Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
April 4, 2023
CHEF JOSÉ ANDRÉS: Hello, Madam Ambassador.
AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: How are you?
CHEF ANDRÉS: Hello, hello, hello.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Hi. How are you doing?
CHEF ANDRÉS: Right now, I’m here with you.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good. Well, we’ve got a lot of people on waiting to hear from you and to hear from me, and I’m really looking forward to this conversation. So why don’t I kick it off? And I have a simple question for you that I know that you can answer and that is: What inspired you? What inspired your love for cooking? And what does food –
CHEF ANDRÉS: So Ambassador, my love for cooking, I think everybody listening to us will share the same kind of moments in different ways, but family is probably the first time ever we get in touch with food. And I never had, as a grown up, the best of relationship with especially my mom. But what I will never take away from my mom is the love she gave all the time to my three brothers and I, to my father. Not only being the leader of the house but also being the leader outside working in a job in a hospital. She was a nurse. And my mom – I don’t think she was one that loved cooking, but when she did, she did it with love. And you could see it in the dishes. And what my mom making these amazing roasted red peppers that, to this day, I remember that will take a long time roasting them the day before, peeling them, then sautéing them with olive oil and garlic, cooking them for an hour in water so they will become silky and mellow creating a natural gelatin as the oil and the juices of the pepper will reduce. And then at the end adding some sherry vinegar, oh my god. [Laughter.]
My mom was amazing at the end of the month. She would be able to make magic out of nothing. Sometimes the fridge in my house – we were a working class family; food was not an issue. But my father sometimes, you know, they will get at the end of the month kind of short. She would make sure every piece of whatever was left was used. And she would make these amazing croquetas, sometimes two or three days in a row in the last days of the month until the next check would come in. And croquetas with this amazing béchamel with flour, maybe onion, milk. She would make this béchamel, thick, white sauce that she will add whatever chicken was leftover, if we had one boiled egg around, chopped and then she will roll in breadcrumbs. That would be breadcrumbs that she would make of the leftover old, hard bread that you will use the coffee grinder to make the bread crumbs. She would roll them and then she would quickly fry them. To this day those croquetas of my mom next to those red peppers of my mom is the dishes that I always go back to, thinking about how was my childhood. And my childhood was a tasty and happy one. And my father said he would love to cook mainly on the weekends. Even he would help out during the week if necessary. But he will be the one making the big pots. So I think the big pots and feeding everybody, and where everybody will always be welcomed, and especially by the big rise in regionalization in Spain. And therefore with these kind of love of my mom cooking during the week and making everything out of nothing sometimes, and this love of my father to cooking for everyone, I guess is the love I have for cooking. And the love at the same time I have for – I cook for the few; when I can I want to be also cooking for the many.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you for that. And it kind of reminded me of my childhood, as well. I went home once after being overseas, and my mother asked me what was my favorite dish that she could cook for me. And I said, “Potato gravy.”
And she said, “We only used to eat that when didn’t have meat. I don’t do potato gravy anymore.”
Well, she made potato gravy for me and I’ll – I never knew we were only eating it because we didn’t have meat. So it shows you what our mothers can do with nothing, and they do it with love. And those memories last forever. And I’ve heard you say that food is a plate of hope. And I know that because I’ve seen you in action in the field. I’ve seen your people in action in the field.
Can you talk about what that means to you, and how it drives your work at World Central Kitchen?
CHEF ANDRÉS: Well, the thing for this “food is a plate of hope”, in real time, in a moment that stick, really in that time, I really understood the value of food beyond what was obvious was in 1993 when I came to Washington, D.C. And especially when I joined an organization, which I’m still part of, called DC Central Kitchen. Nothing to do with World Central Kitchen, even I could argue the inspiration, yes, came from there. In my early days in DC Central Kitchen, I saw this organization founded by a man called Robert Egger and now run by Mike Curtin, 35 years, where the first time I saw the power of food to change communities and to change people’s life really, really hit hard in me.
Like before, I even volunteer in some kind of other soup kitchens in my younger years. But this is the moment me, as an adult, that I really understood what my profession was all about. And in DC Central Kitchen is when I began realizing there was a lot of people never got the same chances that I got as an immigrant. Some Washingtonians, that they were homeless sometimes, or they [inaudible]. All Washingtonians, in a way, I realize by cooking with them, that sometimes life is a lottery. And sometimes not everybody gets the same cards or the same numbers.
And for me, seeing what DC Central Kitchen was doing with [inaudible], like I was sharing the cooking I knew with ex-convicts or people who were on the streets a few weeks before. And DC Central Kitchen was giving those people hope, dignity. And you will think that people like me will go there to teach. The big lesson of life is that I didn’t realize I was there to learn. To learn from those men and women that had powerful stories of [inaudible], sometimes the odds being against him. And all of those conversations were happening around cooking and around producing meals, using food that we were buying from farmers or food that was about to be waste, in the process, not wasting food. The most important was not wasting food no more, but not wasting people’s lives.
And Robert Egger showed me the power of one plate of food. To use cooking next to people you don’t know, listening to their stories and their hopes and their dreams in the process of helping people that were in need and voiceless in D.C. That gave me that feeling that, wow, food is so much more powerful than just family culture, which is great. But it’s even more. And that’s when I saw the plate of food. And obviously, that’s what I saw the need in the international – in America first. Even I began in Haiti really with World Central Kitchen as understanding that I do believe we needed more specialized organization that use the best talent to take care of feeding people. And we send nurses like my mom and others to hurricanes or earthquakes to take care of the wounded. And we send search and rescue teams to look for people under the rubble. And we send the different experts that an emergency needs to take care of the people. I began arguing that the best people to feed people will be people that come from the food business. And especially people do that for a living – cooks of the world, food people of the world.
And that’s how I began World Central Kitchen there in Haiti in the early days where I was helping people but I was there again learning. I was learning, and I was listening. And very quickly – long story short – I was making these black beans because they were fresh, they were in season, and I was buying from the local farmers around. And these women were all helping me cook for these couple of places with a thousand people each. And after a few hours of cooking, and finally meal is ready, the women come to me, all of them with a translator – I had some French, but many, many people in Haiti speak Creole and it’s fairly different from French, even it’s part of it. And they very nicely and very humbly – and almost worried, I think, of hurting me – they were telling me that they really appreciate the work I was doing helping feed the families. But that, with all due respect, that’s not the way they eat those black beans. And they were asking me that if I put all those fancy things floating around the base, and if we could make them into a puree, a fine, silky, velvety, beautiful, blackish, purplish, black beans soup.
And I’m sure I said, “Of course, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
Before I was just trying to feed everybody. But I decided that you had to be listening to the people you’re trying to help. Because that’s the way you really give them the dignity they deserve and they should never lose. And it was a big moment for me because it took two more hours to process the beans because we didn’t have blenders. But the happiness of the people, of those women feeding their children and their families a dish they call home, a dish they call theirs. And you’re serving the rice next to the beans, not one on top of each other, and just letting them eat it as they go. For me probably also was one of the big life experiences, that moment –
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Plate of hope
CHEF ANDRÉS: – I saw the power of food to bring people together when you do it with happiness, but also you listen from each other. In international aid, we need to be listening more and more from the people we are trying to help. That’s the way that we can then achieve real, true success.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you for sharing that. You know that since I arrived here in New York, I have been focusing on food security, because there’s so much hunger in the world. And I traveled to Somalia recently where they had just averted a famine, but still people were starving to death. And I announced that we really – with so much abundance in the world – that we have to end famine. We have to provide avenues so that people can be fed and not starve to death and not know where the next meal is going to come from for their children. So, we have been galvanizing the international community, with Secretary Blinken, really calling for countries to sign on to a roadmap that commits these countries to addressing the food insecurity issue. We’ve particularly seen that with the war in Ukraine.
You and I visited a Ukrainian restaurant when you were here the last time to really highlight the situation in Ukraine where the food insecurity issue has become even more dire, because of this unprovoked war on Ukraine, and I thank you for all your engagement in Ukraine. I also saw your people there in Ukraine and in Romania, really working to address the food insecurity issues that people were facing there. But it’s something we have to continue to work on and to work on on a regular basis. And we really have to see how we can help the world avoid hunger. And you’re doing just that.
CHEF ANDRÉS: We know we have a big challenge ahead of us. Today, I think, I want to take a second, and I know you’ve been doing it too, to congratulate, I mean, to say thank you to Ambassador – to David Beasley, Governor David Beasley because he’s been doing amazing work during a very difficult time during COVID. And I saw him traveling the world. Probably he’s been one of the people traveling the most, and I want to really congratulate Mr. Beasley for his service. He’s a friend. And for his commitment to become a voice in a very important moment for hunger. He’s one that is being used, like you, bringing the issue of hunger. And hunger is something we can un-make happen, we can make disappear immediately. We only need to be putting a little fraction of the budgets of the rich countries of the world to end it – $3.5 trillion are spent every year in defense, in armies, in weapons. When we put a fraction of that, say $40 billion, we will have a world with no extreme hunger period. And, David Beasley, know that you’ve been an amazing ambassador of that message. And we need more of that. And so I think I’m going to take the time, and I know you, too, to congratulate him, thank him for his service.
And then also we have the incoming executive director of World Food Program, Mrs. Cindy McCain, which I also want to thank her for taking on that role and wish her the best. And I know people like you are going to be next to her and me also, boots on the ground, helping them. But the hunger issue is real. World Central Kitchen is not an organization, even we’ve done development, that never focused itself on hunger. Even myself personally, as you know, I try always to be aware and go and join different organizations around the world and see the work they do. I was with World Food Program in Mozambique a couple of years ago and watching – over three years ago. I’m watching the work they do, for example, in Mozambique, beyond the emergencies, the work they do to make sure that extreme hunger is not an issue.
But it takes a village. It takes everybody. It takes governments, it takes bigger organizations, it takes smaller organizations, we all are going to have – it needs individuals, it needs smart policy. And it needs a smart policy that then becomes real – real on the ground. If we have good policy, but nothing happens on the ground, we’re not helping nobody. But we need to start with a smart policy and governments working together. So, you’ve been talking obviously a lot, and I love you for it. You – I know you’re a great gumbo master, that gumbo’s in your veins, and one day we’re going to have do a gumbo class. You teaching me about the gumbo. You even mentioned the gumbo diplomacy. So for diplomacy, more than ever, it’s really important, Ambassador, yes?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yes, and that is exactly what gumbo diplomacy is – it’s food diplomacy. It is what you are doing. It is taking food directly to the people, so people know that the world has not forgotten them in their time of need. You’re in Türkiye feeding people there, you’re in Somalia feeding people there. If there’s a place where people are hungry, José Andrés is there. And we love you for that. We love you for what you’re doing. And I just want to take the opportunity to thank you for everything that you do, José. You took on a huge, huge task, and you’re doing it with so much love. And it is wonderful to be connected to you, to be attached to you. And I would love to teach you how to make gumbo. Because I know whatever I teach you, you’re going to make it ten times better. And then I could come and eat your gumbo.
I’m being given the side that we’re running out of time –
CHEF ANDRÉS: We have a lot of people enjoying the comments. But again, thank you, thank you. It’s great to have an Ambassador at the UN like you in such an important moment. I know food security has been very important for you, Ambassador. And I don’t mean that other ambassadors previously they didn’t give the same importance, but I know food security’s very close to you personally, to your heart. On behalf of all the people in and around the world that need champions like you to be at the UN, to bring awareness that food is the most important thing in the world. It’s not energy, it’s not weapons, it’s not gas, it’s not climate change. Sure, all those things are important, but the most important thing is the energy that feeds humanity. And that energy is food, and food is what brings us together. So, thank you for being that champion for all the people that maybe they don’t know you are an Ambassador at the UN because they are the voiceless, are very much people, sometimes the poor of the poor, sometimes in remote places in the world, but they need champions of fighting for food security for all, because it’s the beginning of a better tomorrow. So, thank you, Ambassador, for your work, bringing always awareness on food and food issues and food security.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you, you’ve taught us that food is hope and that food is love. Thank you very much. I thank all of you for joining us.