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Profiles in Leadership: Chef José Andrés

January 28, 2022


The volcanic eruption near Tonga reminds us that we never know where or when a disaster will strike. What we do know is that, whenever possible, Chef José Andrés and his charity, World Central Kitchen, will be there to help. “José Andrés is most famous for his acclaimed, Michelin star restaurants,” writes David Blonski, Chief Operations Officer at Elementum. “However, it’s his humanitarian efforts that can teach us a lot about supply chain management.”[1] His humanitarian efforts can also teach us a lot about leadership. Journalist Sean Gregory (@seanmgregory) asserts, “Andrés’ rapidly expanding charity, World Central Kitchen, is as prepared as anyone [during a] moment of unprecedented global crisis. The nonprofit stands up field kitchens to feed thousands of people fresh, nourishing, often hot meals as soon as possible at the scene of a hurricane, earthquake, tornado or flood.”[2] He adds, “Andrés is a lesson of leadership in crisis. … His kitchen models the behavior — nimble, confident, proactive — the general public needs in a crisis.” Andrés founded his World Central Kitchen charity in 2010 and it utilizes a unique and agile operations model. Benjamin Wofford (@BenWoffordDC) explains, “Its model is built on hot food cooked by chefs.”[3] Nothing novel there. As explained more fully below, what is novel is that World Central Kitchen enlists the help of food service personnel who are thrown out of work by natural disasters.


From Something Small to Something Big


“Chef José Andrés’ culinary career began in his native Spain,” reports journalist Brent Furdyk (@BrentFurdyk), “where he attended Barcelona’s Escola de Restauració i Hostalatge before apprenticing with chef Ferran Adrià at his famed restaurant el Bulli. In 1991, Andrés’ pursuit of his dreams took him to New York City, where he soon became a trailblazer in popularizing Spanish-style tapas in North America. Before long he began opening his own restaurants, eventually more than 30, all under the auspices of his ThinkFoodGroup organization, winning acclaim, fame, and numerous awards along the way.”[4] In 2010, Andrés started his World Central Kitchen charity and, in the beginning, it was an extremely modest effort. Furdyk says it all began with a phone call:


As Andrés told Fast Company, Manolo Vílchez, head of a Spain-based solar-powered-stove company, was planning a humanitarian trip to Haiti to distribute solar-powered cooking equipment to citizens in the aftermath of an earthquake, and invited Andrés to join him. Over the years, Andrés had volunteered at soup kitchens in Washington, D.C., even teaching cooking classes in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and he jumped on the opportunity to help people on a larger scale. He spent two weeks in Haiti, setting up more than a dozen solar-powered cooking setups throughout the island and teaching residents how to use them. When he returned, he met with Robert Egger, head of D.C. Central Kitchen, a charity that began by taking unused food from D.C. restaurants and feeding it to the city’s homeless. Andrés proposed setting up an international iteration of the organization. Andrés’ ebullient personality proved invaluable in raising money for this new venture, dubbed World Central Kitchen, handily convincing wealthy donors and large corporations to part with their money for a worthy cause.”


Despite his fundraising efforts, Wofford reports, “[In 2017,] when [Hurricane] Maria hit Puerto Rico, World Central Kitchen had [only] three full-time employees.” He notes that the charity’s current CEO, Nate Mook, was not among them. However, Wofford reports, “When Andrés’s plane took off for San Juan five days [after Maria struck], Mook was onboard, having joined his friend Andrés on a whim.” The story continues:


The celebrity chef and his tech-maven sidekick were received coolly by more established aid groups in Puerto Rico. ‘Folks at FEMA, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army — these organizations, they were laughing José and me out of the room,’ says Mook. ‘Like, ‘What do you guys know about feeding people in disasters?’ Technically, nothing. But they went about it anyway, frantically rousing a network of local chefs, kitchen owners, and food-truck drivers; locating hot spots; recruiting volunteers. All told, 20,000 people stepped up to distribute 3.7 million meals. No other aid group even approached such volume — much less the quality, with made-from-scratch meals crafted by Andrés and his culinary battalion. By the end, the Salvation Army had gotten some of its food from World Central. FEMA itself subsidized a few weeks’ worth.”


Wofford concludes, “The effort, World Central’s supporters say, wasn’t just a feel-good achievement but a genuine innovation. In disaster zones, the traditional food-aid salvo is military MREs — meals ready to eat, which have high caloric density but remain about as appetizing as what you’d expect for something with a shelf life of forever. They typically arrive with the army of aid workers bringing essential items, in accordance with a well-documented plan. Instead, Andrés parachuted into the island with no plan whatsoever. In the panorama of rubble, he saw a trained workforce eager to spring into action in their own communities.” What he accomplished demonstrated his remarkable leadership abilities. Food writer Jane Black (@jane_black) explains, “World Central Kitchen’s model makes use of resources on the ground instead of importing them. It finds an empty restaurant or commercial kitchen, buys the food sitting in their freezers and employs their staff to cook and deliver food. In addition to being cheaper, this immediately starts to pump money into the local economy.”[5]


This business model once again proved itself during the height of pandemic lockdowns. World Central Kitchen has provided more than 35 million meals to people affected by the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, Wofford reports, “Capitol Hill is now considering legislation that would instruct FEMA to follow World Central’s example.” Journalist Luz Lazo (@luzcita) reports, “[World Central Kitchen volunteers] have also cooked for firefighters trying to control wildfires in the Northwest part of the United States and for residents displaced by hurricanes in the Gulf Coast region. And they have fed people injured from a blast in Lebanon and survivors of bush fires in Australia. At the United States-Mexico border, they cooked for refugees living in tents.”[6] One of the secrets to Andrés’ success, according to Lazo, is children. Lazo reports, “In each mission, kids have stepped up to help. They show up with a grown-up attitude of ‘I’m going to help my community,’ Andrés said.”


Lessons in Leadership


Blonski suggests there are at least three lessons organizations can learn from Andrés’ approach to disaster relief.


1. Don’t Overplan. “If you’re in supply chain management, then you know about ‘the plan.’ It seems that every year, the answer to our problems is to make a better plan. How many cycles do you spend every year just planning for the plan? Then, there’s the actual planning process, and then there’s all the post-plan meetings, reactions, and revisions.” Blonski quotes Andrés who has said, “Yes, we have a plan. But, careful. We don’t overplan. … When you plan too much, what happens my friends? … Things usually never go as you plan them. And if you don’t teach your teams to embrace complexity and to be good on adaptation, they fail miserably. So, our motto is plan less, adapt more. Be more about software, not so much about hardware.” His sentiments echo those of the late Dwight D. Eisenhower, who observed, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”


2. Embrace Complexity. As Andrés noted, he teaches his teams to embrace complexity. Blonski explains World Central Kitchen embraces complexity in the following ways:


A. By being proactive. “You can’t plan for an earthquake, but there are a lot of disasters that do provide some warning. Andrés’ team is monitoring the news 24×7 to see when and where the next disaster may hit. In many cases, they can be nearly operational prior to anyone even being impacted.”


B. Setting up war rooms. “When disaster does strike, make sure you have a war room ready to go within minutes. … It’s a real-time communication and collaboration system linking people on the front lines with a centralized leadership team. Ensure that decisions can be made quickly to identify and address bottlenecks before they become problems.”


C. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable. “Quick decisions are critical during a disaster. However, most decisions must be made with imperfect information. … Indecision is not acceptable when lives are at stake. Collect as much information as you have available at the time, and make a decision. Then, evaluate the decision as you collect new information. Don’t second guess yourself, but learn and evolve.”


D. Establishing their values. “At various points, tradeoffs need to be made — which cities to service, how long to stay, who to partner with, etc. Again, since you can’t waste time evaluating options, use your values to make difficult tradeoffs. … For your supply chain, are you valuing the customer or your bottom line? If you’re not sure, then you probably want to figure it out.”


E. By Constantly improving. “With every disaster, Andrés and his team are constantly evaluating how they could do better: respond faster, serve more people, and be more efficient. Operationally, they’re lightyears ahead of where they were 10 years ago. Even within the chaotic world that they operate, they’re not afraid to try new tactics and new solutions because they know it’ll make them better for the long-term.”


3. Be Software, Not Hardware. “Andrés makes the point not to overinvest in equipment. Hard assets are static. If the situation changes, your equipment will be the exact same. Instead invest in soft assets: your people, your knowledgebase, your relations. Soft assets can adjust to their surroundings. Put the right people in the right network with the flexibility and support to act quickly, and they will overcome any obstacle.”


The world is a better place because José Andrés is in it. Great leaders make a big difference in the lives of others — and the good Chef has touched millions of lives.


[1] David Blonski, “If You Can’t Stand the Fire, then Tame It: Chef José Andrés and Supply Chain Management,” Elementum, 27 October 2021.
[2] Sean Gregory, “‘Without Empathy, Nothing Works.’ Chef José Andrés Wants to Feed the World Through the Pandemic,” Time, 26 March 2020.
[3] Benjamin Wofford, “The Heroic Story of How Jose Andres’ Charity Feeds 250,000 People a Day in a Pandemic,” Washingtonian, 19 July 2020.
[4] Brent Furdyk, “The Untold Truth Of José Andrés,” Mashed, 16 October 2020.
[5] Jane Black, “Chef José Andrés Embraces the Chaos,” Huffpost, November 2020.
[6] Luz Lazo, “When disaster strikes, chef José Andrés delivers food worldwide,” 6 October 2020.

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