The loudest cheers, on a night when more than 400 people came to hear chef José Andrés speak, were not for the activist chef at all.
They came not when Andrés pulled a miniature Puerto Rican flag from his breast pocket and waved it to punctuate the evening. By Monday, while in conversation with Republican commentator Ana Navarro, everyone in the crowd at Miami Dade College’s downtown auditorium knew about the 3.7 million meals he prepared for a hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico — a feat captured in his new book.
Those cheers came not when he recounted his bout with President Donald Trump over the treatment of immigrants or when he criticized the president’s Twitter reaction to the death toll in Puerto Rico. Not even when Navarro, a vocal critic of the president and the first lady, turned around to reveal writing on the back of a khaki shirt that read, “I really do care, do you?”
No, the loudest cheers of the night came when he pointed to two chefs in the back of the room.
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Karla Hoyos and Alejandro Torres were among the 25,000 volunteers who, unlike him, toiled anonymously in Puerto Rico, helping to prepare more than 150,000 meals a day, at one point — greater than the number of meals served by FEMA.
They stood to a long, sustained applause, wearing black shirts that read #chefsofpuertorico.
They, like him, witnessed what it means to cook for others in times of crisis, an experience he writes about in “We Fed an Island,” the proceeds of which go to charity.
“Why do I do it? Because I’ve seen how a plate of food can change the life of a person,” he said.
It was that kind of evening, Andrés speaking passionately, his friend and host Navarro guiding him from topic to topic that has put him squarely in the news the last two years.
“Are you a Republican?” he jokingly asked her.
“I’m a masochist,” she responded.
She asked him why he reacted so strongly to the president calling Mexicans murders and rapists. (Andrés pulled a planned restaurant from the president’s Washington, D.C., hotel, leading to a $10 million suit eventually settled out of court.) He returned fire by telling stories of the countless immigrants who work in low-level jobs — including restaurant kitchens — and rise to build a stronger country.
“Immigration is not a problem to solve. It’s an opportunity to seize,” Andrés told Navarro, an immigrant herself from Nicaragua.
Andrés, 49, told stories of being a young immigrant, toiling in New York kitchens years after first sailing to the United States as part of the Spanish Navy, the ship pulling into the harbor in Pensacola. Andrés has become an American citizen, and his three daughters are all American-born.
But his strongest emotions were reserved for Puerto Rico, where he landed a year ago Monday and began a massive effort. Through his World Central Kitchen, he set up 26 kitchens around the island and managed to deliver, sometimes one-by-one to the homebound elderly, he said, while federal emergency agencies couldn’t deliver water and prepackaged meals.
“You got there a hell of a lot earlier than Donald Trump did,” Navarro interjected.
Andrés — active on Twitter — became red-faced and emotional as he recalled reading the president’s tweet questioning a death toll of nearly 3,000. Andrés recounted the story, also in his book, of seeing half a dozen dead in a matter of days, people buried in their own front yards.
“Fifty one percent of leadership is empathy,” Andrés said. “If you cannot give love ... you shouldn’t be in a position of leadership.”
The three-hour event was the end of a long day for Andrés. He had come to the auditorium directly from the airport, flying in from North Carolina, where his World Central Kitchen has again responded to hurricane relief efforts.
“In times of disrepair,” he said, “is when I’ve seen the best in America show.”