In Washington celebrity chef and World Central Kitchen founder José Andrés, Israel has picked a powerful enemy

4 April 2024, 17:45 | Updated: 4 April 2024, 18:04

Jose Andres
Jose Andres. Picture: Alamy
  • Simon Marks is LBC's Washington Correspondent
Simon Marks

By Simon Marks

Whatever your view on the crisis in Gaza, one thing is absolutely apparent: in Chef José Andrés, the founder of World Central Kitchen, the Israelis have messed with the wrong man.

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In the interests of full disclosure, I have met Andrés several times, and briefly worked with him on a series of programmes (“Made In Spain”) that he was making for America’s PBS television network. Along with some colleagues, I once ran into him in Mexico City, by chance on the eve of his first restaurant opening there. He invited all of us to his big first night, and then comped us a stunning, multi-course meal that I will never forget.

If José Andrés’ life story tells us one thing, it’s that he is not a man to be trifled with. I experienced that in a television edit room, where we locked horns over a particular camera angle used to show olive oil pouring into a saucepan. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will now experience the chef’s same gritty determination at a much graver moment in his life, following the shameful killing of Andrés’ seven colleagues – including three British nationals – in Gaza on Monday.

Andrés claims they were “deliberately” and “systematically” targeted by the Israel Defense Forces. If you heard Iain Dale’s interview on Wednesday night with an IDF spokesperson, you will already know that what was originally described as an “unintentional” killing, may – in fact – not have been.

Whatever the truth turns out to be – and it will take a fully independent, outside investigation to unearth it – José Andrés is not wasting time, and is already demanding an immediate halt to Israel’s military operations in Gaza. “We were targeted, deliberately, non-stop until everybody was dead in this convoy”, he told Reuters on Wednesday. "That cannot be the role of an army. Humanitarians and civilians should never be paying the consequences of war”, he continued.

The term “celebrity chef” does not adequately encapsulate the standing that Andrés enjoys in Washington D.C. His rock star status here was forged in his creation of a chain of restaurants that he claims (with a touch of exaggeration) introduced “tapas” to the US capital. But in a city where people are judged by how much power their wield, Andrés has bagfuls of it, and it’s not due solely to the strength of his Catalan Spinach.

From its inception, his determination to create and develop “World Central Kitchen” has been hailed here, especially after he secured $100 million of funding from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (also owner of The Washington Post). He’s led his teams to some of the world’s most challenging environments, and in Gaza they were literally trying to prevent a man-made famine, when a man-made war killed them in their well-marked vehicles.

“Heroic”, was the description President Joe Biden used, and it’s apt. It is also notable that Biden placed an immediate call to Andrés, describing him as “my friend”. That is testament to the power Andrés enjoys here, especially among Democrats. He has carefully built relationships with both former President Barack Obama as well as Biden.

He has also engaged in a long-running feud with Donald Trump, after the chef scrubbed plans to open a restaurant in Washington’s Trump Hotel when the former President make disparaging remarks about Mexicans. (Trump settled a lawsuit with Andrés in April 2017, on terms that were not publicly disclosed).

So when Andrés talks, Democrats – who nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize – listen. And right now, Andrés may be the most powerful voice in Biden’s ear urging him to break publicly with Netanyahu, and withhold further weapons sales to Israel.

There is another powerful figure whispering similar messages of concern in the President’s ear, and it’s First Lady Jill Biden.

You’ll hear more about that – and, of course, about Chef José Andrés – in my “American Week” on Tom Swarbrick’s drivetime programme this Friday on LBC at 5:50pm. I hope you’ll join us.