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José Makes Paella With A Purpose

May 2016

The crowd lines downtown Washington DC’s Woodrow Wilson Plaza. It’s a cloudy Wednesday, but the promise of a free lunch has drawn them to this piazza, surrounded by government buildings and grey pillars. Suddenly, the energy in the packed square shifts. José Andrés has arrived.

“Hombre, ¿qué tal?” “Thank you for coming!” José makes his way deeper and deeper into the plaza’s Feeding the 5000 event, shaking hands and embracing old friends like Moses parting the Red Sea. José is in his element, and it is almost show time.

First stop—José checks in with his team of chefs, who are taste-testing the simmering broth on the first of two giant paellas. “¿Está bien?” he asks, to make sure that things are on schedule. The humidity makes an unusually large amount of steam rise from the paella pan like some sort of magic cauldron. The magic is working—TV crews and people crowd around, each hoping for the first taste. With the paella situation under control, José dons a green baseball cap that reads “No Farms No Food” and bounds onstage.

“My name is José Andrés, and I am a cook,” he announces to cheers. “Here is what we believe. Waste is wrong.”

Feeding the 5000, begun in the U.K. by Tristram Stuart and his charity called Feedback, raises awareness about food waste around the world by putting together a massive free feast for the public, from items that would normally end up in the reject pile. Ugly vegetables, fish heads, you name it, it was on the day’s menu. DC Central Kitchen, the groundbreaking group that gathers unwanted food to provide meals to the city’s schools and shelters, helped José’s team source vegetables for the paellas. Volunteers from there and from The Campus Kitchens Project helped chop veggies for paellas as well as for a tasty vegetable curry. They’re on hand today to help with serving, too.

Introductions are over. It’s time to add rice to the paellas. Chef Spike Mendelsohn, who chairs the DC Food Policy Council, is on hand, and José promptly gets him to help. The duo pours small cloth sacks of Bomba Rice imported from Spain into the steaming pan. The iPhone-wielding crowd is snapping photos like mad.

José Andrés with Secretary Tom Vilsack and Beefsteak's Pat Peterson

In the blink of an eye, José is back onstage with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, making Spain’s iconic chilled tomato soup, gazpacho, and a Beefsteak Tomato Sandwich. In classic José fashion, he can’t resist the chance to tell a story. “Gazpacho, you may know it comes from Spain,” he says, “but in the early 1800s, in The Virginia Housewife, one of the first American cookbooks, guess what recipe shows up?! GAZPACHO! So, people of America, gazpacho is American too!”

There are jokes with the Secretary, but lessons too. “For this recipe, buy all the ugly tomatoes, the ones that look beaten down, the ones nobody wants,” José tells the audience. “You are going to pay less, and they’re going to be tastier because they will be very ripe!”

He brings the point home later, while chatting with reporters. “We in the restaurant business can help the food waste issue by setting an example. We can emphasize that a tomato doesn’t have to look perfect. We can show a farmer we don’t care how the carrots look.”

The demos done, José is back to serve paella to the crowd. It’s barely an hour into the event, and already 2,000 people have been fed. The second paella is halfway eaten by now. But José has one last instruction for pan #1: “Make sure there is not one grain of rice left.” It’s a symbolic moment, as the team scrapes up every scattered bit of rice across the 6-foot-wide pan. It’s enough for one serving, and José knows just the person to enjoy it: Feeding the 5000 founder Tristram Stuart.

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