José Andrés was walking along a dark street in a stained T-shirt and a ball cap, trying to decompress after another day of feeding an island that has been largely without electricity since Hurricane Maria hit a month ago.
He’d gone barely half a block before two women ran over to snag a selfie. A man shouted out his name from a bar running on a generator and offered to buy him a rum sour.
The reaction is more subdued in rural mountain communities like Naguabo, where Mr. Andrés and his crew have been delivering supplies so cooks at a small Pentecostal church can make 5,000 servings of arroz con pollo and carne guisada every day. There, people touch his sleeve and whisper, “Gracias.” They surround him and pray.
“He’s much more than a hero,” said Jesus R. Rivera, who was inside a cigar store watching Mr. Andrés pick out one of his daily smokes. “The situation is that still some people don’t even have food. He is all that is keeping them from starving.”
Since he hit the ground five days after the hurricane devastated this island of 3.4 million on Sept. 20, he has built a network of kitchens, supply chains and delivery services that as of Monday had served more than 2.2 million warm meals and sandwiches. No other single agency — not the Red Cross, the Salvation Army nor any government entity — has fed more people freshly cooked food since the hurricane, or done it in such a nurturing way.
Nothing prepared Mr. Andrés for what he faced in Puerto Rico. After taking one of the first commercial flights to the island after the storm, he realized that things were worse than anyone knew.
He found his friend Jose Enrique, the chef who has been leading Puerto Rico’s farm-to-table resurgence. Mr. Enrique had no electricity to run his Restaurant Jose Enrique, in the Santurce district of San Juan. Rain poured through the roof. But he had food in the freezer. Other chefs did, too. Someone had a generator.
Mr. Andrés didn’t realize that his was the biggest hot-food game on the island until a week or so after they started. Someone from the Salvation Army pulled up and asked for 120 meals.
“In my life I never expected the Salvation Army to be asking me for food,” he said. “If one of the biggest NGOs comes to us for food, who is actually going to be feeding Puerto Rico? We are. We are it.”
Mr. Andrés, who often rolls right over regulations and ignores the word “no,” clashed more than once with FEMA and other large organizations that have a more-seasoned and methodical approach. In meetings and telephone calls, FEMA officials reminded him that he and his people lacked the experience needed to organize a mass emergency feeding operation, he said.
Mr. Andrés flew home to Washington, D.C., on Thursday. “This has been like my little Vietnam, but now I need to go back to normal life,” he said.
He never intended to stay as long as he did, he said. Or to feed an island.
“At the end, I couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t try to do what I thought was right,” he said. “We need to think less sometimes and dream less and just make it happen.”
Read the complete article in the New York Times.