The 2018 Artisan Alliance annual meeting, "The Creative Economy Matters," took place on February 8, 2018 at the Aspen Institute headquarters in Washington, DC. Leaders in the creative economy, the financial services and impact investing communities, and the small business and development sectors shared best practices on investing in creative businesses, building sustainable and successful artisan enterprises, and more. One of the speakers, Jose Andres, renowned chef and owner of ThinkFoodGroup, spoke in depth about his innovative approach to the creative economy. Read a transcript of his conversation with Pat Mitchell, Editorial Director of TEDWomen, below:
Entrepreneurship and the Creative Economy: Jose Andres in Conversation
Pat Mitchell: How did you feed 3 million people following Hurricane Maria?
Jose Andres: Chefs have one mission: feeding people. In the food industry, chefs are usually boys. Who is feeding the planet? Women.
Croquetas is what I call the hunger games. This is the first time I saw creativity – doing something with nothing. When you think the problem is too big, you paralyze yourself. You’re trying to take care of an impossible problem. But when you think smaller – let’s feed our neighborhood.
Sunday – 10 food trucks delivering food around San Juan and 2 kitchens. People began calling. The hospitals began calling – the first call was from Paris asking food to be delivered to a hospital. First official delivery was to that hospital – first customers were the hospitals. Hospitals weren’t feeding doctors and nurses. How can they perform their duties? We went from 2,000 to 25,000 meals – served 75,000 meals in the first week. Then they moved to the convention center and called Compass Company in USA – send me as many chefs as possible. Identified kitchens around the island through the Army. 18 kitchens in 3 weeks, producing 175,000 meals/day, 500 delivery points around the island, more than 90,000 volunteers and over 3.3 million people fed. Kept answering the calls as they were coming. If we thought about feeding that many people, we wouldn’t have been able to.
It’s okay to have the goal inside yourself, but don’t share that idea with the team. Increase incrementally.
PM: Where did this entrepreneurial spirit emerge? Childhood?
JA: My father always liked to cook and put the spirit of ‘let’s do, let’s feed’ in me. Fire story: he wanted to cook, but his father made him tend the fire. His father said, ‘why are you upset – I’m giving you the most important task because you are the only one that knows it. One day you’ll cook. If you control the fire, you can do any cooking you want.’ That is the big truth. Apply this to your opportunities, learn what your fire is, master your fire, and then you can do anything you want. Whatever you are, control your fire and everything else will fall into place in a much easier way. If you don’t know you fire, you’re going to have a hard time cooking. Find your fire.
PM: Venture County, CA fire – you created a creative response to that situation. Tell us a bit about it.
JA: Life is like a lottery. Some people are born with the ticket numbers, and some aren’t even born with a ticket. Robert Egger taught me how food can be used to empower. Robert (DC Central Kitchen) inspired the solution. He moved to LA and opened LA Kitchen – asked me to be his Chair. Robert woke me at 3am and said we have to start feeding people. He said ‘Start cooking!’ All the Red Cross shelter and firefighter orders made in missions. Emergencies tell you if you have the word Emergency, must describe what that is. We were able to move with the fires, engage with the firefighters and the Red Cross. Talk about creativity. In Puerto Rico we were feeding the National Guard – they’re our military… how do they not have food? Same thing in California. Being on the ground helps. Whatever you’re doing, don’t do it from your office and headquarters. Learn on the ground – for me, boots on the ground never had more meaning.
There’s the example of giving dry rice and beans to a 12-story elderly home that didn’t have water or electricity to cook with.
Creative approached will only achieve success if the decision-makers are on the ground. It will never happen another way. You may think it’s a great idea, but maybe it’s for another continent or planet – if you have no water and no electricity, please don’t give dry rice and beans to anybody. It’s almost an insult.
PM: You just described the top-down approach to decision-making. I think of these situations as the first stage of survival. You have also created a whole community of people with these skills and training. In that way, food and your delivery is an entrepreneurial venture. People are getting opportunities they didn’t have before. Please talk about that.
JA: In 1995 Mr. Glickman was at my restaurant with Mr. Egger putting food in the back of a truck to distribute around DC after he passed the Good Samaritan Bill.
Orphanage in Haiti: When I think of happy places, I think of that place – it is happiness on earth. There they need bread and they have space. We created a bakery on the first visit. Not only to feed the children and employees, but also to sell. It brings in $2,000-$3,000 dollars per month. We have to have intentions to achieve and leave things behind. It’s very important we leave things behind. A school is a Trojan horse in the community. The fathers and mothers see how this change happens. The kitchen is white, no longer black.
Sometimes you should try to go vertical, but make sure before you build the house, you have a very good foundation. That’s what the creative economy should always be.
PM: I’m thinking of 2 lessons this story brings forward. You are using food to transform lives and communities. What else would you share with this group about how you find a successful solution to challenge?
JA: In our lives, sometimes personal sometimes business, we all move by the wrong type of organizational chart. Some of us are at the very top and some at the very bottom. We have to understand they are equally important. The boss may wake up and say I have a great idea: he says ‘pineapples’ – and everyone says ooooh pineapples. It’s the gravity of POWER. The information goes down quick. But the boss is always right. The idea comes down and everybody scrambles. Everybody had followed the leader even though the leader never meant it. But if you are at the bottom, you have a brilliant idea. But what does gravity do to the bottom? It has a hard time moving up. You are different people trying to move an idea, but the weight is important. We need to break down that pyramid, make a totally flat organizational chart, but power is not there. Boss should we a director of orchestra – you are free to grab your instrument in anyway. The boss should be somewhere in the middle sometimes. Sometimes the boss is the follower in the corner. I believe the future of the creative economy and world needs to believe in the flat organizational charts. Let’s make it flatter. Let’s all be one. That way the great ideas will be spreading without anyone stopping them.
PM: It’s unusual to find a chef with that kind of flattened organizational chart. What’s your vision for that?
JA: NYT food contract being negotiated between FEMA and someone in Atlanta – nothing happened. In Houston, Puerto Rico, California; I never saw it like we were helping – I saw it like we were learning. I’ve been trying to understand how better decisions can be made. With Sec of Education in Puerto Rico – she visited the main kitchen – she got a few thousand schools with kitchens and empowered me to tell the chefs to activate school kitchens. During the next few weeks every time I was in a municipality, I saw each school was doing just that. That is creativity.
In Puerto Rico I only had 3 people on payroll. We’re going to try to activate the chef community every time there is need. What we have is many. Why would you feed the few when you could feed the many? We’re going to gather right before something’s going to happen, and try to go there and feed one person at a time. What happened in Puerto Rico was out of nowhere.
Funding came from FEMA for 3 weeks, but we had already been there for 120 days. At the end, the most creative environment – gin & tonics and rum sours in the bar of the hotel.
We were able to establish a partnership – every morning at 7am volunteers will food Jeeps with sandwiches, fruit, and water and take it across the island. With Homeland Security guys, we did this over 90 days (meeting the helicopter guy at the bar one day). At the end the men and women of our government were helping us. You see, the creative economy tells you that normally you’ll go to the top to get help. Go to your near bar, look around to find solutions.
PM: So interesting you walked in here saying you weren’t part of the creative economy! You came to this country as an immigrant and this is a very strong part of your work. Talk to me about that.
JA: Immigration – I wrote an op-ed recently. Immigration is not a problem for us to solve. It is an opportunity for us to seize. I support Trump about building walls – but walls to build schools, universities, community centers, training centers. We agree on the walls, in principle. I want walls that build communities. Not only the safety of America but the safety of every country in the world, the best safety is not a wall. A wall around other countries and communities. If Mexico does well, America does better. If the wall does well, America does better. We should be investing in the betterment of the world. Immigrants are a basic need in the world – every community should have immigrants. We are bridges – bridges telling you there’s another horizon. Immigrants are people telling you they are different in size, color, accent, etc., but that is necessary. If I am building walls between my community and another, I am not making my daughters any safer.
I am a cook, and I know who is feeding the world. Women. When we say we need to be investing in women, it is because they are the anchor of every community in the world. That’s the way the creative economy is going to be unstoppable and super powerful.