World Central Kitchen is funding its ambitious plans (although a $100 million gift from Bezos last July certainly plays a role). Also, we never quite figure out how such a small team manages hundreds of thousands of volunteers while protecting them in conflict zones.
But perhaps explaining these certainly complicated logistics would have screwed up the 90-minute documentary. After all, it’s clear that meals are being served and stomachs are being filled – which, by and large, is what matters. At the end of the film, the continuous contrast of hot meals amidst harsh environments ultimately proves Andrés’ simple message that “food is really hope”.
We Feed People will be available to stream on Disney+ on May 27th.