We Fed an Island
- By José Andrés with Richard Wolffe
- Anthony Bourdain/Ecco
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Delia Cabe
- September 14, 2019
How a catastrophic hurricane spurred a celebrity chef to action.
Two weeks after Hurricane Irma bruised Puerto Rico, the island took a direct hit when Hurricane Maria pummeled it with destructive winds, rain, and floods. Prior to Irma and Maria, Puerto Rico had been struggling for years with high rates of unemployment and poverty, plus its government’s financial crisis.
Maria was a devastating blow to this small island in the Caribbean and to Puerto Ricans, who, because it is a U.S. territory, are American citizens. (Full disclosure: I have many relatives living in Puerto Rico.)
Three days after Maria hit, José Andrés, a celebrity chef who owns nearly 30 restaurants in the United States and elsewhere, landed in San Juan ready to feed an island.
If you’ve seen Andrés in interviews or cooking on TV, that wouldn’t surprise you. Now 49, the man is passionate about everything he does. He speaks in exclamation points, yet tears up readily whenever he is moved, especially upon hearing that people are going hungry. When he’s not wearing his chef’s toque, the Spaniard, now a U.S. citizen, puts on his humanitarian cap.
In 2010, he undertook his first food-relief effort in Haiti after an earthquake ravaged the country. He founded the nonprofit World Central Kitchen that same year and, since then, has been marshalling chefs to feed millions in places struck by natural disasters. He arrives on the scene with a few supplies — a satellite phone, plenty of cash, a week’s worth of appropriate clothing — ready to cook and not take no for an answer.
We Fed an Island is a cri de couer that is at once a how-to and a how-not-to guide on providing food relief. Spoiler alert: Andrés, 1; government agencies and nonprofits, 0.
Andrés and his co-author, Richard Wolffe, a columnist for the Guardian, do not mince words when describing the failures of organizations from FEMA to the Red Cross to aid these Americans’ recovery. (Those failures have since been documented elsewhere. As I write this, a new study revised the death toll from Maria to 2,975, up from the official count of 64.)
President Donald Trump is not spared a lashing, either. The authors quote his tweets throughout. (By the way, Andrés and Trump have a history. The chef pulled out of a lease for a restaurant in the Trump Hotel in Washington, DC, after Trump’s famous escalator ride to announce his candidacy, when he deemed Mexicans “drug dealers” and “rapists.” The Trump Organization and Andrés sued each other. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount in 2017.)
We Fed an Island chronicles Andrés’ and his team’s massive efforts from the moment they hit the ground through four exhausting weeks, during which they enlist 20,000 volunteers, including chefs, across Puerto Rico.
They commandeered food trucks and kitchens in cities and rural areas. Day by day, their operations expanded until, by book’s end, they’ve served 3 million meals. While the team did not feed all 3.3 million of the island’s residents, they managed to feed hundreds of thousands daily.
The authors wisely include a chapter summarizing Puerto Rico’s history and culture and how U.S. policies “conspired against its citizens to turn a natural disaster into a man-made one,” which is widely supported and documented elsewhere. They describe the island’s political status as a territory, not a state, its lack of representation in Congress, trade policies, and more.
In books like this one — written quickly and rushed to print for the sake of timeliness — revision and editing get short shrift. The authors lapse into numerous questions, sometimes whole paragraphs of them, to raise points. Some of the questions have no answers, while others are just Andrés scratching his head.
Other times, questions are raised, then answered in the next sentence. On those occasions, questions make for weak transitions. Then there’s the repetition — eventually, you’ll find yourself thinking, “I get it. People need food. Food equals community. MREs (dehydrated ‘meals ready to eat’ used by soldiers in combat) are not food.”
In other instances, key people are introduced all over again as if we’d never met them before in the book. And lastly, whole conversations are included, yet it’s unclear who — Wolffe, maybe? — took the extensive notes that would’ve been needed to document these exchanges.
These quibbles asides, We Fed an Island is an important and informative read about the weak links in disaster relief. Andrés acknowledges naysayers who accuse him of running his nonprofit to raise awareness of his “brand.” But readers will see that the service he provides is physically and mentally demanding, as well as costly. There are other, far less grueling ways a celebrity chef could market himself.
Andrés, as his book reveals, has found a mission. He writes, “There are very few heroes in any disaster, and there are no perfect leaders.” Through his food-relief work and this book, he is offering a solution that others, including those who run relief agencies, can duplicate. Andrés and his volunteers, after all, can’t do it alone.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2018.]
Delia Cabe is the author of Storied Bars of New York: Where Literary Luminaries Go to Drink (Countryman Press, 2017).