Review: Ron Howard’s ‘We Feed People’ shows charity of DC chef José Andrés

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'We Feed People'

If you missed its local premiere at the DC Environmental Film Festival back in March, the inspirational new documentary “We Feed People” finally drops on Disney+ on Friday.

That means the entire world can stream one of the year’s most important films, shaking each of us from the slumber of our daily grind to ask what we are doing for humanity.

Directed by Academy Award winner Ron Howard, the film chronicles the humanitarian efforts of celebrity chef José Andrés, who rises from D.C. restaurant fame to launch the World Central Kitchen (WCK), feeding countless global citizens after natural disasters.

The film opens with the devastation of Hurricane Florence in Wilmington, North Carolina in 2018. While transporting meals across the floodwaters, their boat capsizes as aluminum food trays sit precariously above the waterline. “Are we all swimmers here?” Andrés asks, caring for his colleagues. When a reporter asks his name, he simply replies,” José.”

Enter the hero’s backstory, training at high-end restaurants in Spain before moving to D.C. in 1993 at age 23 to open the Spanish tapas restaurant Jaleo. Journalist Richard Wolffe recalls, “There were lots of people in the Washington establishment that saw him as an upstart. Who was this Spanish guy? He was big, ambitious, almost too big for his britches.”

We see his rise to celebrity fame, from David Letterman to Craig Ferguson, even hosting his own TV show. Former Washington Post food writer Carole Sugarman says, “This idea of chefs as celebrities was a new concept and José caught that wave. There’s a whole range of what level of egomania that celebrity chefs have. He became more like a brand.”

Then his mission arrives. “Everyone always has a moment in life that you receive a call,” Andrés says. During the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, he was vacationing in the Cayman Islands and felt powerless to be so close. “I’m watching those images of destruction. I was like, let’s go. It was not like I’m thinking I’m going to help, it was like I’m going to learn.”

His operation begins humbly, feeding 250 people in Port-au-Prince, but Andrés is humbled by having to make black beans the local way as a purée. “Despite having his ego bruised, he realized that you have to respect people,” Wolffe says. “Food is about community, having food your way, not the way some white savior thinks it should be cooked.”

We watch his nonprofit grow during Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017. “The problem with [President Trump] throwing towels is not the towels, that was a nice thing to do, the problem is that’s what relief is becoming, let me throw you the bones,” Andrés says, as citizens write pleading chalk message on the street: “S.O.S. We need water and food!”

The film shows Andrés and WCK C.E.O. Nate Mook taking the first flight into Puerto Rico and making paella to feed half a million people a day. Andrés writes makeshift plans on the wall, saying, “Take care of the problem first, then we’ll figure out how to pay for it. We were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a day [without] a dollar in the bank.”

Like any good film, we must see the emotional toll. In an “all is lost” moment, the American Red Cross rejects his funding request. “FEMA is going to release more money, but they’re so slow. I’m asking for a $1 million line of credit I don’t even have,” Andrés says before breaking down in tears of frustration and exhaustion as he flies home to see a doctor.

Enter Howard’s “Andy Griffith” and “Happy Days” pathos, showing the chef’s family ties. We see the strain on his three daughters: Ines recounts strangers’ selfies at a Dupont Circle farmers market, Lucia asks, “Why do you make yourself the hero?” and Carlota says, “People ask who cooks at home? My dad cooks, but my mom feeds the family.”

The glue that holds them together is his wife Patricia, who jokes, “People say, ‘Oh you have three girls,’ and I say, ‘I have three girls and one boy!’ … He does what he does because I do what I do. He comes back and finds a safe haven.” Behind every good man is a great woman as Carlota says, “My mom has a backpack ready for him at all times.”

He needs that backpack when a volcano erupts in Guatemala in 2018. Not only does the WCK provide disaster relief, it proactively builds a kitchen to provide food, purified water, electricity and communications in case of future disasters. “When we leave … we need to make sure that what we leave behind keeps moving forward on its own,” Andrés says.

Not only does his nonprofit evolve, so does the filmmaking. After tons of archival news footage, Howard puts a camera crew on the ground for Hurricane Dorian in The Bahamas in 2019, riding with amphibious vehicles transporting food like pizza deliveries. “All of the experiences of the many years came to fruition in a way in the Bahamas,” Andrés says.

D.C. viewers will smile realizing his global relief efforts were sparked by volunteering for Robert Egger of D.C. Central Kitchen in 1993. “Robert Egger taught me that it seems charity is about the redemption of the giver when charity should be about the liberation of the receiver,” Andrés says. “We give too much to feel good about ourselves.”

The final chapter of the documentary shows Andrés most recent response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Wearing a hazmat suit, he serves food to masked people on the streets and hospitals of New York City, as well as quarantined cruise ships in Japan and California. “We can be left without food very easily — we saw it with COVID,” Andrés warns.

Ultimately, viewers are left with the idea of creating a network for the nation’s restaurants to band together during emergencies. “José says we’re creating a model for the U.S. government to feed the people,” his colleague says, paying off when then-candidate Joe Biden says, “They say you’re doing God’s work. … If we follow your lead, we’ll get it done.”

After 90 minutes of inspiration through the worst doom and gloom imaginable, Howard has one final laugh up his sleeve with an accidental moment caught on camera. As Andrés turns to the camera in disbelief, he pops a cigar in his mouth and we cut to black.

“We Feed People” feeds the souls of viewers.

4 stars

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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