Business leaders may feel that they have been dealing with a never-ending series of crises since the COVID-19 pandemic began nearly three years ago. A health emergency ushered in a supply chain disruption that yielded an inflation predicament; add in higher energy prices and other upheavals, and the demands on leaders’ crisis management skills are at an all-time high.
For perspective on how to thrive during emergencies, we turned to José Andrés, a Spanish-born chef whose company encompasses nearly 40 restaurants globally. Most chefs can offer some wisdom in dealing with pressure, given the relentless atmosphere of restaurant kitchens. But Andrés’s expertise is unique: in 2010, he founded World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit whose mission is to deliver fresh meals to people in need during emergencies including tornados, hurricanes, pandemics, and wars. This year, the nonprofit estimates that it raised and spent $420 million, including on more than 170 million meals distributed to Ukrainians since the invasion of Ukraine.
As business leaders solve problems while also seeking growth in a challenging environment, they likely find themselves pulled in multiple directions. That’s another reason we found a conversation with Andrés timely: this year, he estimates that he spent two and a half months in Ukraine while simultaneously running his business, which opened seven new restaurants and bars around the United States and recently launched a media company. We wanted to know how he pursues two distinct missions and builds organizations that can thrive while he is otherwise engaged.
The chef recently joined McKinsey Quarterly deputy editor Katy McLaughlin for a wide-ranging discussion. An edited version of their conversation follows.
Katy McLaughlin: You published a book in 2018 titled We Fed an Island, about your efforts in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. This year, director Ron Howard released a documentary about your mission there. Both works depict you arriving to total chaos with little clue about food relief operations or how to help. Yet your organization eventually served 3.7 million meals in Puerto Rico through a network of 20,000 chefs and volunteers.
Let’s talk about how you approach emergencies. How do you turn that initial turmoil and doubt into action and, ultimately, results?
The only thing I like about emergencies...is because they force us to solve short-term problems of food and water with so much energy and efficiency.
José Andrés: First, you have to recognize that sometimes complex problems require really simple solutions. With World Central Kitchen, we aim to show up in places where people aren’t even able to think about how to get started. And we are able to go at the beginning of an emergency, when it’s really important. The only thing you have to do sometimes is activate teams and start providing relief in the different areas that need relief: generators to hospitals, water to the people, food to the people, electricity. It’s the same every time.
Katy McLaughlin: OK, so step one is to prioritize action steps over meticulous planning. What comes next in an emergency response?
José Andrés: The only thing I like about emergencies—why I like to go—is because they force us to solve short-term problems of food and water with so much energy and efficiency. In emergencies, you see me try new ways of doing things.
For example, around mid-March 2020, after I came back from San Francisco, where we were helping feed people on the first cruise ship that arrived with COVID-19 cases in America, we felt that we had developed expertise in feeding during COVID-19 before anybody else was even talking about COVID-19 in a big way.
I announced that I was transforming my restaurants in Washington, DC, into community kitchens [used to prepare food for free distribution to the needy]. I did that in the early days with my restaurants, paid for by us personally, meaning by my for-profit company.
We did that for a few weeks. We could use food that we had on hand, and we kept people working, and we kept paying them. It also proved my concept, and this became the blueprint for what World Central Kitchen did across America to serve thousands of meals.
Katy McLaughlin: In sum, emergencies prompt you to try short-term solutions, which, if they work, you can apply to bigger problems. It sounds like emergencies can be high-pressure idea incubators.
José Andrés: We don’t solve all the problems people have. We solve short-term problems of food and water. But if we could apply the same mentality to the long-term hunger and food issues we face, wow, there wouldn’t be one child hungry anymore in America, for sure, and in the world.
And that’s why I like emergencies. It’s important to bring the spirit of emergencies to the long-term running of social programs. The big problems? They have to be fixed with the boots on the ground. We need more leaders with boots on the ground, making things happen where the problems are.
Katy McLaughlin: Is it correct to say that another part of your approach is leveraging infrastructure that is already in place when you arrive at a disaster zone? You don’t go into a region and set up a central cooking and distribution center. Instead, you provide money, logistical support, and ingredients to sometimes hundreds of existing food businesses, and they supply the meals that get distributed to the needy.
José Andrés: That’s right. In Ukraine, we’ve been working with over 500 restaurants, caterers, and food trucks. On August 11, I met with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to talk about our operations there. I was very proud for him to know that [World Central Kitchen] is not a foreign organization: this is Ukrainians taking care of Ukrainians. He was very aware, you know. He was very amazed at the quickness and the speed and the reach. I was very happy that I was able to bring some of the Ukrainian team members to the meeting who are the ones running the show.
A chef’s recipe for a successful emergency response
1. Once disaster strikes, get there right away.
2. Prioritize action over meticulous planning.
3. Leverage existing infrastructure.
4. Test short-term solutions.
5. Iterate successful ideas.
6. Apply emergency-level intensity to long-term challenges.
Katy McLaughlin: I want to switch gears and explore how you divide your focus between two very different endeavors. Many of your restaurants are high-end and expensive. Your nonprofit is about providing basics to sometimes desperate people. Pursuing these different tracks must require the right talent on your teams, as well as a keen awareness of where you’re needed most.
First, give me a sense of how much time you’re out in the field with the nonprofit.
José Andrés: In Ukraine, my team will have to count the days, but I think I would not be wrong if I told you I have spent about 75 days there this year, and probably more. Did I activate myself in Beirut [after a large port explosion in 2020]? I was there 24 hours later. I activated myself in India when we went to feed [people at] multiple hospitals, which we were feeding all at the same time [during the pandemic]? I went to Beira, Mozambique, after the typhoon [in 2019]. I went to many of the big California fires. Did I go to the volcano in La Palma, Spain, myself [in 2021]? Yeah.
Katy McLaughlin: Sometimes, you’re in places where the infrastructure has been destroyed, and you’re communicating with your home office by satellite phone. How is the organization structured so that the show can go on?
José Andrés: Sam Bakhshandehpour [José Andrés Group’s president] is the one who, day to day, runs the entire company. But then we have different people in the different verticals. I believe in fairly flat structures, not such pyramidal ones. When things are pyramidal, and if I’m at the very top, nothing will move, because they are waiting for me. If the structures are flatter, it means there are more people in charge in different areas, so nobody waits for José.
I have an entire team just for restaurant and bar openings. [In a separate conversation, Bakhshandehpour added that the openings team is part of a central function that provides finance, brand and business development, design, human resources, and service support to all the company’s restaurants.] In this pandemic, if anything, my team got bigger, not smaller. I’ve always been investing a lot in the people. I remember in the old days, I’d rather make less money but have more people than make more money and have less people.
We have a lot of people that worked for us, left us, went out, got more experience, and came back. And that always gives me a lot of joy. We also have people that we hire from within. We have some people who have been working with us for 28 or 29 years.
I believe in fairly flat structures, not such pyramidal ones. When things are pyramidal and if I’m at the very top, nothing will move because they are waiting for me. If the structures are flatter, it means there’s more people in charge...
Katy McLaughlin: How do you maximize your own contributions to both enterprises—considering that you can’t be on-site all the time?
José Andrés: I’m highly incapable of doing many of the functions that a restaurant company can do. But that’s why I surround myself with people that are capable. I know my weaknesses very well.
I don’t concentrate much on one thing for too long. Sometimes, I’m very impatient, because life is short and I like things now, if possible. You know, the repetition, day to day, is something that some people are amazing at and that they enjoy. Me, I don’t enjoy that. I enjoy that the repetition is what allows success in the private business and in the nonprofit. But I’m not the best guy to make sure that happens.
One of my things is that I’m always going to find new cities or towns and villages or people who need help. And then once you make contact, you create the systems to keep bringing them food. I like to keep making sure that everybody’s taken care of. That means exploring new places. This is what I do in my private business, too. I try to explore the new things. That’s how I am. I’m fulfilling my role.
Katy McLaughlin: Who in your organizations can you not live without?
José Andrés: Life has taught me that everybody’s important and nobody’s important. And this starts with me. If I disappear tomorrow, if I am no longer here, I hope people will miss me, but I know my family will keep running because my wife is the one that has kept the family going, and my daughters are in a great place. I know my friends, if anything, will be even stronger friends, and they will keep giving support to my family unit. I know my business will be run because it’s run by people who are better than me, and they know how that company functions. World Central Kitchen will keep running because it’s made out of unbelievable people. So everything can keep running without me.
What I mean is that I’m thankful to everybody, because without everybody, I wouldn’t be who I am. But at the same time, I realize that everything I have done can run tomorrow without me, and nobody will even notice I’m gone. This is something I’m proud of. And I think we all should try to run our lives the same way.
Katy McLaughlin: You were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. In 2020, you posed on the cover of Time magazine, which has twice named you one of the world’s 100 most influential people. In 2021, Jeff Bezos granted you his $100 million “Courage and Civility Award.”
It sounds helpful—to both the business and the nonprofit—to have your profile, but I wonder if there are any downsides. How do you make sure that others are empowered? Does everyone just try to figure out “What would José do?”
José Andrés: I disagree with you. A lot of philanthropies carry the name of one person, but I didn’t call World Central Kitchen “José Andrés.” World Central Kitchen goes far beyond me. It’s an organization that is of the people. We have an independent board. Obviously, I am part of the board because I think I should be, because it is still a very young organization. It still needs to be shaped into what we are going to become.
In the company, obviously, it’s my company. I’m the biggest shareholder. In the areas I’ve shown I’m good at, I hope people will ask, “What would José do?” In the same way, I ask myself what someone will do when I know somebody’s an expert in something. But that’s not the important question. The important question is: Will people stand up to me and tell me what they think?
Katy McLaughlin: And will they?
José Andrés: I think people second-guess me all the time. I don’t think when I speak my mind that I do it just to impose. I speak my mind because I have an opinion, too. We’ve always allowed everybody to speak their mind. Obviously, José Andrés Group is my organization. It’s my company, but if my board kicked me out because I didn’t show up to the board meetings, I would probably vote in favor with them.
Katy McLaughlin: Tell us about the impact of inflation and supply chain issues on your businesses.
José Andrés: With inflation, you adapt. Unfortunately, you have to raise the prices accordingly to pay the bills. We’ve had supply chain issues impact our Spanish olive oil and cheeses—we’ve had problems. In the end, restaurants are like brokers for our clients, for our guests. You buy the best possible food, and you sell it at a certain cost so that you can make money, you can pay the employees, you can pay the rent, you can pay to keep the lights on, and you can give a good value to your guests. With inflation, you just go up accordingly and make sure that you are not subsidizing the dining experience of your guests.
Katy McLaughlin: World Central Kitchen has pledged to raise and spend $1 billion to provide meals to victims of climate-change-related events over the next decade. You opened seven restaurants and bars this year, have nine concepts planned for next year, and are cochairing the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition, among other projects. Do you ever feel overwhelmed or stressed, and if so, how do you cope?
José Andrés: I get more than stressed; I would say I get frustrated when things don’t happen. And when I see that certain things become more complicated than they have to be, I get anxious. We could be eradicating hunger in America, and we could be eradicating hunger in the world.
I think food banks are needed, but they need to be reinvented highly. People shouldn’t be waiting in a car for hours to get a bag of food. There needs to be another way that gives dignity to people and, in the process, helps create riches in the poor neighborhoods where they live.
We don’t even know how much big governments in every rich country or the UN dedicate to eradicating hunger. I have a feeling there’s a lot of wasted money. One of the shortfalls of the democracies that we are living in today is overpromising and underdelivering. We need to start underpromising and overdelivering.
Katy McLaughlin: You sound so passionate about your nonprofit work. But Sam Bakhshandehpour tells me you’re still the final word on every recipe, design, and detail—even where the chairs are set up in a restaurant. How do you stay engaged on the business side?
José Andrés: Yes, my brain is totally messed up on that. But one goes with the other.
I’m also a cook that enjoys great meals and great wine. But I’m 53. I feel I still have 30, 35 good, strong years in me. Mature years. I think I’ll do a lot. But now, I’m only trying to understand how I can use my time more wisely.
I feel like every time I go into anything, in a way, maybe I’m trying to gain my own credibility. Maybe in ten or 20 years, I could be a bigger voice on how we are going to end hunger in the world. But it’s not going to be done without the recipes we are working on writing now.