Making its debut at SXSW 2022 was Ron Howard’s entertaining and exciting documentary about celebrity chef José Andrés and his World Central Kitchen, leaping fearlessly into disaster areas to provide comforting food to survivors.
When We Feed People opens, a vehicle is being violently tossed around in floodwaters. It seems as if it’s going to tip over, and someone inquires, “Can everybody swim?” It’s the voice of chef José Andrés as he and his team are attempting to bring meals to people in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence left a path of destruction. Thus begins Howard’s intimate documentary about chef José Andrés and his laudable efforts to bring a warm meal and, hopefully, some comfort to displaced people all over the world.
Raised in Spain, Andrés came to America and became a culinary superstar. He wrote cookbooks, won awards, ran successful restaurants and was a ubiquitous presence on television food shows. Then, the 2010 Haiti earthquake awoke the altruistic spirit in the multiple award-winning chef, and World Central Kitchen was born. Both of his parents were nurses, and their compassion for others seemed to have rubbed off on him. There’s nothing phony or “camera-ready” about what he’s doing.
Andrés understood that food is just as important as anything else survivors need, and he set out to deliver just that. And these aren’t baloney sandwiches and a bag of chips. They’re hot meals, prepared according to the tastes of the particular culture of the people they happen to be feeding. He achieves this with the help of local cooks who know how to make the food their people want to eat, “and not the way some white savior thinks it should be cooked.”
This is not to say that everything is a breeze. When he needs to, he bulldozes his way through, even when it involves bending the law. “It’s easier to ask forgiveness [later],” said one of his team members. Playing fast and loose with rules is how he gets things done. If he waited for bureaucratic red tape to be clipped, people would suffer more — perhaps even starve. “I’m good at seeing big problems and seeing they have very simple solutions,” he said.
Although the film mostly steers clear of politicization, footage of then-President Trump cynically flinging rolls of paper towels at Puerto Ricans is contrasted with Andrés actually on the ground doing something. Howard’s film runs a tidy 87 minutes, telling the story of this (literally) bigger-than-life man who seeks to do good in the world. Well photographed by Kris Kaczor, it is truly a bird’s-eye view into the efforts of the organization.
Andrés had received several offers to document his exploits, but he turned them down. It was only when Howard approached him that he thought that he didn’t want to be 90 years old and say, “Shit, and I told Ron Howard no.”
The film includes interviews with his wife and children. While offering him unconditional support, they worry that he’s burning himself out, and he worries about being away from them for too long. But then there’s another disaster to handle. As a matter of fact, when We Feed People was making its SXSW debut, he couldn’t be there. He was busy providing sustenance for the people of Ukraine.
Feature image: José Andrés carries a tray of food in a field from a helicopter. Sam Bloch, WCK’s Director of Emergency Response, follows behind him (Sebastian Lindstrom).