Puerto Rico is having a well-deserved moment in the sun.
About a year and a half ago, the exact opposite was true when Hurricane Maria tore through the United States territory. The strongest storm to hit Puerto Rico in 80 years, Maria affected the island's entire population of 3.4 million people, who were suddenly without internet, phone service, electricity, and clean water.
Today, though, the cruise ships have returned and tourism is on the rise — thanks, in part, to people such as Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jimmy Fallon, who took Hamilton and The Tonight Show to the island, and to José Andrés, who led the charge to feed residents after the storm.
Jose Mendin (Pubbelly Noodle Bar, La Placita) says visiting the island just weeks after the hurricane to try to reopen his restaurant PB Ysla, located in the upscale neighborhood of Santurce, was horrifying. "It was just a mess. I've been through hurricanes before, but to see all the hotels closed down, with no power. You could feel the island was very weak." The one thing keeping the island alive, Mendin says, was its residents. "My friends and family are very resilient people."
Iconic chef José Andrés also felt the wrath of Maria: His restaurant in Puerto Rico, Mi Casa, remained closed after the hurricane. Andrés, feeling a strong connection to the island, decided to help the best way he knew: by feeding people.
When he found out the chef and owner of the San Juan restaurant Jose Enrique was feeding locals out of his hurricane-ravaged space, Andrés made a call, remembers Jose Enrique Montes' sister and restaurant vice president, Karla Montes. "We started making sancocho (a Puerto Rican stew made with yuca, meat, and plantains) for our local families in Santurce, and Chef Andrés called to check up on us. We told him what we were up to, and I think the next day he was there."
Upon arrival, Andrés and a crew began making meals from the restaurant and some food trucks. Says Montes, "We cooked for about ten days and served about 13,000 people."
Karla Montes says at first, the efforts were limited to people living close to the restaurant. "Then other people joined as drivers, and we traveled to remote places to feed people that didn't have anything to eat."
Those efforts were the catalyst that led Andrés' organization, World Central Kitchen, to serve more than 3.6 million meals to people in Puerto Rico post-Maria.
Andrés, who chronicles his journey in the book We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time, continues to help the island. Now that electricity and clean water have been restored to most of Puerto Rico, he's concentrating on helping cultivate farming on the island through a Plow to Plate initiative. So far, World Central Kitchen has awarded more than a half-million dollars in grants to about three dozen small farms on the island. The hands-on chef recently gave Bill and Hillary Clinton a tour of a local farm when the political power couple traveled to San Juan to attend a performance of Hamilton.
Andrés has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his selfless acts of feeding those affected by all kinds of disasters. His World Central Kitchen has been on hand to nourish victims of hurricanes, volcanoes, and wildfires. Most recently, his organization served 100,000 meals to federal employees in Washington, D.C., left without paychecks during the recent government shutdown, and worked with partners across the nation to serve thousands of others.
The chef says his time helping the people of Puerto Rico was the most satisfying. "Puerto Rico, to me, is this incredible place that makes me feel whole. I am an American citizen, but I was born in Spain. Puerto Rico is a beautiful mix of both — a halfway point between my American side and my Spanish side. The people there are so open and welcoming to everyone. It really is one of my favorite places in the world."
At the South Beach Wine & Food Festival's Taste of Puerto Rico, Andrés will be joined by Jose Enrique Montes, Jose Mendin, and a host of other chefs with Puerto Rican roots to celebrate the food and the resilience of the island and to shine a light on the fact that now, more than ever, Puerto Rico is a magical place to visit.
"The island had a very tough time after the hurricane, but it is recovering now, and the best thing each of us can do to support the Puerto Rican people is to go and visit," Andrés says. "Tourism is a very important part of the economy, so it is even more painful after a disaster to be losing those valuable dollars. The amazing restaurants and clubs, the national parks, the beaches — these should all be on your next vacation."
Taste of Puerto Rico, Hosted by José Andrés. 7 to 10 p.m. Thursday, February 21, at SLS South Beach, 1701 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets ($175) via sobewff.org/sls are sold out.