BETHESDA, Md. — Recently back home after joining his World Central Kitchen’s outreach in war-torn Ukraine, Chef José Andrés addressed the class of 2022 at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda June 9.
He shared lessons he has learned in the kitchens of his restaurants and on the front lines where the humanitarian organization he founded has provided food relief after natural and manmade disasters.
His daughter Lucia was one of the 95 young women who had just received their diplomas from the all-girls Catholic school sponsored by the Society of the Sacred Heart in suburban Washington.
“Every one of you girls has something within you that can help the person next to you or your family or your community,” the world famous Spanish chef said. “You can feed the world, not just with food like me, but with what you know and with what you are good with.
“Like I fed the hungry, look within your heart to find your light, find what you are good at, and be ready to feed the hopes of people. We need you to do that.”
On that breezy morning, the graduating seniors wearing long white formal dresses or pantsuits and holding bouquets of red roses sat in the shade of a majestic willow oak tree in front of the school’s Hamilton House.
“Class of 2022, you should be so proud of what you have achieved. This would be true in any year, but after the last two years of this pandemic that has separated you from each other and from your teachers, what you have done is a super big deal,” he said, adding, “You have overcome adversity in your own way. These skills you have learned are also part of your education.”
Adapting to the unexpected, he said, is something he has learned in the kitchen.
“You know, I am a cook. I like to think of it as changing the recipe. If you don’t have the ingredients you need or if you don’t have the right pots or pans, what you do, people, is easy. You don’t follow the recipe. You adapt. You change the recipe.”
That, Andrés said, has been the approach of World Central Kitchen, as it has set up operations in areas where disasters have left food supplies disrupted, kitchens destroyed and communication lines down.
“That’s when you go and change the recipe, to fix the broken parts of our world,” he said.
Andrés, who operates more than 30 restaurants, began World Central Kitchen in 2010 by supplying food relief to Haiti after a devastating earthquake there. The organization also helped rebuild Puerto Rico “one meal at a time,” after Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017.
It is now providing nearly 1 million meals per day in Ukraine, and recently provided emergency food relief to community members in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, after the mass shootings there.
Catherine Ronan Karrels, Stone Ridge’s head of school, noted that Andrés and his wife, Patricia, have been an important part of that community for the past nine years, with their three daughters attending and graduating from the school — Carlota (class of 2017), Ines (class of 2019) and Lucia this year.
She said the chef exemplifies the values of a Sacred Heart education, especially the goal of social awareness that impels action.
Then she turned over the introduction to Lucia Andrés, who said that while some know her father as a Spanish chef or the founder of World Central Kitchen, “or even as the Stone Ridge father who took field day my freshman year way too seriously, I know him as my dad, who never let me or my sisters order off the kids’ menu. He’s the guy who got kicked out of my sister’s soccer game for yelling at the ref in Spanish after he gave a bad call.”
Lucia described her father as “a man of passion and determination that just can’t sit back while there are people suffering and in need of food and support.”
“In my eyes, he’s a real-life superhero. He continues to show up for those in need, and somehow for a brief amount of time when the world isn’t calling for his help, he manages to come home, and we are grateful,” she said.
In introducing Andrés, she said: “I stand in front of you, my father, my classmates and my school, to say, ‘I love you so much.'”
Andrés embraced his daughter and wiped tears from his eyes before he began his speech. Moments later, he joked, “I love that I am talking and actually my daughter is listening to anything I have to say. This is big!”
On a serious note, Andrés said, “For someone like me, who didn’t really finish any traditional school, today really feels like I am graduating. I guess I graduated three times with my three daughters.”
He told the graduates that he joined the Spanish navy when he was about their age, but after being assigned to cook for an admiral at his house, he drew up the courage to knock on the officer’s door and request that he be allowed to be a cook on a ship sailing the ocean. That led to him doing just that and seeing the world, including America for the first time.
“Don’t be afraid of rejection. Don’t be afraid of asking for what you want or what you need,” he said.
Andrés also emphasized that “big results can come from very small things. … Be the one who will make the difference. Every time you take action to solve a problem, as small as it may seem, you are starting to change the world.”
“Like many of you, I had a good teacher,” he said. “When Jesus saw hungry people following him, he didn’t think about what he could do, he acted. He multiplied loaves of bread and a few fish. He fed bodies and souls with hope, one plate of food at a time, he showed us the way.”
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Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.