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SXSW 2018: Chef José Andrés talks Puerto Rico, Trump, vegetables and the future of food

Matthew Odam

Restaurant empire builder and humanitarian chef José Andrés arrived directly from the airport to appear in conversation at Vox Media’s Deep End.

The Spanish-born chef, who led a humanitarian effort in Puerto Rico that included 20,000 volunteers running 23 kitchens and delivering more than one million meals, talked with Recode’s Kara Swisher and talked about the situation in Puerto Rico, his frustrations with Capitol Hill and the future of food. Below are a few of the major quotes and takeaways from the hour-long talk:

  • Andrés is working on two books. “We Fed an Island” is about his exploits in Puerto Rico and should publish in September. He is also writing a vegetable-focused cookbook that should come out next year. Andrés believes vegetables will continue to be one of the next great food trends and says women are already eating more vegetables than men, affirmation that “women are always smarter than men,” according to the chef. Speaking to our natural inclination to eat fruits and vegetables, Andrés quipped, “Forks and knives were invented for protection.”
  • Speaking about his frustration with the politicians in Washington and their response to the tragedy in Puerto Rico, Andrés said, “This is beyond politics. It is American people taking care of Americans in a time of need.”
  • Andrés, jokingly, on his attempts to get the administration to respond to him: “I tried to go to the White House to the meeting room where they make decisions but they did not let me in.”
  • Andrés made it clear that he appreciated the people in the federal government (well, probably not all of them, but at least the foot soldiers): “The people of FEMA and Federal government … everyone is a hero in their own way butthe truth is the system does not allow them to be successful.” Andrés is frustrated with the bureaucracy, saying that the government shouldn’t be coming up with plans after disasters happen, but before they happen. His team worked with ICE to distribute thousands of sandwiches, and it was an idea that was born after a few rum sours at the hotel bar at 11:30 p.m. People make things happen, bureaucracies lead to inaction, seemed to be the chef’s point: “Not planning, just cooking and sending the food to the people in need.”
  • Best backhanded compliment of Trump: “The potential for improvement is huge and we should celebrate.”
  • In discussing the broken immigration system, Andrés said, “The real American way should be giving these people who are part of our DNA the opportunity to stay.” We need those 11 million undocumented to be part of the American dream, Andrés said. “Immigration reform is something that should have happened yesterday but especially for Dreamers,” he said, adding that it was “Insane” we are not giving them an opportunity to contribute.
  • Andrés said he also wants to build walls: walls for new hospitals, schools and other social services. He also stressed that investing in other countries will lead to more prosperity in those countries, which in turn will benefit the United States.
  • “Since my mother first fed me I have been in the food business.”
  • “One of the most fascinating business you can be in. Food touches everything that we are …Food is the DNA of who we are.”
  • Around 15 percent of the American economy relies on food business. “Exciting moment full of challenges and opportunities.”
  • Andrés on OpenTable: “I believe they charge way too much and are taking advantage.” He says competition is coming, however, in the form of Tock and Resy, among others.
  • In the end, restaurants are very basic: good food, good service, and good alignment with perception of a restaurant’s values are the key. Combined with location, location, location; and today location doesn’t just mean where a restaurant is located on a street but also how they are positioned in the digital spheres and marketplaces.
  • Robots will be replacing cooks, and it’s already happening with major systems of production.
  • One of Andrés’ main frustrations with Congress is how they always want to leverage one thing against another and tie legislation and agendas together instead of just doing what is right.
  • Maybe the most touching moment of the day, Andrés confessed that he sometimes has nightmares about not volunteering to help at the Superdome in New Orleans following Katrina. He made the accurate point that sports stadiums are just massive kitchens and he believes they could have helped stabilize the essential food needs faster, allowing the other areas of need to get the attention they need.
  • The last audience question in the Q&A touched on the MeToo movement. Andrés admitted that the problem with inequity and harassment is not just in restaurants but in society. “This is about community and about who we are.” In addition to instituting corporate safety nets and avenues for reporting improper conduct, Andrés stressed that it was equally important to approach things from a personal, human perspective. “If you see something, say something.”