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At some point in the last decade, my investment in mega-chef José Andrés ceased to be about someday visiting one of his many revered restaurants and became more about his winning a Nobel Peace Prize someday.
Andrés’ unlikely transition from culinary mastermind to culinary first responder is at the center of We Feed People, Ron Howard’s latest documentary collaboration with National Geographic Documentary Films after 2020’s Rebuilding Paradise. The Oscar-winning director has somewhat quietly become a curious and solid ultra-mainstream documentarian — the Ron Howard of documentaries, really — and We Feed People continues that journey. It captures enough of the methodology behind Andrés’ trajectory to be consistently interesting and it’s pragmatic enough not to be exclusively worshipful.
We Feed People
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Director: Ron Howard1 hour 29 minutes
Requisite background: José Andrés was raised and trained in Spain, including three years at the legendary outpost of modernist cooking, El Bulli. He came to the United States and, in only a few years, he had carved out a place as one of the most exciting chefs first in Washington, D.C., and then across the country. He ran and then owned a string of acclaimed restaurants, wrote best-selling cookbooks and became a near-ubiquitous presence on food-centric television.
In 2010, after the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, Andrés founded the World Central Kitchen, an organization dedicated to feeding civilian populations in the aftermath of various disasters. He has subsequently traveled the world, responding to humanitarian crises including Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, volcano eruptions in Guatemala and, most recently, the consequences of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine.
It would be easy and perhaps even accurate for Howard to treat Andrés as something of a gastronomical Avenger, selflessly zipping around the globe bringing paella to those in need, all while engaging on different social media platforms. And there’s some of that. Andrés is a gregarious, endlessly telegenic personality, with a telegenic wife and three telegenic daughters, and they’re all full of stories, usually with home video documentation, of Andrés’ larger-than-life approach to everything. About the most negative thing you’ll hear anybody in the documentary say about Andrés is that sometimes his daughters have to check Twitter to find out where he is at any given time.
But having altruistic intentions and having an altruistic idea aren’t the same as executing, and the things that Howard and his crew are most interested in documenting are the many steps between wanting to do good in the world and actually doing it. Yes, this is a documentary about one heroic man, but it’s much more a documentary about the bureaucracy of compassion.
It starts with the lessons Andrés learned in Haiti, which could be boiled down to “Cook the beans people want to eat, not the beans you want to make,” but more broadly is something along the lines of, “Every situation in need is different and presents different challenges, and you have to be prepared to adapt.”
Andrés may be at the center of the story, but Howard makes sure to give ample time to figures like WCK CEO Nate Mook, the man who has to execute Andrés’ ambitious plans, and also to countless on-the-ground workers and fixers — the people in charge of driving supplies across flooded roads and establishing working kitchens amid rubble — and various local chefs who saw, through Andrés’ burgeoning infrastructure, opportunities to do good themselves.
“We need to try to create systems where people take ownership of their situation and of their own problems,” Andrés says at one point, one of several references to the systemic change, rather than the more conventional charity, he’s trying to enact.
Howard does a fine job of depicting how hard this life is that Andrés has chosen, and there are glimpses of the toll it takes on him. Andrés is treated here like a lovable bear, one who delivers picnic baskets instead of stealing them, but he isn’t immune to flare-ups of temper. There are glimpses of how, in the process of getting things done, he might lose track of social niceties. Certain hints of borderline abusive behavior are presented here, though nothing that will surprise anybody who has read Kitchen Confidential. Chefs are mercurial, and I’m not saying Howard needs to poke at every exposed nerve, but he definitely leaves some things uncommented upon that some viewers might want discussed.
There are also intimations of tensions between Andrés/WCK and more traditional disaster relief organizations. Because I’m interested in the detail-oriented side of what Andrés is doing, the questions of when he can or can’t partner with something like the Red Cross or Amnesty International feel worth delving into. There’s a sense that some establishment types might view Andrés as a threat, which may play a role in some tabloid-y articles that accused him of being a hustler and of pocketing donated money. Andrés denies those charges, and no substantive charges of that type have been leveled, but questions of where such accusations come from and why feel worth asking.
We Feed People is moving and inspiring and — at a brisk 90 minutes — doesn’t overstay its welcome. Perhaps a longer, messier version of the story might be even more enriching, but Howard’s tendency is toward tidiness. And if this documentary does nothing more than introducing some people to the ambitious thing Andrés is doing before he gets that Nobel Prize? That’s not bad.
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Director: Ron Howard
Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Sara Bernstein, Justin Wilkes, Meredith Kaulfers, Walter Matteson
Executive producers: Michael Rosenberg, Louisa Velis, Carolyn Bernstein, Nate Mook, Richard Wolffe
Cinematographer: Kris Kaczor
Editor: Andrew Morreale
Music: Sami Jano
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