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From Puerto Rico to Miami, chef Jose Andres lifts spirits and palates

He stands up for immigrants, feeds disaster survivors, feuds with President Trump and FEMA and presides over a growing culinary empire with 28 restaurants across the country — two in South Florida — and a massive food hall under development in New York. Chef Jose Andres is a one-man whirlwind, and he’s not stopping for the holidays, returning to Puerto Rico this week to help his nonprofit World Central Kitchen serve 40,000 Thanksgiving meals. World Central Kitchen and a coalition of Puerto Rican chefs have served more than 2.7 million meals since Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September, a charitable project that Andres calls “the best investment of my life.”

“Our first day, we did 1,000 meals,” Andres says during a recent interview in Miami. “Two weeks later, we were doing 175,000 meals a day. … To me, ‘emergency’ is a word that means ‘now.’ Maybe in other cases you can plan, but in an emergency, when you are talking about food and hungry people, you have to help in the now.”

Andres flew to Puerto Rico on one of the first commercial flights after the storm, and spent 11 days on the ground improvising, cajoling, organizing and cooking, establishing an ad hoc feeding network on an island of 3.2 million people that did not have electricity, cellular phone service, gasoline or diesel fuel. Andres, 48, has returned more than a dozen times in the past two months. He says the relief mission will continue through the holiday season and wind down by early 2018.

Andres has also made pit stops at his two South Florida restaurants for recent fundraisers, including one at Bazaar Mar in Miami, where diners ate sea urchin with shaved truffles and a local philanthropist handed him a $25,000 check and offered use of his private plane for Andres’ next Puerto Rican trip. Andres will hold another fundraiser in December during Art Basel.

“Whenever there’s a need, he’s the first one to jump in,” says Sam Nazarian, founder of SBE Entertainment Group. Andres has partnered with Nazarian’s SLS hotels on numerous restaurants, including the Bazaar in Miami Beach. “He motivates your spirit and gets you to feel the pain of others.”

The Spanish-born Andres, who became a U.S. citizen earlier this decade, is not afraid to ruffle feathers. He criticized FEMA’s slow-footed response to Maria in Puerto Rico. He withdrew from a restaurant project at Donald Trump’s Washington, D.C., hotel when Trump disparaged Mexicans early in his campaign, triggering a lawsuit that was settled earlier this year. And at a tribute dinner honoring him at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival earlier this year, Andres peeled off his chef’s jacket to reveal a shirt that read, “I am an immigrant,” and delivered a speech rebuking Trump’s divisive, xenophobic rhetoric.

“Oh, shoot, I don’t know what happened there — I got in trouble,” Andres says. “But things come from the heart. Listen, in many things I’m Republican, and in many things I’m Democrat. I’m a business guy, but then I’m a social [minded] guy. … It has to be a balance. I believe in a balance.”

It is hard to see how the charismatic Andres keeps his life in balance with so much on his plate. He is based in Washington, D.C., where his restaurant empire sprouted in the 1990s with Jaleo. He has three teenage daughters, and spends time hopscotching among restaurants in Southern California, South Florida and the massive new Spanish food hall and restaurant complex scheduled to open at Hudson Yards in 2018, his first New York venture. His cuisine is haute, but he keeps his feet firmly planted on the ground, never losing sight of the less fortunate and the power of food. Earlier this month, he addressed the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago.

“I’ve been going to places like Haiti for many years now,” Andres says. “I try to divide my life between family, friends, my work and these other ventures. I know there are only so many hours in the day, but I also know how lucky I am.”

World Central Kitchen trains chefs and helps with food distribution in needy places, both after disasters and in normal circumstances. Andres and his Think Food Group established the nonprofit after he went to Haiti following its catastrophic 2010 earthquake. He also has gone to the Northeast after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and to Houston after Hurricane Harvey’s floods in August. Nothing matched the scale of the Puerto Rican effort, which began with a few drums of paella and rice and beans at a sports stadium in San Jose and eventually brought hot meals and sandwiches to remote coastal and hillside villages.

“We only came here to try to help a few thousand, because nobody had a plan to feed Puerto Rico, and we opened the biggest restaurant in the world in a week. That’s how crazy this is,” Andres told the New York Times in October.

World Central Kitchen uses private and government funds to carry out its mission, getting two FEMA contracts worth $11.5 million to help in Puerto Rico. When Andres criticized FEMA’s slow-footed response after the storm, saying the government was leaving people “hungry and thirsty,” a FEMA official responded that Andres was “a businessman looking for stuff to promote his business.”

“We had a good working relationship, and we paid him a lot of money to do that work. It wasn’t volunteer work — so we were disappointed in some of his public comments,” FEMA disaster operations director Marty Bahamonde told Buzzfeed News.

“Whoever said that I’m a businessman looking to make a buck should be ashamed of themselves,” Andres told BuzzFeed News. Andres says the FEMA money goes to food, supplies and labor but not to him.

Andres struck a more conciliatory tone last week in Miami, where he appeared at a promotional event for olives from Spain and cooked with Michelin-starred Spanish chef Dani Garcia at the $400-a-head fundraiser dinner.

“I work with the government,” Andres says. “I delivered meals with the Army, the Coast Guard, the National Guard, Homeland Security. They all were working with us. The men and women of the federal government are the best, they’re smart. If you let them on the ground, they make all the right decisions. … It’s just that there’s a lot of red tape getting them there. We need to start working on less red tape for next time.”

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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