During a recent appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, director Ron Howard was promoting his latest documentary, We Feed People. In talking up the film’s subject, José Andrés, the celebrity chef turned food-based humanitarian, the Oscar winning director said, “Turns out you can make a superhero film without special effects or even spandex and a cape. But you’ve gotta find the right subject.” In Andrés, whose World Central Kitchen has provided hundreds of thousands of meals to disaster victims around the world, Howard found a subject seemingly so virtuous, tireless and, ultimately, successful that Superman himself might defer to his heroic abilities.
We Feed People is the fast-moving and absorbing account of the Spanish-born chef’s efforts. Howard takes us inside Andrés’ operation and inside his head, introducing us to an enthusiastic and heedless globetrotter as he travels from one far-flung crisis to the next, spearheading the delivery of hot meals to locals in need. It’s inspiring and often stirring stuff, and while there are moments when the doc threatens to tip over into hagiography, who cares? Andrés deserves this mid-career tip of the (chef’s) hat.
Smoothly assembled by editors Andrew Morreale and Gladys Mae Murphy into a brisk and polished 87 minutes, We Feed People runs at the speed of its subject. With his close-cut white beard and chef-appropriate paunch, Andrés is seen in almost constant motion while commanding WCK’s legion of volunteers as they seemingly arrive out of nowhere in the aftermath of a hurricane, earthquake or volcanic eruption, set up a kitchen and dole out meals. Throughout, Andrés talks of his philanthropic passion with such simple and earthy aphorisms that he would come across as the king of false modesty if we weren’t completely convinced it comes from his heart. “People are hungry, you cook, you feed them,” he says at one point, followed by, “I cook and I feed.”
It’s a little more complicated than that, and the key Andrés quote, which comes at the beginning, is “We don’t only feed people, we create systems,” meaning systems of eventual community self-reliance. We get an early glimpse of this sometimes dangerous process after Hurricane Florence devastated Wilmington, N.C., in 2018. As the camera winds its way through a makeshift kitchen filled with food trays, we learn that the Red Cross is “offline” but WCK is prepared to deliver thousands of meals. Moments later, a truck hauling food relief through rising water almost capsizes and the camera is violently thrown around. “Are you relaxed?” and “Are we all swimmers?” are Andrés’ first two calmly asked questions.
One’s curiosity as to how exactly these systems work financially and logistically is never quite satisfied, although it probably involves a lot of drudgery and the rolling of phone calls. We do come to understand that WCK is based on an entrepreneurial—not governmental—model, which helps explain how the organization remains so nimble. However, it doesn’t explain why certain aid organizations can seem borderline hostile toward WCK. While feeding the victims of Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico in 2017, we see Andrés on the phone asking the Red Cross for financial help, which they’re unwilling to provide because the hurricane wasn’t a big enough source of fundraising. And FEMA is not only slow to release any money but they even accuse Andrés of using WCK to line his pockets. So helping Puerto Ricans is, in large part, up to WCK, and its CEO, Nate Mook, recalls his shock upon realizing he spent $70,000 in one day on fruit.
Whether on the move or sitting down for an interview, Andrés comes across as a big-hearted, indefatigable optimist. It’s hard to imagine him having issues, as he puts it, “controlling my grumpiness.” In keeping with the film’s hard-charging yet upbeat tone, only snippets of him expressing any anger or frustration are shown, just enough to prove that he is, in fact, human. Otherwise, even in the harshest conditions, he’s an imposing and focused but never intimidating presence. A brief detour into Andrés’ childhood provides some clues as to how his life took such a philanthropic left turn, including his father’s love of cooking and his need to protect his younger brothers.
In 2010, in the midst of a successful career as a TV chef and Michelin-starred practitioner of molecular gastronomy, he found his calling: while vacationing in the Cayman Islands, an earthquake leveled nearby Haiti and he felt compelled to help. If this increasing time-consuming work led to any serious friction with his wife and three daughters, it’s not conveyed here, except for a brief moment when Andrés worries that he won’t make it home in time for his 25th wedding anniversary. Otherwise, the family is predictably supportive and proud, while also admitting that he’s away from home so often that they opened a Twitter account just to keep track of him.
Although he’s directed features for decades, Howard has more recently become a rock-solid, no-fuss documentarian, and We Feed People comes on the heels of his excellent Rebuilding Paradise, about the 2018 Camp Fire in California that killed 85 people. Like in Rebuilding Paradise, the disaster footage Howard gathered for We Feed People is consistently heartbreaking in its breadth and clarity, including devastating shots of the Bahamas after 2019’s Hurricane Dorian. In the aftermath, after a failed attempt to restart a Bahamian hotel kitchen whose backup generator conked out, the group secures a 40-foot refrigerated container. Later, Andrés visits detritus-strewn remote villages and hard-hit neighborhoods to personally deliver his food and witness the resiliency of the Bahamian people. As always, Andrés insists that the meals provided resonate with the locals and aren’t just MREs or thrown-together sandwiches.
Andrés is such an inspirational figure and Howard is such a pro that it would take a monumental effort for We Feed People to be bad. A major reason the film is so satisfying is that it restores faith in the idea that people can act selflessly in the best interest of strangers in need. To that end, while Disney+ audiences chow down on We Feed People, World Central Kitchen is distributing food to Ukrainians displaced by the Russian invasion. Howard has yet to announce a sequel that chronicles this latest chapter in WCK’s long-running history of good works. But he doesn’t have to. We Feed People proves that the Ukrainians, along with any natural disaster victims who see a large, bearded man in a cargo vest carrying aluminum food trays, are in good hands.