In Puerto Rico, Chef José Andrés Heralds School Cooks Feeding Those in Need
San Juan, Puerto Rico
José Andrés had just come back from Manatí and Dorado on Puerto Rico’s northern coast, bursting with excitement about school cafeterias.
The world-renowned chef, who oversees more than 20 restaurants in the United States, including one in Dorado, came to Puerto Rico to help with relief efforts after Hurricane Maria. But when he was speaking with the island’s Secretary of Education Julia Keleher about Puerto Rico’s recovery from the storm, he began to form an idea about how he could connect schools to his culinary skills.
“I began talking to her and I saw that the kitchens at the school were very good, and they had employees that were very good,” Andrés said outside the José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum in San Juan on Oct. 9.
In conjunction with Keleher’s agency, he is now trying to organize people to work in school cafeterias to prepare as much food as possible. And he’s encouraged by what he sees. One school in the mountain village of Utuado is in tune with what Andrés envisions, and is serving food to people who have lost their homes.
Andrés supports the idea of schools taking on a substitute role as food distribution sites. In fact, he thinks some cafeteria workers are ahead of the game, even though they’re not working in closed schools.
“I am already receiving news that many of the cooks of the school cafeterias, they’ve been volunteering and setting up kitchens in the squares in every corner of Puerto Rico, feeding people,” he said. “I’m very happy that Puerto Ricans are showing that they’re very creative in taking care of themselves.”
When Andrés showed up at the coliseum in a blue SUV, he was greeted by a burst of applause and cheers. The coliseum is serving as a major hub for food distribution efforts. He stopped to speak with Xoimar Manning, whose daughter Alondra has been volunteering to move the food out to communities in need. Manning couldn’t hold back tears, and she and Andrés shared a long embrace before moved on.
Andrés thinks organizing the relief efforts around schools means “empowering local jobs and local food.” And even more importantly in his mind, the effort can be sustained by the island’s people.
“Nobody’s going to do it better than Puerto Ricans feeding Puerto Ricans,” Andrés said. “And that’s the movement you see here. It’s Puerto Ricans taking care of Puerto Ricans.”