The documentary ‘We Feed The People’ takes a fascinating look at Chef Jose Andres’ disaster relief work.

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(3 stars)

Ron Howard’s intriguing documentary We Feed The People about Chef Jose Andres and his relief organization, World Central Kitchen, begins with disaster. It’s not the kind you’d expect. While Andres was riding in the back of a large all-terrain vehicle, laden with hot food to distribute to North Carolina residents after Hurricane Florence in 2018, the truck suddenly skidded by the way the driver assumed he was there, somewhere under all the floodwaters.

Howard probably couldn’t resist the drama of the moment: a broken-down truck, carrying water, in a secluded part of the state where all you can see are trees, gray skies, power lines, raging floodwaters and some lights on the horizon that’s a hint of civilization. But I doubt Howard wanted to show how Andres deals with the setback. The chef adopts this unnaturally calm demeanor, as if trying to do nothing more than save a dish, not likely to save lives.

“Margarita Diplomacy” by Jose Andres

This luminous moment of failure captures at least two traits of Andres, which Howard will delve deeper into in his document: The chef has transformed human ability to adapt quickly to conditions on Earth and his relentless quest to feed people in crises, regardless of obstacles. In an age of climate change, Howard seems to be saying, Mother Nature may be an unpredictable force, but we have our flesh-and-blood counterpart: this massive, combustible, unstoppable Spaniard named Andrés.

Howard is clever enough to know that this account is very accurate, and he gently attempts to uncover the motives that drive Andres, sometimes at the expense of the health of the chef, his family, and those around him. The director had Andres talk about his childhood and his “complicated” relationship with his mother, a nurse, whose “moments of distress” forced him to find “ways to get away from home.” But once Howard and Andres touch on these sensitive topics, they let go, ready to investigate life’s other storms.

World Central Kitchen has been around for about twelve years, born in 2010 during the deadly earthquake in Haiti, but the organization came about after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. Drawing on original cinematography and archival footage from the WCK team and collaborators, Howard takes viewers from one devastated region to another, whether it’s the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian or New York City during the pandemic, introducing us to some of the staff and volunteers who are making the organization the new model for disaster relief.

Part of this is worn out for those who have followed Andres’ career, although perhaps in a more digestible form than his richly detailed book, We Feed an Island, for example. Howard takes turns, for example, to give credit to his chef mentor, Robert Egger of DC Central Kitchen, or to give screen time to Andrés favorites, like immigrant farm workers, but without being overtly political.

The director’s best decision was to walk around Andres’ house and talk to his wife Patricia Fernandez de la Cruz, and their three daughters, who openly share their thoughts. “I get very worried when he goes” to a disaster area, says the younger Lucia. Girls often hear nothing about dad for days, which is why they joined Twitter, “just to follow him,” says middle daughter Ennis. The girls agree that their mother is the glue that keeps the family together.

“We say Jose does what he does because I do what I do,” Patricia tells the camera.

The documentary—which follows Howard’s “Rebuilding Heaven,” another document dealing with natural disasters—may have leaned toward the biographical saints had it not been for the director’s desire to show Andres’ more difficult edges. Like the moment a chef wears a WCK worker for breaking protocol in the Bahamas and supporting a woman before the relief stations are set up. He later tries to apologize to the woman who witnessed the confrontation, but won’t get it, which makes Andres put in even more effort. It hurts to watch it.

I can’t blame Howard, though, for not delving into the more chaotic parts of Andres’ life, even if he would have made a more compelling movie to see what this guy had accomplished. In spite of The pain he might carry in his big heart. But I think Howard can read the room. This divided country desperately needs a hero, and Jose Andres is the right man for the job.

unclassified. Available on Disney Plus. Contains some cruel words and images of natural disasters and human suffering. 87 min.

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