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Princess of Asturias Award for Concord 2021
My Fellow Laureates,
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I’m going to echo our Laureate, our French friend Emmanuel… I wasn’t going to, but I have to. Because, in the end, how much or how little I have done in my life, I have achieved thanks to my wife Patricia, who is here with us this evening and so much of all I have done is due to her. I love you so much Patricia; this [award] is as much yours as it is mine.
I thank you for this prestigious recognition. But it’s not just for me. This award is shared with the women and men of World Central Kitchen who feed the hungry and uplift communities through the power of food.
They are working tirelessly in different parts of the world as we speak.
In the past month, I’ve been with World Central Kitchen in La Palma as the island was devastated by the volcano; at the airport in Washington DC serving welcoming meals to Afghan refugees; in New Orleans as a category 4 hurricane left millions without power and many families without homes.
And in Haiti itself, where World Central Kitchen opened its first projects more than 11 years ago, I returned in August after another catastrophic earthquake. Within days, we were delivering tens of thousands of meals – from the cities to remote mountain villages.
The people of the world, the people who are voiceless and faceless, those who seem like shadows in the fog, they need people who care for them. They need people who treat them as people. These people do not want our pity; they want our respect and their dignity.
That’s the power of a plate of food.
My journey with World Central Kitchen didn’t start in Haiti. It began right here, in Asturias.
My parents were nurses. And like so many of the heroes saving lives during this pandemic, I saw them going beyond the call of duty to take care of others. As I grew up, I finally understood that perhaps other professions could do the same. I knew that while cooks like me feed the few, but we also have the power to feed the many.
While opening my first restaurant in Washington almost 30 years ago, I found someone with the same spirit, Robert Egger. He was working in the basement of the city’s homeless shelter. Robert knew that wasting food was wrong, and wasting lives was even worse. He recycled the city’s surplus food and trained the homeless to feed thousands of other homeless people all over Washington D.C. As a volunteer there, I realized that people don’t want our pity, they want our respect.
Robert told me something I remember ever day: Too often charity is about the redemption of the giver, not the liberation of the receiver.
What I learned in Washington and Haiti was put to the test when the catastrophe called Hurricane Maria moved slowly across Puerto Rico in 2017.
To me, going to Puerto Rico was not just about helping America but helping the country of my birth too. The island shares both countries’ history, even as it has shaped an identity and culture of its own.
So I arrived on one of the first planes that landed in San Juan after the hurricane, along with my good friend Nate Mook. We had no idea this moment would change our lives, and the work of World Central Kitchen forever.
We gathered – a group of 10 friends, many of them cooks – in the restaurant of my friend Jose Enrique, to make sandwiches and sancocho soup.
We grew from 10 friends to more than 25,000 people united through the task of feeding those in need; from 1 kitchen where the leaks in the roof soaked everything to more than 28 kitchens all over the island, including Vieques and Culebra; from 1,000 meals a day to more than 150,000. More than 4 million meals in all. When they told us it was impossible, we said, “We don’t know, but we will try to reach as many as we can meal by meal.”
Since then, we’ve responded to tsunamis, wildfires, earthquakes, volcanoes, and the pandemic, delivering over 60 million meals.
One plate at a time, big problems can have very simple solutions.
This is the mindset of many immigrants. I’m a proud Asturian, Catalan, Spaniard, and American. I left Asturias as a young boy and grew up in Catalonia before moving to the United States.
I feel like an immigrant of the world.
We immigrants build bridges because we have to. We understand that the world needs longer tables – where food can bring us together – not higher walls to keep us apart.
The challenges we face today are not insignificant: hunger in our own communities, a changing climate leading to bigger disasters, increasing numbers of refugees, and a global pandemic that has collapsed economies.
But I truly believe there is a better path ahead for the world if we understand – and embrace – the power of food.
We should save the environment and eliminate hunger, if we stop wasting 40% of the food we produce.
We should improve health and save money, if we provide our children and seniors nourishing meals every day.
We can bring stability and peace to regions of the world, but only if we first make sure families can eat.
In 1826, the great thinker and writer Brillat-Savarin wrote that the future of nations depends on how they feed themselves.
He was right. Our future lies in feeding the world better.
A world where food is the solution, not the problem.
I’m honored, along with World Central Kitchen, to receive the Princesa de Asturias Award for Concord, but this doesn’t mean we can – or will – slow down.
There is too much hunger around us, and too much work to do.
Even as we are here today, my heart is with the people of La Palma who must not be forgotten right now.
Let us feed the world with hope. Let us build longer tables.
Translated by Paul Barnes.
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