José Andrés, renowned restaurateur and hands-on philanthropist, undertakes dual roles as leader of both the nonprofit World Central Kitchen, known for its work delivering food relief in the wake of natural and humanitarian disasters, and as chef and owner of ThinkFoodGroup, a collection of nearly thirty restaurants, with more than a half dozen more opening in 2021 alone, throughout the U.S. and beyond.
Last week Jeff Bezos announced that he was providing Andres with a staggering $100-million award to further the work of World Central Kitchen, which, in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, has included partnering with restaurants, farmers, and community leaders around the country to combat food insecurity and uplift local businesses.
Micah Solomon, Senior Contributor, Forbes.com: I have to start off with the headline that is boggling my mind, the $100 million award that Jeff Bezos just granted to your nonprofit work with World Central Kitchen.
Jose Andrés, Chef and Owner, ThinkFoodGroup; Founder, World Central Kitchen: I’m so honored. World Central Kitchen was born from the simple idea that food has the power to create a better world. A plate of food is a plate of hope; it’s the fastest way to rebuild lives and communities. This award itself cannot feed the world on its own. But this is the start of a new chapter for us— it will allow us to think beyond the next hurricane to the bigger challenges we face.
Solomon: Moving on to your commercial, but also mission-driven, venture, ThinkFoodGroup, I’d love to hear the latest in terms of restaurant openings and other goings-on.
Andrés: The second half of 2021 represents tremendous growth for our team. In Chicago alone we are opening five restaurants – three in partnership with Gibsons Restaurant Group at the new Bank of America Tower, plus the fifth location of Jaleo, my most personal restaurant that first opened nearly 30 years ago in Washington, DC. [This location will also have] a speakeasy [-style bar] in the basement.
By the end of the year, we will also be opening at [the newly opening] Ritz-Carlton New York in NoMad [the north of Madison Park neighborhood] and in Dubai. The restaurant industry is a tenacious one, and though 2020 was devastating on many levels, we are resilient and these openings in new cities represent that we’re ready for the future.
Another important development for us is in our leadership at ThinkFoodGroup: Last year we brought on a long-time partner, Sam Bakhshandehpour, as our president, to spearhead our growth efforts and continue pushing the limits at ThinkFoodGroup.
Solomon: Since ThinkFoodGroup defines itself by its mission, and yet is a for-profit venture, how do you balance these two, or is “balance” the wrong word to use here?
Andrés: Our mission is to “change the world through the power of food,” so everything we do is with that goal in our hearts and in our minds. It’s not a balance necessarily, so much as the guiding force that drives each and every member of my team. You can change someone’s life with a plate of food. You can transport someone to a new country they’ve never been to with a plate of food. You can bring people together over a plate of food. These are the moments we create at our restaurants.
Solomon: For those in the foodservice/hospitality workforce, the landscape seems to have changed so quickly from a situation where it was terrifying to be an industry employee, with no work in one’s future, to one where everyone wants to hire you if they can only find enough of you. What’s going on? And will the sudden desire for all these workers, turn out to be just a blip before the bad old days for of employment insecurity return?
Andrés: We have to remember that especially in this past year, the food people of the world – people working in farms and in factories, but also in restaurants, and grocery stores, and making deliveries – they’ve been essential workers, keeping Americans fed in a difficult time. Now as things feel they’re going back toward normal, everybody is experiencing a readjustment: restaurants and business owners yes, and workers too.
In our industry, we should be asking questions about how we can be building and sustaining workplaces that are even more equitable, make people feel safe, like their contributions are valued by their community.
Solomon: As you know, my own focus is as a customer service consultant and subject matter expert; do you have any thoughts you’d like to share about your customer service approach and philosophy?
Andrés: My goal is for my restaurants to be just as welcoming for a first-time guest as a long-time regular, for the person who grew up eating a particular cuisine and is searching for a taste of home as for someone who’s never been on a plane. We achieve that in big ways and small, treating customer service as the continuous process of making each visit feel special for each guest.
Solomon: Talk to me about “Recipes for the People.”
Andrés: Last year, it seemed like many people were asking me for simple recipes when everyone was stuck inside at home. So I picked up my phone and started filming when my daughters and I would cook dinner together, and then we began posting them on Instagram. I loved sharing favorite family recipes, like my mom’s lentil stew, and seeing what everybody else was cooking using just the ingredients [already] in their pantry. Most of all, I loved the chance it gave me to spend more time with my wife and our three wonderful daughters.
Solomon: Was there one hardest moment for you during the pandemic?
Andrés: One of my hardest moments was standing on the corner of 7th and E Street in DC in March 2020, outside of my first restaurant Jaleo, announcing we would be closing for the first time in 27 years, for the safety of our teams and our guests.
I felt hopeless—until the next morning, when we reopened as a community kitchen to begin serving those in need of a hot plate of food. I’m proud of how restaurants all across America and the world answered that call. It makes me all the more proud to be opening new restaurants that I hope will enrich their communities for a long time to come.
Solomon: And what’s one question you wish I’d asked?
Andrés: Hmm…I wish you’d ask me how I keep the deer and rabbits from eating all the vegetables in my garden. Because I would tell you: I have no clue! I haven’t figured out how to keep them out.
Per carrot, in terms of the ones that I’m actually able to harvest, I must be growing the most expensive carrots in the history of mankind. I hoped you would know the answer!
Solomon: Well, I’ll throw that out to my readers and see what kind of response you get. Before I let you go, do you have time to share a few pointers for those of my readers who want, like you, to make a difference and improve their world through the businesses they run?
1. You’re only as good as the people you have around you. As a society, I believe we need to be giving more credit to the people who made us who we are, who took the time to teach us a new skill or a piece of wisdom…and also to those people who cover our blind spots, who do a specific job that complements what I’m doing. We The People will always achieve more than I The Person.
2. Leadership requires empathy. Both my parents were nurses, and from an early age I saw the importance of little gestures, that when you’re experiencing a hard moment, make you feel that somebody else cares about you. We bring out the best in people when we show them respect, dignity, and empathy. Empathy wins the day, every time.
3. Flat organizations are the future. The best output doesn’t come from the conventional organizational chart where one person sits at the top and gravity pulls all the ideas down. We need to be empowering people to be successful no matter their position. A flat organization where everybody can see one another and communicate quickly, can understand where they fit in, can clearly know the mission and be prepared to achieve it – those are the organizations we should all strive to have.
4. If things don’t go as planned, change the name of the recipe. So maybe you don’t have all the ingredients at home that you wanted, or maybe you overcooked the dish you were making. Adapt, be creative! You’ll be amazed what you’re capable of. As Winston Churchill said, success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.
5. Control your fire. As a young boy growing up outside Barcelona, we would gather on Sunday and my dad would make a big paella to feed whoever showed up. I remember how upset I got that he would always make me tend the fire and would never let me cook—until he took me aside and told me the greatest lesson in life: once you learn to control your fire, you can do any cooking you want.