The warm smell of chicken and chorizo simmering in a saffron and cumin broth wafted in from outside the National Portrait Gallery on Thursday evening, as workers at José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen tending to a huge paella pan over an open flame. It’s a sight similar to what you’d see in Eastern European cities right now, where the nonprofit donates hundreds of thousands of meals to refugees a day.
But on Thursday, staff members were in “Jose’s corner of the world,” as one told me, for a screening of “We Feed People,” a National Geographic documentary about the incredible humanitarianism of the great boss, directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard.
Taking a break from his work in Ukraine, Andrès was present at the Portrait Gallery (where a portrait of him will debut later this year). Other notable guests include Jeff Bezos, Sonia Sotomayor and Nancy Pelosi.
Distilled from thousands of hours of footage, the 90-minute film traces the arc of World Central Kitchen, from its scrappy beginnings as a DC startup to its current state as an influential nonprofit with teams around the world. “It’s a story of volunteerism that makes a simple concept work on a staggering scale,” Ron Howard said in a post before the movie.
Yet it’s also a story that can’t be told without piecing together the personal story of Andrés, an immigrant who started out with little and now alternates between running some of DC’s busiest restaurants and serving meals. comforting people in need. Archival footage and photographs trace his journey, from his beginnings as a boy in Spain, raised by a family of nurses; to his ambitious debut in America as a rambunctious young athlete rising through the ranks of the Washington foodie scene; to his embrace of being a famous restaurateur, equipped with his own TV show, a New York Times bestseller, political connections and an empire of reputable restaurants (Jaleo, Minibar, Zaytinya and Oyamel, to name a few). In effect, Andrés’ ambition and optimistic fervor have taken him far, both in his culinary and humanitarian careers. “I see opportunity where others see chaos,” he says at one point in the film.
“He’s someone who is so driven, who doesn’t take no for an answer, who has a big dream, a big vision, and he keeps pushing forward,” said Nate Mook, CEO of World Central Kitchen. Washingtonian. A documentarian in his previous career, Mook served as executive producer on the film.
But while it can be easy to deify the chef, the documentary doesn’t lose sight of the team and the inspiration behind them. The film introduces us to several World Central Kitchen volunteers as well as one of Andrés’ greatest mentors, Robert Egger. Founder of DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that feeds and trains unemployed DC residents, Egger is credited with teaching Andrés that “it’s not about the redemption of the giver, but of the liberation of the one who receives”.
Echoing this sentiment, another of the film’s producers, Sara Bernstein, says Washingtonian that “we didn’t want to do a hagiography on José – that was never the mission.” She says youIt’s one of the reasons Andrés said “yes” to Howard after he turned down several offers from other documentarians interested in filming him.
It seems that Howard understood the mission. While Andrés is still the main character of the story, the staff and partners of World Central Kitchen get a fair share of the limelight.
With on-the-ground footage from multiple disaster sites – from Haiti and Puerto Rico to the Navajo Nation in New Mexico – the film immerses viewers alongside the team as they work in chaotic environments and in constant evolution. At several points, you watch the team improvise and miraculously construct kitchens from rubble. “It’s really a small group of people who just dive into one place with no preconceived idea of how they’re going to put it all together,” says Bernstein.
The team still manages to make it work, developing recipes alongside locals to serve whatever comfort cuisine is preferred – a point the film makes, seemingly aware of the white savior criticism sometimes leveled at aid groups Westerners. Early on, for example, we meet several Haitian women who weren’t fans of the way Andrés — a Michelin-starred chef, mind you — cooks his beans. It’s clearly a humbling experience for Andrés who, after learning how to mash the beans into the silky texture they prefer, commits to using local cooking techniques from there.
We also meet local food vendors and producers that World Central Kitchen works with, and learn that the nonprofit is leaving behind infrastructure so the community can continue to cook on their own. (Although unfortunately we can never check with these communities – instead, we are rushed to the next disaster.)
What remains a little unclear is exactly how World Central Kitchen is funding its ambitious plans (though a $100 million donation from Bezos last July certainly plays a role). Moreover, we never really understand how such a small team manages hundreds of thousands of volunteers, while keeping them safe in conflict zones.
But perhaps explaining those surely complicated logistics would have bogged down the 90-minute documentary. After all, it is clear that the meals are served and the stomachs filled, which, on the whole, is what counts. By the end of the film, the continued contrast of hot meals in harsh environments ultimately proves Andrés’ simple message that “food really is hope.”
“We Feed People” will be available to stream on Disney+ on May 27.