Next Thursday, March 16, the Aspen Institute will convene its 2017 Summit on Inequality and Opportunity. A collaboration between the Institute’s public programs and its policy programs, the Summit is a one-day gathering dedicated to dialogue about the widening opportunity gap in the United States. More than 400 policymakers, thought leaders, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and practitioners from all over the country will gather for a day of ideas, exchange, and inspiration. Among them will be world renowned chef José Andrés. Named “Outstanding Chef” by the James Beard Foundation in 2011 and recognized by Time magazine on the “Time 100” list of most influential people in the world, Andrés is an internationally recognized culinary innovator, passionate advocate for food and hunger issues, author, television personality, and chef/owner of ThinkFoodGroup. We asked him to share some thoughts with us about opportunity in America.
What does inequality mean to you?
To me, inequality is when certain people are lacking in opportunity despite being contributing members of society. So many people, in America and around the world, are not able to feed themselves and their families, even if they are working two, three jobs. I first saw inequality when I traveled the world in the Spanish Navy, and I see it today in many places. This is why I have started my nonprofit World Central Kitchen, to try to empower people to put food on their tables — they need our respect and support, not our pity.
When it comes to growing jobs and expanding opportunity what’s your recipe for success?
To be honest, there really is no recipe for success. Instead I think that success is, as Winston Churchill once said, “going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” I make decisions always with this in mind and encourage my team to be thinking the same way.
The nation has been fixated on national politics, but so much happens locally. What can people do on a local level to fight against poverty and inequality?
There are so many things we can all be doing on a local level. We can volunteer at local shelters and soup kitchens, for example. I know that my life changed the day I began volunteering at DC Central Kitchen, which my friend Robert Egger started to do something both simple and profound — to fight hunger. There are lots of amazing organizations around the country to get involved with. It is a great way to stay engaged in your community.
As an immigrant, what do you wish non-immigrants understood about immigrants’ contributions to society (and specifically to the food industry) that they might not?
I think that it is most important for people to remember that immigrants are contributing to every single step of the food industry, from picking our fruits and vegetables on farms to cooking our meals in restaurants. If we had no immigrants in America, we would have much less food on our tables (and it would be far more expensive). This is why I closed many of my restaurants on the Day Without Immigrants — many of my kitchen staff are immigrants, and some of them approached me about joining the protest. My restaurants are not unique in this; no part of the food industry could survive without immigrants.
You’ve said food has the power to change the world — tell us more.
I believe that whenever we are faced with problems in the world, it is an opportunity to come up with an innovative solution. And with food, there are so many opportunities! When I first visited Haiti after the earthquake in 2011, I was amazed by the beauty of the country, the strength of its people. And I saw an opportunity to help in my own way, through food — World Central Kitchen has set up sustainable bakeries and fisheries in the country, and we have encouraged the use of clean cookstoves. Food is agriculture, food is labor, food is environment, food is national security, so finding new and innovative ways to think about food can help touch all of these other areas!
As you look to the future, what gives you hope?
It was the great food philosopher, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who said, “the future of nations will depend on how they feed themselves.” It is up to us here in America, and in each nation around the world, to decide our own futures. And I am a real believer that this depends on what we are eating. I think that more and more people are understanding this, and that makes me happy. Our children are paying attention to what they eat, and about national food policy, and about solutions to end poverty and hunger. This is what gives me hope.