José Andrés: the World Central Kitchen founder who ‘moves towards disaster’ to help the hungry

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When José Andrés accepted the challenge of delivering desperately-needed food aid to a famine-threatened Gaza last month, he declared that he was “working with the urgency of now”.

“It’s worth trying. We have to try. If we succeed, everybody is helped,” the celebrity chef-turned aid supremo said of his plan to help avert humanitarian disaster through his World Central Kitchen (WCK).

On display was the same irrepressible can-do spirit that had enabled the Spanish-born Andrés, now a US citizen, to bring food relief to citizens stricken by natural disaster or war in numerous far-flung locations.

It is a measure of Andrés’s devastation, therefore, that he has responded to an Israeli strike that killed seven WCK workers taking food shipments from a warehouse in Deir al-Balah by pausing the charity’s operations in the battered coastal strip.

Responding to the news on X, Andrés said he was “heartbroken”. “These are people…angels, he wrote. “They are not faceless…they are not nameless.”

He went on to castigate Israel in blunt terms: “The Israeli government needs to stop this indiscriminate killing. It needs to stop restricting humanitarian aid, stop killing civilians and aid workers, and stop using food as a weapon.”

His outburst was telling, not least because it contrasted sharply with his tone in the early stages of Israel’s military offensive last October, following a Hamas attack that killed 1,200 mostly civilian Israelis. At that time he called on Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister, to sack the country’s social rights minister, Ione Belarra, after the Podemos leader and her far-left colleagues accused Israel of committing war crimes and genocide in Gaza.

“As a minister you must first recognise that Hamas’s attack on Israel is a terrorist act and that Israel … is defending its citizens – then you can ask it for restraint and respect for civilian lives in Gaza,” he tweeted.

But his current despair is also striking because WCK’s plan to deliver aid in the face of a looming famine appeared to have been worked out with Israel’s knowledge and cooperation.

Last month, Axios reported that Andrés was working with the United Arab Emirates to land amphibious crafts loaded with crates of food on Gaza’s shoreline.

The plan had evolved as an emergency on the basis that the Biden administration’s proposal to build a port in Gaza for aid deliveries could not be implemented quickly enough to avert a humanitarian disaster.

A senior Israeli military adviser from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government even visited Abu Dhabi to discuss the plan, followed by a similar visit to Israel by UAE officials.

The operation was intended to take advantage of a maritime corridor established between Larnaca in Cyprus and Gaza to facilitate aid deliveries.

Working with the Spanish group Open Arms, WCK hoped to bring relief to Gaza by implementing a modus operandi first established in 2010 when the charity was set up in response to a massive earthquake in Haiti, which killed more than 300,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

It has since been re-enacted and refined in locations as diverse as Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Uganda, Cambodia and on Poland’s border with Ukraine, in response to Russia’s 2022 invasion. In each case, the stated approach has been to deliver emergency food aid to cater for local diets.

The charity estimates on its website that it has provided 350m chef-prepared meals to victims of natural disasters and humanitarian crises.

Andrés, 54, told the interviewer Jimmy Kimmel last November that his experience in assisting Haitian earthquake survivors had inspired him to expand his aid activities because it taught him that cooks “had the power… to feed the many”, not just the few.

Praising WCK’s workers in words that now seem poignantly ironic, he told Kimmel: “When others are moving away from the disaster, we have amazing individuals who move into the disaster to help people.

“What we do is nothing special. We have people who say ‘we are here to help the people in the moment [when] they need us the most.’ We always need to be next to the people in our darkest hours, because we have the power to make each other better.”

Andrés, who moved to the US when he was 21 and now lives in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, owns restaurants in several cities across the country. His work with the WCK earned him a National Humanities Medal in 2015. He has also been nominated for the Nobel peace prize.

Despite his success in the US, he remains deeply proud of his Spanish roots.

Born in the north-western region of Asturias – an area famed for its meat, seafood and cider – he moved with his family to Barcelona when he was five. After studying catering and hospitality in the Catalan capital, he went on to work in the kitchen of the world-famous avant garde El Bulli restaurant under its celebrated chef, Ferran Adrià.

Spaniards tend to see Andrés’s global success as a source of pride and international prestige. When news broke of Monday night’s deadly strike, Sánchez, the Spanish prime minister, said he had been in touch to offer the chef and his team “my deepest condolences and all my love and support”.

On Tuesday, Joe Biden also called the chef, to tell him that he was “heartbroken”, insisting that aid workers be protected, the White House said.

Andrés made no further public comment beyond his anguished tweet: “No more innocent lives lost. Peace starts with our shared humanity. It needs to start now.”

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