If You Can’t Stand the Fire, then Tame It: Chef José Andrés and Supply Chain Management


José Andrés is most famous for his acclaimed, Michelin star restaurants. However, it’s his humanitarian efforts that can teach us a lot about supply chain management.


A Source of Inspiration

In the constant chaos that is supply chains these days, it’s often difficult to find good news. You know what I’m talking about: the backlogs at ports, increasing prices, labor shortages, etc. Things are bad. They’ve been bad. And, they’ll continue to be bad. If you’re like me, then some good news – supply chain or not – is always welcome. 

One consistent source of inspiration over the last few years has been the humanitarian work being done by José Andrés. Andrés and his team have been providing healthy meals to places around the world that are impacted by severe disasters. Without these efforts, thousands of people would be at risk of starvation. 

Andrés has become an inspiration to many people, including myself. And, in a recent interview, when I heard Andrés talk about executing in extreme conditions, I had to share it:

“Yes, we have a plan. But, careful. We don’t overplan. I always say that we learned in 2020. That organizations, families, individuals like you, we have a tendency to plan too much. When you plan too much, what happens my friends? That things usually never go as you plan them. And if you don’t teach your teams to embrace complexity and to be good on adaptation, they fail miserably. So, our motto is plan less, adapt more. Be more about software, not so much about hardware.”

- José Andrés

There’s so much goodness in this quote as it relates to supply chain management, especially in today’s troubling environment. Let’s break it down.


A Chef’s Journey

I first became aware of José Andrés in 2010 when I ate at his Washington DC-based restaurant, Jaleo. While I was enjoying a delicious meal of Spanish tapas, José and his wife Patricia had much bigger plans in mind. In that same year, they launched World Central Kitchen, a non-profit with the mission to use food to empower communities and strengthen economies. 

Andrés (now 51), an immigrant from Spain, is best known for his sprawling restaurant empire. His ThinkFoodGroup has more than 30 restaurants spread across the US and the Bahamas, and he’s received countless awards including several Michelin stars. While Andrés’ business accomplishments are impressive to say the least, it’s his humanitarian efforts that have really become an inspiration. 

World Central Kitchen was started in 2010 in response to that year’s Haiti earthquake. Andrés began the mission to provide healthy food to families and individuals touched by disasters. Since its founding, the NGO has organized meal drives around the world, including in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Zambia, Peru, Cuba, Uganda, Cambodia, and throughout the United States. For his humanitarian efforts, Andrés was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.


Chaos at Scale

So, you ask yourself, what does a chef-turned-humanitarian know about supply chain management?

World Central Kitchen is no run-of-the-mill organization. Some stats:

  • It has provided 15 million meals since founding
  • It served 4 million meals in Puerto Rico alone in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria
  • It has operated feeding missions in 13 countries
  • It manages a network of more than 45,000 volunteers
  • It organized meals between 346 restaurants and 567 school districts during Covid-19
  • Revenues are up nearly 300% year-over-year, and it recently received a $100M gift from Jeff Bezos

Taken from another perspective, Andrés is managing a global operation with thousands of vendors, tens-of-thousands of employees, and a nine-figure P&L, growing rapidly. Most notably, he has no set supply chain. Every single event is a one-off. From the type of disruption to the location, to the people he’ll be serving, there is zero predictability. Moreover, Andrés needs to mobilize in an instant, often within 24 hours of the disaster happening. Lives are literally at stake. 

While we in supply chain management would like to escape from the disruptions, Andrés and his team were forced to create a model that embraces it.


Applying Lessons Learned

Now, think about Andrés’ world – diving into chaos to make order – and then think about the parallels with the current supply chain environment. Let’s come back to Andrés’ quote and unpack it together:

“Yes, we have a plan. But, careful. We don’t overplan. I always say that we learned in 2020. That organizations, families, individuals like you, we have a tendency to plan too much. When you plan too much, what happens my friends? That things usually never go as you plan them. And if you don’t teach your teams to embrace complexity and to be good on adaptation, they fail miserably. So, our motto is plan less, adapt more. Be more about software, not so much about hardware.”

- José Andrés

Here are three lessons made of pure gold:

  1. 1. Don’t Overplan
    If you’re in supply chain management, then you know about “the plan.” It seems that every year, the answer to our problems is to make a better plan. How many cycles do you spend every year just planning for the plan? Then, there’s the actual planning process, and then there’s all the post-plan meetings, reactions, and revisions.

    In the supply chain industry, we like to say we can’t predict the next black swan event. For Andrés, this couldn’t be more true. It’s impossible to plan where or when the next humanitarian disaster will be. Instead, Andrés can put in place frameworks for the typical number of events (e.g. 3-5 per year), the types of disruptions (e.g. natural disaster vs. pandemic), the infrastructure required for each (e.g. partners, employees, and volunteers), and the funding that’s available.

    Running an NGO, Andrés doesn’t have the budget cycles to prepare to plan, plan, and redo the plan. Instead, he has a very solid and efficient 80/20 planning process that lets him then focus on execution.

2. Embrace Complexity
I know I’ve said this before, but it can’t be overstated in the environment in which World Central Kitchen operates: 24 hours to respond, no pre-set supply lines, surrounded by chaos (a legitimate war zone), and people’s lives are on the line. In the 2×2 matrix of High Stakes and High Complexity, World Central Kitchen is in the ultimate top-right organization. That’s why it’s so critical that Andrés and his team embrace complexity.

How do they do this:

A. By being proactive.

You can’t plan for an earthquake, but there are a lot of disasters that do provide some warning. Andrés’ team is monitoring the news 24×7 to see when and where the next disaster may hit. In many cases, they can be nearly operational prior to anyone even being impacted.

B. Setting up war rooms.

When disaster does strike, make sure you have a war room ready to go within minutes. In the old days, this would be a conference room. Today, it’s a real-time communication and collaboration system linking people on the front lines with a centralized leadership team. Ensure that decisions can be made quickly to identify and address bottlenecks before they become problems.

C. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable.

Quick decisions are critical during a disaster. However, most decisions must be made with imperfect information. Will electricity be available? Will the roads be operational? How many meals need to be prepared per day? For how many days? Indecision is not acceptable when lives are at stake. Collect as much information as you have available at the time, and make a decision. Then, evaluate the decision as you collect new information. Don’t second guess yourself, but learn and evolve.

It’s the difference between playing golf on a clear day and during a storm. On a clear day, sure, I might have higher expectations of landing my ball near the pin. On a stormy day, though, I’m just hoping to get it close. With each shot, I evaluate the conditions, and I try to get closer. Now, you can choose not to play golf during a storm, but José Andrés can’t choose not to operate World Central Kitchen during a disaster. Similarly, you can’t choose to operate your supply chain without disruptions.

D. Establishing their values.

At various points, tradeoffs need to be made – which cities to service, how long to stay, who to partner with, etc. Again, since you can’t waste time evaluating options, use your values to make difficult tradeoffs. For World Central Kitchen, it’s feeding as many people in need as possible. That might mean they centralize operations in a bigger city, not necessarily the city most impacted. That can be a difficult tradeoff to make in the moment, but it’s easier with the pre-set values.

For your supply chain, are you valuing the customer or your bottom line? If you’re not sure, then you probably want to figure it out.

E. By Constantly improving.

With every disaster, Andrés and his team are constantly evaluating how they could do better: respond faster, serve more people, and be more efficient. Operationally, they’re lightyears ahead of where they were 10 years ago. Even within the chaotic world that they operate, they’re not afraid to try new tactics and new solutions because they know it’ll make them better for the long-term.

With the embrace of complexity comes confidence. Who knows the next challenge ahead, but Andrés’ team will be ready. They will not panic. They’ll go into it with a solid plan, and then they’ll be prepared to learn, iterate, and execute with rapid speed.


3. Be Software, Not Hardware
In the interview, Andrés makes the point not to overinvest in equipment. Hard assets are static. If the situation changes, your equipment will be the exact same. Instead invest in soft assets: your people, your knowledgebase, your relations. Soft assets can adjust to their surroundings. Put the right people in the right network with the flexibility and support to act quickly, and they will overcome any obstacle.

In the supply chain world, this reminds me of the challenges with resiliency. Spending money to shore up your supply lines based on the most recent disruptions is expensive, restrictive, and counterproductive. You know lighting will strike again, but you have no idea where. Instead, invest in building an agile supply chain. Create a framework for making difficult decisions, empower your supply chain leaders, and enable them with real-time information.


Tame the Fire

The old adage says that if you can’t stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen. By all accounts, José Andrés has embraced the heat with a standout culinary career. However, it’s his career as a humanitarian, where he’s actually learned to tame the fire, that has made him a global inspiration. 

In a time when supply chains are as dysfunctional as ever, we’d do well to pull some inspiration – and some best practices – from a person like Andrés.




World Central Kitchen

Michelin Guide


David Blonski

David Blonski

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