World Central Kitchen – ‘building a long table’

Every time there is a disaster of some kind, natural or human-caused, it seems that World Central Kitchen is there to feed people good, hot food, cooked locally by local chefs. So how did this unique model of disaster relief that helps devastated communities recover, come to be? 

I am indebted to Eater magazine, and Fast Company, for their deep dives into WCK and its founder and inspirer, Jose Andrés, which helped me put together this post.

Born in Spain, he left school at 15, went to a culinary and hospitality school, worked in the  legendary restaurant elBulli, and then visited the US while with the Spanish navy. He came back to the US with $50 in his pocket, landing a job in Manhattan, and then creating a series of restaurants. In 2011, he won the James Beard Award for best chef in the US.

“Not only did he create a small restaurant empire, Andrés’s manic energy, curiosity, intelligence and love of his native Spain has made him one of the great ambassadors of Spanish food and a chef who also works to improve impoverished parts of the world,” said his citation for the National Humanities Medal in 2015.

His journey to international humanitarian work began back in 2010, with a phone call from Manolo Vílchez, head of alSol, who was going to Haiti to distribute solar cook stoves to survivors of the devastating earthquake. He wondered if Andrés wanted to come with him.

For almost two weeks, he and Vilchez and their companions trekked across Haiti, sometimes sleeping under the stars, sometimes in the homes of local residents. The alSol team set up more than a dozen solar cooking facilities, and Andres taught residents how to use them.

There are many ways you can feed a community. You can feed the community with seeds, too. José Andrés, WCK’s Founder and Chief Feeding Officer

He came back to the US, wanting to do more. In 2011, he joined the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a UN foundation, as culinary ambassador, and created an international version of a charity he’d been volunteering with since the early 1990s – DC Central Kitchen, which distributes unused food from local restaurants to unhoused people in the US capital. 

At first, World Central Kitchen had two full-time employees, and was focused on Haiti. “My feeling was that a lot of NGOs were doing important work in Haiti, but in the long term, the problems weren’t getting fixed,” he said. He wanted to implement projects that would also train local residents in a profession as well as feed people.

World Central Kitchen’s mission focused on education, health, jobs, and social enterprise, led by chefs. It began building working kitchens in public schools to ensure children were fed, taught food safety, and installed clean cookstoves. It established multiple ongoing initiatives in Haiti, including a culinary school in Port-au-Prince (now run by chef Mi-Sol Chevallier), a bakery and restaurant in Croix-des-Bouquets that generates revenue for an orphanage, and “Haiti Breathes,” a campaign to convert Haiti’s school kitchens from using solid fuels to liquid petroleum gas.

In Zambia, it opened a bakery modeled after the one in Haiti. In the Dominican Republic, it invested in a beekeeping company run entirely by women. In Nicaragua, it joined forces with a Central American NGO to help a coffee-roasting collective sell their beans directly to major American markets.

The ‘chef network’, which now includes 140 professional chefs, was established in 2013. The idea was for a kind of “chefs without borders” program where chefs would enact positive change, globally, using their professional knowledge and resources.

When Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti in October 2016, WCK distributed 15,000 meals from a mobile kitchen, and was in Houston, Texas, in August 2017, after Hurricane Harvey. Disaster relief officially became the fifth part of WCK’s mission when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in the fall of 2017.

Andrés and #ChefsForPuertoRico established kitchens across the island, and served more than 3.7 million meals. While WCK had a FEMA contract in Puerto Rico, it also attracted donations and private funding, crucial to feeding people left without food, clean water, and electricity, and supercharged its growth.

The ongoing war on Ukraine added another dimension to its disaster relief work – its first response in an active war zone. WCK began building a network of restaurants in Ukraine within days of the Russian invasion early in 2022. “Even before our Relief Team was able to enter the country, restaurant partners were cooking meals for people fleeing the conflict or sheltering in the face of relentless attacks,” it said.

“In the months that followed, this network expanded to include more than 500 restaurants, food trucks, and caterers that helped provide millions of meals to Ukrainians in need, ensured restaurants and their staff could keep cooking, and offered much-needed economic support.”

Now with the wildfires in Tenerife and Hawaii and storm in southern California, WCK chefs and volunteers are feeding first responders and those who had to leave their homes or who lost their homes to the fire. Truly, they are Chefs to the World.


The Story Behind the José Andrés Nonprofit. Eater, originally published Nov. 10, 2017; updated Aug. 18, 2023

José Andrés, National Humanities Medal, 2015. National Endowment for Humanities

How Chef José Andrés Turns Impulsiveness Into An Asset Fast Company, Apr. 10, 2018