José Andrés: the chef behind Gaza food aid charity that ‘moves towards disaster’

<span>José Andrés said the Israeli government ‘needs to stop restricting humanitarian aid, stop killing civilians and aid workers, and stop using food as a weapon’.</span><span>Photograph: Hector Emanuel/The Guardian</span>
José Andrés said the Israeli government ‘needs to stop restricting humanitarian aid, stop killing civilians and aid workers, and stop using food as a weapon’.Photograph: Hector Emanuel/The Guardian

When José Andrés accepted the challenge of delivering food aid to a famine-threatened Gaza last month, he declared – without a trace of overstatement – that he was “working with the urgency of now”.

“It’s worth trying. We have to try. If we succeed, everybody is helped,” the celebrity chef turned aid supremo said of his plan to use his non-profit World Central Kitchen (WCK) to help avert the looming humanitarian disaster.

On display was the same irrepressible can-do spirit that had enabled the Spanish-born Andrés, now a US citizen, to bring food relief to people stricken by natural disaster or war in numerous far-flung locations, from Haiti to Ukraine.

Related: ‘Man-made starvation’: the obstacles to Gaza aid deliveries – visual guide

It was a measure of Andrés’s devastation – and of the threat to humanitarian workers in the region – that he responded to the Israeli drone strike that killed seven WCK workers on Monday night by taking the difficult decision to pause the charity’s operations in the battered coastal strip.

Responding to the news on X, Andrés said he was “heartbroken”. “These are people … angels,” he wrote. “They are not faceless … they are not nameless.” He went on to castigate Israel in blunt terms: “The Israeli government needs to stop this indiscriminate killing. It needs to stop restricting humanitarian aid, stop killing civilians and aid workers, and stop using food as a weapon.”

As details of the killings emerged, he noted that the WCK workers had been travelling in three clearly marked vehicles when they were struck by a succession of drone-fired missiles. “They were targeted systematically, car by car,” Andrés said.

His pained and desperate tone was telling, not least because it contrasted sharply with his words in the early stages of Israel’s military offensive last October, following the Hamas terror attack that killed 1,200 mostly civilian Israelis. At that time he called on Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister, to sack the country’s social rights minister, Ione Belarra, after the Podemos leader and her far-left colleagues accused Israel of committing war crimes and genocide in Gaza.

“As a minister you must first recognise that Hamas’s attack on Israel is a terrorist act and that Israel … is defending its citizens – then you can ask it for restraint and respect for civilian lives in Gaza,” he tweeted.

But his current despair is also striking because WCK’s plan to deliver aid in the face of a looming famine appeared to have been worked out with Israel’s full knowledge and cooperation.

Last month, Axios reported that Andrés was working with the United Arab Emirates to land amphibious craft loaded with crates of food on Gaza’s shoreline. The plan had evolved as an emergency operation on the basis that the Biden administration’s proposal to build a port in Gaza for aid deliveries could not be implemented quickly enough to avert a humanitarian disaster.

A senior Israeli military adviser from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government even visited Abu Dhabi to discuss the plan, followed by a similar visit to Israel by UAE officials.

The operation was intended to take advantage of a maritime corridor established between Larnaca in Cyprus and Gaza to facilitate aid deliveries.

Working with the Spanish maritime rescue charity Open Arms, WCK hoped to bring relief to Gaza by implementing a modus operandi first established in 2010 when the charity was set up in response to a massive earthquake in Haiti, which killed more than 300,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

It has since been re-enacted and refined in locations as diverse as Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Uganda, Cambodia and on Poland’s border with Ukraine, in response to Russia’s 2022 invasion. In each case, the stated approach has been to deliver emergency food aid to cater for local diets.

The charity estimates on its website that it has provided 350m chef-prepared meals to victims of natural disasters and humanitarian crises.

Andrés, 54, told the US TV host Jimmy Kimmel last November that his experience in assisting Haitian earthquake survivors had inspired him to expand his aid activities because it taught him that cooks “had the power … to feed the many”, not just the few.

Praising WCK’s workers in words that now seem almost unbearably poignant, he told Kimmel: “When others are moving away from the disaster, we have amazing individuals who move into the disaster to help people.

“What we do is nothing special. We have people who say, ‘We are here to help the people in the moment [when] they need us the most.’ We always need to be next to the people in our darkest hours, because we have the power to make each other better.”

Andrés, who moved to the US when he was 21 and now lives in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, owns restaurants in several cities across the country. His work with the WCK earned him a National Humanities Medal in 2015 and a place in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2018. He has also been nominated for the Nobel peace prize.

Nine years ago, Andrés pulled out of a plan to open one of his restaurants in Donald Trump’s hotel in Washington in response to Trump’s demonisation of Mexican and other immigrants as “rapists” and “killers”.

The chef, himself an immigrant, told the Guardian that while an “us versus them” mentality had always existed in society, it was being seized on by one of the most powerful people on the planet. “[Trump] is not bringing out the best in all of us, he is bringing out the worst in some of us,” Andrés said.

The Trump Organization sued Andrés for breach of contract. The chef then sued it back. The matter ended in 2017 with a settlement claiming both parties had resolved their differences “as friends”.

Despite his success and acclaim in the US and beyond, Andrés remains deeply proud of his Spanish roots.

Born in the north-western region of Asturias – an area famed for its meat, seafood and cider – he moved with his family to Barcelona when he was five. After studying catering and hospitality in the Catalan capital, he went on to work in the kitchen of the world famous avant-garde El Bulli restaurant under its celebrated chef, Ferran Adrià.

When not running his restaurant empire or seeking to alleviate humanitarian crises, Andrés has been known to pontificate online over the correct recipe for gazpacho.

Spaniards tend to see Andrés’s global success as a source of pride and international prestige. When news broke of Monday night’s deadly strike, Sánchez, the Spanish prime minister, said he had been in touch to offer the chef and his team “my deepest condolences and all my love and support”.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden also called the chef, to tell him that he was “heartbroken”, insisting that aid workers be protected, the White House said.

By Friday, amid growing international fury and intense US pressure, the Israeli government announced it had approved steps to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

Four days after the deaths of his seven colleagues who lost their lives trying to help civilians trapped in an offensive that has, according to the health authorities in Hamas-ruled Gaza, killed 33,000 Palestinians, something had finally changed.

Belatedly, and only at the behest of its most powerful ally, Netanyahu’s government appeared to have been forced to heed the words Andrés wrote in the New York Times on Wednesday.

“The Israeli government needs to open more land routes for food and medicine today,” the chef wrote. “It needs to stop killing civilians and aid workers today. It needs to start the long journey to peace today … You cannot win this war by starving an entire population.”