With the relentless onslaught of disasters recently, it’s easy to forget that in Puerto Rico, millions of people are still without power or clean drinking water more than a month after Hurricane Maria’s landfall September 20.
However, one man has been working tirelessly to make sure they at least have something to eat — chef José Andrés, a naturalized U.S. citizen with numerous high-end and innovative restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. Through World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit José founded following the Haiti earthquake that was also on the ground in Houston following Hurricane Harvey, he marshaled an army of chefs, volunteers, and food donations from all over Puerto Rico and the world.
Together they somehow managed to make almost 2 million meals for Puerto Ricans. Five Bon Appétit Management Company chefs are immensely proud to have been allowed to use their skills in this herculean #ChefsForPuertoRico effort. The experience was one they will never forget.
“We could use the help”
José and his ThinkFoodGroup are restaurant partners of Bon Appétit Management Company’s, with a Beefsteak at the University of Pennsylvania and others in the works on corporate campuses. When José contacted Bon Appétit CEO Fedele Bauccio the weekend after Maria to ask for culinary support, Fedele didn’t hesitate for a second.
The request went out, and within 48 hours, two executive chefs, Blas Baldepina from Royal Caribbean Cruises and Karla Hoyas from Crossroads Café, were on planes from Miami and Indianapolis, respectively; Ty Paup, Director of Culinary Operations at Brown University in Providence, RI, was a day behind them. A week or so later, they were followed by Dave Apthorpe, general manager at Hillsdale College (and a former chef), and Khori Thomas, Executive Chef at University of Pennsylvania’s Houston Market, and his wife, Juana Thomas, who had family in Puerto Rico. They all spent 7-10 days there, except for Karla, who stayed for three weeks.
Blas’s life had just been getting back to normal after Hurricane Irma swept through Florida in September; he was shopping for a new car to replace the one ruined in the storm and attending after-school sports events for his three sons. But “I had to go. I went to high school in Puerto Rico, I speak Spanish, I know the market, I know the food.”
When Blas, Karla, and Ty arrived at the Coliseo in San Juan, the massive concert hall where José and his nonprofit World Central Kitchen had partly commandeered (it had water and enough power for the walk-in coolers and ovens, although not lights in the kitchen), they found lots of volunteers and some donated food along with a healthy portion of chaos.
“With the storm over a week behind us, I thought FEMA would be there, the Red Cross, and we’d just be plugging into whatever they were doing,” says Ty. Instead, “we had to build a kitchen from the ground up,” recalls Blas, who alone amongst the five had done something like this before, when he went to Montana to help after an oil spill.
There were dozens of volunteers, many of them skilled restaurant folks from Puerto Rico’s food trucks and cafés, but also office workers, children, teenagers, and grandparents. Huge pans of paella were simmering outside the Coliseo, but the chopping and prep for those pans was happening outside, too, on less than ideal surfaces.
The Bon Appétit team split up and tried to put systems in place. All the prep went inside, and only the cooking of the paella stayed outside, over propane tanks. Karla began trying to manage the inventory of what they could buy from local Sam’s Club warehouses or what was being donated, calling suppliers, and keeping an eye on the paella. Blas set up a sandwich assembly line that the very first day churned out 6,000 sandwiches and another 10,000 the next; Khori picked up when Blas had to go home. Ty and then later Dave coordinated production in the hot kitchen, preparing whatever they could from what they had — pastelon (like a shepherd’s pie), chicken and rice, macaroni and cheese.
Every day they woke up and worked nonstop from morning til late at night. They’d forget to eat or drink themselves. “We could think of only one thing: Just make food for people. Make protein, vegetable, and starch,” said Blas. “Just feed the people.”
They had to be creative. They thought sliced turkey was coming for sandwiches, but the first shipment was about 5,000 pounds of whole turkey, unsliced. There was no slicer to be found on the island. But there was a chopper machine. They chopped the turkey until it was almost ground, then mixed it with mayonnaise in a turkey “salad” that went into the sandwich assembly line. Chorizo was cooked for a stew in the hot kitchen and then a local chef skinned what was left, put it in the chopper to make a sandwich paste with mayo, oregano, pepper, and corn, that was “just awesome. I said, ‘Yo, that is phenomenal, I’m going to put that in an empanada,’” recalls Khori. Endless donations of hotdogs got chopped and mixed into paella. Individual shrink-wrapped 5-ounce packages of donated cheese were unwrapped by volunteers and cubed for a mac ’n cheese with turkey bacon. They figured out how to make rice in the oven and made batch after batch so there would always be a starch available.
“Chefs are the ideal people to head this kind of operation because we’ve made a career out of being intensely resourceful,” explains Dave. “It was really gratifying to be able to apply those skills to people who had intense need.”
“It is all about having fun and helping others,” Karla told NBC in this broadcast segment:
As word got out through José’s tireless social media efforts and news coverage, people from all over the island sent messengers in cars and trucks to bring back 1,000 meals, or 2,000 meals, for residents in far-flung villages. Homeland Security representatives would take bags of sandwiches with them wherever they went.
— José Andrés (@chefjoseandres) October 7, 2017
After a few days, with the Coliseo humming like a well-oiled machine, José dispatched Ty to deliver hot dishes to outlying areas in San Juan. Blas headed south of the island, to a culinary school where they was power and water, to help set up another kitchen. José was intent on setting up multiple kitchens in a ring around the island, staffed by local volunteers. Six weeks after he arrived, he had established 18 kitchens, and was preparing to finally leave.
“We’re all connected”
“The creation of this organic community of volunteers could not have been possible without the knowledge, kindness, and support from Karla, David, Ty, Blas, and Khori and Bon Appétit’s philosophy of ‘We’re all connected,’” says David Strong, Director of Strategic Initiatives for ThinkFood Group and José’s righthand man in Puerto Rico. “We are incredibly grateful to have a growing partnership with Bon Appétit, and the relief efforts in PR has only strengthened this bond.”
The experience had a profound impact on all the Bon Appétit chefs. “When someone asks you for a bottle of water because they really need it, they’ve been waiting in line at a basketball court in the heat waiting for you to show up in a food truck because they have no idea how they are going to eat that day — that’s a different feeling from cooking people breakfast in our café at home,” says Blas. “I am just very appreciative that Fedele had that in his heart to say, ‘Let’s send a team.’ Says a lot about who we are as a company.”
Khori, for his part, will never forget the spirit of the Puerto Ricans he met, the willingness to help themselves. “Everyone would help, jump in, every time. It was such a vibe, I can’t explain it,” he says. “A lot of times you take things for granted, and being able to be a part of this massive effort to help people who had lost everything, who were hungry — it was humbling. I’m a better human being after going there.”