We spent the next 80 minutes chewing on a large number of subjects – or, more accurately, Andrés, 51, chewed them up and I listened. They included the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, often known as Food Stamps; the Farm Bill; the minimum wage tip (which President Biden would like to eliminate); feeding the National Guard during the inauguration, which drew criticism; the Restaurant Act; and the chief’s idea to create a food and agriculture secretary or a national food and nutrition director within the federal government.
Andrés’s takes may be too big for a simple question-and-answer format, which relies on short edited snippets of much more nuanced conversations. So here I have tried to give the gist of the chef’s thinking on any topic, in his words. I’m sure Andrés can fill in the blanks on his biggest platform, his Twitter account, which has nearly a million followers.
Below are Andrés’ responses, edited for clarity and length, to the topics we discussed.
Food vouchers used in restaurants
One of the things that we’re going to see in the next couple of years, we’re going to see SNAP being used in restaurants, especially in dinner parties.
Imagine a mother with three or four children. Wouldn’t it be smart, especially if she lives in a low-income part of town, if she could go to a dinner party and order three, four meals that will be part of a special menu? Then she can take them home and feed herself and her children. I mean, we have to put ourselves in these people’s shoes.
So how do you define a SNAP restaurant? Is it a fast food? This is where the politics get extremely complicated. In my opinion, these will be little mom-pop restaurants. Why? Because you want to help local economies.
We need to make sure that the subsidies don’t keep going to the same big companies. If they fund the big companies producing the big five or six grains, hopefully they will help the small farms in America as well, and I will say the small and medium farms. They suffer. They are really in pain. In this program, Farmers to Families, they don’t really help small farmers. For the amount of money America has put on the table to sponsor this program, it sounds more like a vote buying approach than really helping, quite frankly.
What the government cannot do is subsidize products that have been shown to put Americans at risk. It is not the business of the federal government. If a business can get rich selling sugar and people buy it, good for it. But let’s make sure it’s done without federal government support, without federal government subsidies.
The need for a national director of food and nutrition
I believe America, and indeed every other country in the world, needs a national food and nutrition director. The post would be created in the same way that the Director of National Intelligence was created after the September 11 attacks. This would bring together the enormous resources of the federal government, bringing together different departments, where this is not currently happening. Food deserts can end if the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development and the Ministry of Agriculture can work more closely together. I know people who have held past positions, they would say, “José, you don’t know what you’re talking about. They have worked together before. Well, we need it not to work on paper. We need things to work with boots on the ground. We need the Department of Education and the USDA to work together. How is it possible today to have school kitchens where you can’t even boil water? How is it possible?
The possibility of working, in a certain capacity, in the Biden administration
If you ever get a phone call from the top office to help you, everyone will say yes. But in my particular case, it’s not like I have college degrees and things like that. I feel more comfortable when I’m in the street at 2 or 3 in the morning, serving the cities.
Do you know me. I get bored very quickly. I like to do a lot of things at the same time and touch a lot of things at the same time. I am very happy to be the wind behind the sails of a ship. These men and women who are in the public service, they care, and they are the experts on their own, obviously. What I’m only learning is that these men and women, they are so humble and respectful to take the ideas of others because they understand that they are there to serve.
The best wall America can build is a wall of knowledge, a wall of production. If the countries around America are doing well, feeding themselves, America doesn’t need to build a wall. That’s why I say longer tables are the way to go. The best safety net America can build is know-how: how not only America, but all countries, can feed themselves.
The criticism that World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit organization founded by Andrés, should not devote its resources to the National Guard, which the government should nurture
It’s very easy to sit in your chair, at your keyboard, and start writing about what you don’t like in the world. Here’s what I’m going to tell people: get off your chair, leave your keyboard and your Twitter account, and go out and improve what you don’t like in the world. We have fed the National Guard troops before, because sometimes in the midst of chaos the systems don’t work perfectly.
So what is wrong with these young men and women, many of whom are from rural America and few of them have high paying jobs? … So what’s wrong with giving them hot soup when people want to be nice? What is wrong with being nice? I’m sorry, I was in the military. I was in the navy. Nothing made me happier than when some of my friends brought me a bowl of hot soup. I will continue to do this for the rest of my life, if necessary.
Biden administration proposes to eliminate tip minimum wage and institute single minimum wage of $ 15 an hour
I think we need to have a policy of rocking the minimum wage nationwide. But it can’t be done by county or state. It has to happen at the top. When we were against Initiative 77 [the measure that would have eliminated the tipped minimum wage in Washington, D.C., over time], not all of my employees wanted 77. Seventy-Seven raised the minimum wage in the front of the house to the same level as in the back of the house without really addressing the tip. Suddenly the waiters are going to make all the money and on top of that, bring the tips home, creating a bigger hole between the back and the front of the house.
Biden’s proposal, if paired with the ability to share advice with the back of the house, is a step in the right direction. Again, it will be a learning curve, until we have the perfect policy. But we have to work on it and test it, and then we have to be open to change until the perfect system happens. We already support the initiative they are trying to push through New York to eliminate the minimum wage tip. The difference between New York City and Initiative 77 is that in New York City, whatever tip customers leave, the restaurant owner has the option of sharing that extra income with other employees.
The future of restaurants
If I am realistic, we will be back to full activity by 2022, in March 2022. I hope that is the day when the restaurant industry starts to return to normal. In the spring and summer of this year we will have that moment of relief again, a little bit, but we have to make sure we don’t have another peak in October or November. Maybe we have some good news, and by September or October we are back to developing business. But I? I prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
The Restaurants Act, a $ 120 billion relief program for independent restaurants and bars, which is currently not part of Biden $ 1.9 trillion relief package
I can tell you that the restaurant law had bipartisan support, and I think it is necessary. What happened with the restaurant law is that some members of Congress and Republicans were probably hesitant and thought the PPP was the best way. I think some politicians thought the restaurant law focused too much on restaurant owners and not so much on restaurant employees. What we have learned in politics is that you get support from some senators and congressmen on paper, but that is not the same as supporting the bill once it is introduced.