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Celebrity chef Jose Andres sidestepped red tape to bring aid to Gaza

Published 04/02/2024, 02:14 PM
Updated 04/02/2024, 03:52 PM
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: World Central Kitchen (WCK) barge loaded with food arrives off the Gaza coast, where there is risk of famine after five months of Israel's military campaign, in this handout image released March 15, 2024. Israel Defense Forces/Handout via REUT
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By Charlie Devereux and Aislinn Laing

MADRID (Reuters) -Celebrity chef Jose Andres' disdain for red tape is one of the reasons his food charity found itself coordinating the humanitarian effort in Gaza when seven of its workers were killed in an Israeli airstrike.

The aid workers for World Central Kitchen were killed when their convoy was hit shortly after they oversaw the unloading of 100 tons of food brought to Gaza by sea.

WCK began last month moving food aid to starving people in northern Gaza via a maritime corridor from Cyprus, in collaboration with Spanish charity Open Arms.

It acted after Israel refused to let the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA) deliver food to northern Gaza based on claims some agency staff had taken part in the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel by Palestinian Hamas fighters.

Oscar Camps, director of Open Arms, said in an interview with Reuters that the maritime route between Cyprus and Gaza had been open since Dec. 20 but no organisation had used it.

They constructed a makeshift jetty from rubble and unloaded the aid just metres away from bombardments amid warnings from Israel that it could not guarantee their security, he said.

Andres, who is Spanish and American, said on the social media platform X he decided to get involved in the maritime aid delivery after an invitation from the Cypriot government, hoping other aid providers would follow suit.

He said on March 26 that 67 WCK kitchens were operating in Gaza, feeding 350,000 people a day. Operations are now suspended following the Israeli airstrike on the WCK convoy.

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Earlier in the conflict, WCK had partnered with restaurants and hospitals in Israel to feed people displaced or injured by the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, and then switched in February to helping airdrops of aid to Palestinians in Gaza.

Andres said on Tuesday he was heartbroken and grieving for the families and friends of the seven WCK workers killed in the Israeli airstrike. They included citizens of Australia, Britain and Poland as well as Palestinians and a dual citizen of the United States and Canada.

U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Andres to express his condolences. Biden also told Andres he would make clear to Israel that aid workers must be protected, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told a briefing.

'ADAPTIVE'

Founded by Andres in 2010 after he travelled to Haiti to help following an earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people, WCK has fast become one of the leading providers of emergency aid at scenes of natural disaster or human conflict.

The NGO describes itself as "first to the frontlines", using an "entrepreneurial and adaptive" approach to "err on the side of feeding people expediently vs. asking for permission or following systems and bureaucracy that lack urgency and flexibility".

"When others are assessing the situation we are already feeding, and in the process we learn what is going on, not the other way around," Andres told the Spanish-language edition of Vanity Fair in a recent interview.

The charity says it entered Ukraine five days after Russia's invasion in February 2022 and set up restaurants in five cities.

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Born in 1969 in a coal mining town in Spain's northern Asturias region, Andres worked as an apprentice at Ferran Adria's experimental El Bulli restaurant near Barcelona before moving in 1991 to the U.S., where he set up tapas restaurant Jaleo.

His company ThinkFoodGroup now owns more than 20 restaurants including one with two Michelin (EPA:MICP) stars.

He has cultivated relationships with some of the U.S's most powerful people, receiving a $100 million donation from Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) founder Jeff Bezos in 2021 and striking up a rapport with former U.S. President Barack Obama.

Obama's government in 2014 named him an "Outstanding American by Choice", an award given to naturalized U.S. citizens who have achieved extraordinary things, following up with the National Humanities Medal in 2015.

His relationship with Obama's White House successor Donald Trump was less cordial.

The Spaniard canceled plans for a restaurant in Trump's Washington hotel over comments the then-presidential candidate made about Mexicans, calling them "rapists" and "murderers". Trump sued Andres for breach of contract, and the two reached a settlement in 2017.

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