Chef José Andrés And The Trump Administration Are Fighting Over Puerto Rico
FEMA says Andrés is no longer working with them on the island because he's a "businessman" who wanted a contract through 2017. Andrés said anyone who says he was just trying to make a buck "should be ashamed of themselves."
Celebrity chef José Andrés has helped cook and deliver 2.2 million meals in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria flattened the island, at one point cranking out 150,000 meals a day. But while his effort has been loudly praised across the country, the Trump administration, which awarded him two contracts through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has been curiously quiet on his efforts as they wound down.
That's in part because the administration, which has had a contentious relationship with Andrés, sees a different picture.
An official with FEMA told BuzzFeed News the agency has been disappointed by Andrés' public comments about the paralysis of bureaucracy and pace of recovery. Andrés, the official said, is a "colorful guy who gets a lot of exposure" and "a businessman looking for stuff to promote his business."
"He was very critical of us publicly and we were disappointed he took that approach," said Marty Bahamonde, director of the FEMA disaster operations division. "We had a good working relationship, and we paid him a lot of money to do that work. It wasn’t volunteer work — so we were disappointed in some of his public comments."
The agency acknowledged that only his organization, World Central Kitchen, was able to offer hot meals on the island, but said FEMA could only offer Andrés short-term emergency contracts for two weeks at a time, not the longer-term contract he wanted because that would have to go through a competitive bid process due to federal procurement laws.
Ultimately FEMA, which had already given Andrés a $1.5 million contract for 140,000 meals and another for $10 million for two weeks, said said he wanted a 60-day contract through December for $30 million, and there "was a frustration on his part in what he viewed as bureaucracy getting in the way."
In an hour-long interview, the Spanish restauranteur took pains to stress that his experience in Puerto Rico was largely positive, and that it filled him and island residents with hope. And he underlined how much respect he had for government officials working on Puerto Rico, from FEMA to the military.
But asked to respond to FEMA's comments about him, Andrés — who left the island after his first chaotic 11 days when he lost 25 pounds — laughed in frustration and paused to measure his words.
"For them to say I was a businessman trying to make a buck, whoever said that should be very ashamed of themselves," Andrés told BuzzFeed News.
This is not Andrés' first public disagreement with the new leadership in Washington. This spring, Andrés and the Trump organization settled a lawsuit stemming from Andrés' decision to pull out of a restaurant deal from President Trump's new DC hotel. At the time, Andrés said he broke his agreement because Trump's campaign comments calling Mexicans drug-dealers and rapists made it "very difficult" to hire staff, draw customers, and raise capital. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
But what FEMA needs now, Andrés argued, is more businessmen with good hearts and brains to do what needs to be done without so much planning. "I didn't put the word 'emergency' in FEMA. They need to ask themselves what's the definition of 'emergency.' The definition of that to me is feeding people now."
Andrés disputed FEMA's account that he asked for a $30 million contract. He said December was always an imaginary goal, as the need for food is not going to end, and he wanted to make sure that every single Puerto Rican who was hungry would be fed. But he said he told FEMA short contracts were fine as long as the discussions were happening early in the week, because just as it takes a lot of resources to scale up recovery efforts, it also takes planning and logistics to scale them down whenever FEMA ultimately wanted to do so.
Andrés said he hesitated to talk about frustrating moments during his experience with the recovery, because he said there were so many positive ones. He had young women volunteers who would not eat until every elderly person in their community got a plate of food and a bottle of water. Members of the Coast Guard, he said, volunteered their time off in his kitchens, and ICE agents who are cogs in the deportation machines he has been critical of "helped feed people with the most love I've ever seen in my life," he said.
The moment that stuck with him, Andrés said, revolved around members of the National Guard, who Andrés asked for help delivering 150 whole chickens to remote, mountainous parts of the island. The guardsmen were on a designated mission, making sure the island's water plant generators were operational, but they said they would come help Andrés team after they were done. While attempting to deliver rice, Andrés fell in a river, making sure the rice didn't get wet, but injuring his knee. As he and his group struggled to cross the river, the National Guard members appeared, helping him when he needed them most.
“José Andrés is a hero," said lawyer and Democratic donor Andres Lopez, who worked with the chef on the island. "He came to Puerto Rico during our darkest hour, rolled up his sleeves, and did what no one else was able or willing to do at the time: he fed the people. And in so doing, he gave everyone hope."
But FEMA said World Central Kitchen was just one part of the agency's overall efforts that included federal and volunteer agencies, and private sector partners.
"José Andrés proved to be a partner who was here, who we could immediately connect with, who served a great need for the time he was under our contract, the same way many other people did," Bahamonde said. "Because of that effort, you saw stabilization of food on the island."
But Andrés, in his response to BuzzFeed News, leveled a damning charge. A senior FEMA official, he said, told him during an early meeting that "food is not a priority for us right now," and bristled at the idea that anyone was able to offer what he could.
"They say, 'We hired José Andrés,'" he said, noting that his NGO doesn't pay him, and he pays for his own flights and hotel rooms. "You cannot hire me — I have 2,500 employees, and you think you can hire me?"
Andrés marveled to BuzzFeed News that the only call he got from Washington while he was in Puerto Rico was because "they couldn't feed a unit of the National Guard, so we delivered rice and chicken."
So what does he think of the job his old nemesis is doing? Andrés wouldn't directly criticize the president, but noted that the activation he was part of in Haiti under Obama "had a better sense of the urgency of now than I saw in Puerto Rico, specifically on food and water."
The White House declined to comment, directing questions to FEMA.
Andrés sounded tired during the interview, but he remained feisty, already looking to help in the next disaster, while he processed the lessons learned from Puerto Rico.
"They needed someone to say, 'we need to feed this island, we need to do it, we’re not going to wait for someone else,'" he said.
"More than feeding the body, it brings hope, sending the message that maybe tomorrow will be better."