On the Border with José Andrés' World Central Kitchen

The best puerco en chile verde I have ever tasted was at a government-run shelter in Tijuana, Mexico. Housed in a defunct outdoor nightclub called El Barretal, the “shelter” was a ragtag collection of tents pitched in a concrete courtyard, with makeshift outdoor showers, and sanitation woes due to recent rains. At its height, thousands of Hondurans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans, many of them women and children, were living inside. Having fled gang violence and other dire circumstances, they had traveled en masse, mainly by foot, more than 3,000 miles to this city on the United States’ southern border, hoping to exercise their legal right to cross over and claim asylum.

By late January, many migrants had moved on. A few went to the States, some to smaller shelters or rented rooms, and some even back home, as their chances of receiving refugee status in Donald Trump’s America proved slim. Only 200 or so remained at El Barretal. Multiple entities—Mexican Marines, policías federales y municipales, and an orange-shirted wing of immigration control called Grupos Beta—were overseeing the shelter’s entrance, allowing no food in. Instead, volunteers for chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen ladled that pork, along with garlicky, tomato-reddened rice and fresh salad, into cardboard boats and served it with wooden utensils outside the gate beneath portable spotlights we had brought with us. People lined up to receive dinner with a murmured “gracias.”

The meal was part of an effort that marked yet another expansion of a mission that has garnered the D.C.-based Andrés a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize. For me and other volunteers, it simply felt like a human imperative. Dana Booth, an Oregon winemaker, has been delivering food for World Central Kitchen twice a day since December when he rode his bicycle down the coast from Eugene. “I’ve made some really good connections with a lot of people in the camps,” he told me. “It makes me want to stick around, see it through, and make sure people get cared for and in a better place before I leave.”

That sums up Andrés’ impetus. Founded in 2010 following the chef’s experiences distributing clean-burning cookstoves in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, World Central Kitchen (WCK) brings a food-centered approach to community empowerment and anti-poverty efforts. With the help of a volunteer network of 140 professional chefs, the group has launched culinary training programs, funded school kitchens, donated cooking equipment, and supported grassroots food businesses in places as diverse as Cuba, Zambia, and Cambodia.

In 2016, when Hurricane Matthew unleashed on Haiti, Andrés sunk WCK into disaster relief, too. Hurricanes Harvey in Houston, Maria in Puerto Rico, and Florence in North Carolina; 2018’s Indonesian tsunami and Guatemalan volcano eruption; the Camp Fires in Northern California—at every new emergency, World Central Kitchen was there, often ahead of other agencies, feeding displaced and hungry people. This past November, as a caravan of 7,000 Central Americans approached the border, migrant rights advocates beckoned Andrés to Tijuana, and the organization broadened its response to other kinds of humanitarian crises.

As the chef told me, “One of my favorite quotes is from John Steinbeck: ‘Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, we’ll be there.’”

But emergency relief isn’t enough in Andrés mind. As in natural disasters, the hungry people at the border needed help with long-term solutions. “Ever since we started World Central Kitchen, I have seen a similar story,” he said in an email. “There is a disaster, and organizations rush in with lots of money, and some of them do very good work, but then the money and the interest starts to dry up and the organizations leave. People might have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their infrastructure, and their sources for food. It is important to feed people in need, but it is also vital to be building up resilience against future disasters, so that next time, they will be able to better support themselves and their neighbors.”

By the time I got to Tijuana, World Central Kitchen was preparing less than half the 3,500 daily meals it served at the height of its work in December. Andrés himself, who is always there to kick off WCK missions, had long ago returned home to D.C., and several staffers had followed him to feed furloughed federal workers there. The kitchen crew remaining in Tijuana was cooking primarily for smaller, pastor-run shelters and plotting an exit that included a strategy of food security for subsequent waves of migrants. I had come at just the right moment to see how the organization helped to create that sustained resilience of which the chef spoke.

Given the lengthy wait to drive back into the States from Mexico, the easiest way to navigate the world’s busiest border crossing from San Diego is to walk, which I did early on my first morning at World Central Kitchen. The U.S. side boasts an enormous collection of outlet stores. On the Mexican side, there’s a square with a kiosk where, in cooperation with the Trump Administration’s “metering” system, Grupos Beta hands out numbers to migrants like they’re in line at a delicatessen. If your number comes up, you present yourself to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol for the chance to be detained, interviewed, fitted with a tracking anklet, and subjected to deportation hearings—all hopefully en route to asylum. Only a few get called each day. Most migrants wait and wait.

Beyond the square, a tangle of pedestrian bridges and concrete switchbacks traverses roadways and the urban trickle of the Tijuana River. Not far from the river, World Central Kitchen is headquartered in a former taqueria on a street lined with garages.

Inside, sheets of paper hang on the walls, recording the number of people fed at each meal at each site on each day of the operation, so the chefs can track trends and plan ahead. Booths are filled with laptops and backpacks, markers and tape. In a kitchen behind a pass-through, WCK cooks were already cleaning up from lunch prep when I walked in. In the center of the room at a row of tables pushed end to end, Shannon Dawson-Neubauer, in sparkly eyeshadow, blue Buddhist mala beads, and a purple bandana tied over her short blonde hair, was filling insulated Cambro containers with hotel pans of rigatoni-tuna salad.

“They love that,” she said. “So that stays on the menu because we’re cooking for them. They’re our clients, our customers.”

A chef and energy healer who’s catered for big outfits like the USGA and UC Berkeley, Dawson-Neubauer, or "Mama Bear" as she called herself, had arrived, a first-time volunteer, right after Christmas, planning to stay about a week. Now, a month later, she was running the kitchen. “You come down here, and it changes everything,” she said. Her approach to the job exemplified a World Central Kitchen ethos. Staff treats those they feed as respectfully as they would the diners at a José Andrés restaurant.

Operations manager Josh Phelps loaded the lunches into his truck. Fruit—like the pears he was lugging—was expensive, but WCK doesn’t skimp. “It’s just not debatable that this is better than any food they’re getting from other groups,” he said. Phelps, who formerly worked in biotech, had hooked up with World Central Kitchen after Hurricane Maria, and he had seen the group put many long-term solutions in place: food trucks in Panama City, sustainable farms in Puerto Rico, kitchens for North Carolina’s Lumbee Indians.

“But this is not like disaster relief where there’s a clear-cut time you might move the kitchen out but still fund a local food truck to feed people. Here, there’s no end in sight,” Phelps told me. With each new caravan, “People are going to be food insecure.”

His job now was to figure out how to address that chronic need. To that end, World Central Kitchen was in talks with another group, Families Belong Together, which was planning a permanent presence in Tijuana. “While numbers are low before there’s another influx, it’s a good time to form a partnership and train them in the World Central Kitchen way of doing things, so if and when numbers rise again, they are ready to mobilize,” said Phelps.

He was also working on bringing self-sufficiency to the church hostels housing migrants. I hopped in his passenger seat. We were tailed by a couple of local handymen, who were giving Phelps estimates on what it would cost WCK to rehab the kitchens where he was dropping off food. Inoperable ovens, poor ventilation, broken sinks, refrigerators being used for clothing storage—Phelps took notes on it all. “Problem-solving is a huge part of what we do,” he said. “We have the ability and knowledge to make something that’s lasting and can continue to grow, even if we don’t have full-time people here.”

I busied myself with talking to migrants. One man, a former farmer and builder, had fled his native Honduras because he could work there no more. “If the gangs know you have money, they kill you for two or three pesos. And the police are just as corrupt.” He showed me the scars on his legs and head from an attack that had left him unconscious.

“When you hear media talking about the hordes of violent people coming, it’s actually violence that they’re running from,” Phelps said. “The violent people get to stay where they are because they are violent, and they steal everybody’s shit. And if you want a better life, you have to think how bad your life is if you’re going to pick up and walk thousands of miles. You don’t do that on a whim.”

Back at WCK headquarters, I joined in with a group of Mennonite volunteers from Virginia who were zesting limes, stemming basil, and cubing potatoes into water for the next day’s lunch. We were making a mess.

“Can we get someone to clean up that citrus on the floor?” yelled Dawson-Neubauer over the pop music playing on her Bluetooth speaker. “Teresa, delegate!”

An elegant woman with close-cropped silver hair, Teresa Picos is a volunteer from Tijuana’s Border Church. Every Sunday, her pastor leads a joint service with a San Diego pastor, each congregation on either side of the border fence at the binational Friendship Park near the beach. Border Church also has an office at El Chaparral, the crossing where I had entered Mexico that morning, and where undocumented residents of the U.S. might find themselves when Immigration and Customs Enforcement kicks them out.

“All the deported people, we help them. We have a bathroom and shower. We give them clothes. And a lawyer helps them get papers, so they can work,” said Picos.

One of those deportees, a burly, Mexican-born guy named Rodrigo, had gotten work at WCK. At the moment, he was tending to the bubbling cauldrons of puerco—hunks of seared and then long-braised meat, potatoes, and tender chayote melting into a piquant tomatillo salsa—I would serve later that night. Rod had spent nearly his whole life in Los Angeles, but some unfinished paperwork had left him without citizenship, and a bad turn of luck got him picked up by ICE. Now Rod’s wife, who is a U.S. citizen, spends her days traveling back and forth and dealing with lawyers.

Picos grabbed a broom and started sweeping the floor herself. “Deported people suffer a lot,” she said. “They come from living the good life, and they come here with nothing because they take everything from them. That’s why we say, the migrants, they come for their dream. They don’t even know what they’re going to. They think that they cross the border, and everything’s going to be, wow, wonderful. No. It’s not easy.”

The following morning, I returned to World Central Kitchen headquarters with a special delivery in my backpack. It was five packets of frozen loroco—edible pods of a flowering vine with a caperlike flavor—that I had found at a Salvadoran grocery in San Diego. This was a gift for Ana, a migrant who, like Rod, found a job in Tijuana with WCK. There were four migrant workers in the kitchen, and each of them was keen to cook dishes from their homeland to share for a family meal. Marvin had made a sopa de mariscos that reminded him of his work as a fisherman on the coast of Guatemala. Reina, who’s Nicaraguan, prepared an elaborate oxtail stew with plantains, corn, calabaza, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, yuca, habanero—you name it.

Ana’s specialty was pupusas. Back in El Salvador, she would have used rice flour for these savory stuffed griddle cakes. Here, corn masa was an acceptable substitute, but for flavoring the filling authentically, nothing could stand in for loroco, which had proved difficult to find in Tijuana. When I handed her the packets, she broke into a grin. “I feel so happy right now, like I’m back home.” she said. Home, was El Salvador, which she had left under threat of violence, traveling with her two sisters in the caravan to a fetid government shelter in a sports stadium where WCK staff had met her.

“They were all at my house for a few days,” Dawson-Neubauer told me, “so there was a lot of food and dancing and watching novellas at my house.” Now Ana lived at the same hotel as the rest of the WCK staff. Like Marvin, and like Reina, who wept because she was terrified of ending up in U.S. detention, and like Santos, who had a scar across his neck from an attack back in Honduras, she was awaiting her shot at asylum in the U.S. She was hoping to go to Washington, D.C., where she had family that could sponsor her and she could open a little pupuseria, like the one she had worked at in El Salvador.

I donned a plastic apron and latex gloves and got to work juicing limes and quartering heads of lettuce at a counter. I helped lay out the hotel pans and compose the salad that would go with chicken pesto over roasted potatoes for that night’s dinner. When all the deliveries were out the door on their way to the shelters, Dawson-Neubauer called me back into the kitchen, where Ana had set up her mise en place.

The loroco, refried beans, Oaxacan cheese, shredded pork that she called chicharrón—Ana had all the ingredients for the pupusa filling at the ready. She showed us how to fashion a hunk of masa into a disk with our oiled hands, then add the fillings, wrap the dough around them, and flatten the entirety into a pucklike cake.

I laid my lopsided pupusas on the flat-top grill alongside Ana’s perfectly circular ones. She deftly flipped them, and when they were grilled golden brown with bits of char on either side, she handed one each to Dawson-Neubauer and me, and showed us how to pull it apart and dollop on salsa and pickled cabbage salad. The pupusas were still steaming hot, but we ate them right there, laughing and also nearly crying over their deliciousness, and for the complicated joy of making them in this interim kitchen so far from Ana’s former home and, if all goes well, her new one.