AUSTIN, Texas — Chef José Andrés walked onto the stage at the Austin Convention Center on Saturday afternoon to big cheers.
“I’m not cooking, relax!” he joked.
The World Central Kitchen founder told interviewer Michele Norris that being at South by Southwest was the ultimate example of “the American dream” for him. Andrés is no stranger to the festival, and it has helped give him a platform to talk about his organization, which provides nourishing meals in response to disasters around the world. A documentary about Andrés and World Central Kitchen, “We Feed People,” premiered at the festival last year.
But as Norris heaped praise on Andrés for his work on Saturday, even calling him a saint, the Spanish chef pursued a theme of humility.
“My wife is in the audience,” he said. “She’s rolling her eyes.”
Andrés is known for making seats at the table, both through his work with World Central Kitchen and as a restauranteur. He said he owes that quality to the stories he heard growing up – not just from family but also through movies and books.
The quote that sticks with him and one that inspired World Central Kitchen is said by Tom Joad in John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”: “Wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there.”
Andrés was also inspired by stories of nurse and American Red Cross founder Clara Barton growing up, for her ability to provide hospital care during the Civil War and help give closure to families in its aftermath.
“We are all the product of all those stories, and all those people,” Andrés told the audience at SXSW on Saturday.
With his restaurant Jaleo, Andrés learned to use a culinary experience to tell his story. By serving croquetas, Andrés was telling the story of his mother and of so many other Spanish mothers, who he said were “magicians.”
“The fridge was always empty, but my mom would always find something,” Andrés said.
With World Central Kitchen, Andrés learned to listen to the stories of others in places all over that world that had been struck by disaster.
Andrés said he was feeding Haitians in a solar kitchen in Port-au-Prince when the women he was cooking with told him bluntly: people didn’t like the way the beans were being prepared. So, he said, they changed what they were doing to fit the local palate. The experience taught him that people want respect, not to be told what they need.
That approach helps World Central Kitchen set up quickly and on a large scale as volunteers head towards disaster sites. Every food truck, restaurant, food warehouse, every driver, every person in the region is part of World Central Kitchen. The locals are the ones helping locals. That method has helped the organization deliver local comfort foods that fit the tastes and culture of the region they’re serving.
Through his humanitarian work, Andrés has discovered an array of local dishes he never knew existed – like rondon from San Andrés and Providencia in Colombia, or a Bahamian soul food dish called fire engine.
Recipes for dishes like that will be part of a new World Central Kitchen cookbook, which Andrés announced at SXSW. The book will also feature contributions from public figures such as Stephen Colbert, Michelle Obama, Guy Fieri, Ayesha Curry, Marcus Samuelson, Emeril Lagasse and more. It is available on Sept. 12, 2023.
Andrés left the SXSW audience on Saturday with a call to action, encouraging people to take risks and “write new recipes.”