SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — When chef Jose Andres took one of the first commercial flights into Puerto Rico five days after Hurricane Maria hit last month, his intention was to help cook a few thousand emergency meals, donate some money and head back home.
A month later, he has fed more Puerto Ricans freshly cooked meals than any other relief organization working there, and he has become the public face of the effort. What began with makeshift pots of the classic island stew called sancocho, served in front of a damaged restaurant, quickly grew into a network of 18 kitchens around the island.
Under the banner of his nonprofit group, World Central Kitchen, his crew of chefs, cooking students, pastors, food-truck drivers and hundreds of volunteers has served, as of Tuesday, close to 2 million meals and sandwiches. Staff members keeping records of the project say people in all of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities have eaten Andres’ food. His Twitter feed became a steady source of news and commentary on the state of the island’s recovery.
But now, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency offering more contracts to local food suppliers and the Puerto Rican economy starting to slowly kick into gear, it’s time to pull back, Andres said.
On Thursday, he will close his main cooking operation in this city’s Coliseo de Puerto Rico, where nearly 500 volunteers assembled as many as 30,000 ham and cheese sandwiches a day, and giant paella pans boiled with rice and sausage every morning. Other kitchens will close, too.
The operation will shift to a more strategic approach aimed at feeding the elderly, the sick and people in remote communities, including Ponce, Humacao, Naguabo and Vieques, an island 8 miles east of the main island that was hit particularly hard.
In those places, local chefs and church members will cook rice dishes and other hot food with ingredients and supplies delivered by the network that World Central Kitchen has developed in the month it has been in Puerto Rico.
“We are going to concentrate on hot meals because there is plenty of cold food and sandwiches on the island now,” Andres said in an interview on Tuesday night.
At this point in Puerto Rico’s recovery, cooking and distributing too much free food could swamp the emerging economy, he said. Even though 75 percent of the island is still without power and is still relying largely on bottled water, officials report that 89 percent of grocery stores have reopened, and small restaurants and roadside stands are starting to sell food.
“An NGO has no right taking money away from business,” said Andres, 48, who immigrated to the United States from Spain.
At its peak, Andres’ operation cost about $400,000 a day, including transportation and hotel costs for chefs and staff members he flew in from some of the 27 restaurants in his company, Think Food Group. He also paid to use some venues, and he paid people like food-truck owners who took meals into isolated neighborhoods that had received little or no other support.
The money came from donations to World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit association of chefs that Andres established in 2011 after he traveled to Haiti to help that country recover from an earthquake that killed more than 220,000 people.
Popular chefs like Mario Batali, Eric Ripert and Guy Fieri and celebrities including Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anthony Bourdain began sending money early. Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow, gave $1 million after she visited. Several businesses provided support, including Goya Foods, whose helicopter ferried supplies to remote areas.
Last Saturday, World Central Kitchen signed a $10 million contract with FEMA to produce 120,000 meals a day for two weeks. Other pieces of Andres’s operation will likely feed people through Thanksgiving. And other organizations will continue to distribute millions of shelf-stable “meals ready to eat” and boxes of canned food, dried meat, beans and rice.
The Red Cross said Tuesday that since the storm struck, it had distributed 1.4 million pounds of pantry items and 540,000 meals and snacks to 40 communities. Every day up until Wednesday, it was handing out 400 of Andres’ sandwiches and as much fruit.
“The Red Cross is working very closely with the entire response community, including government agencies, other nonprofit groups, faith-based organizations, area businesses and others,” said Elizabeth Penniman, vice president for communications. “We are pleased that Chef Andres is playing such an important role there as well.”
FEMA said that at least eight other organizations are providing emergency food aid in Puerto Rico, including World Vision International, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Puerto Rico State Guard and the Church of Scientology.
“FEMA has told me many times they feel they have this under control,” Andres said. “I am going to help keep them to that promise. We are all here covering each others’ backs.”