When Food, War and Politics Collide

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The deadly Israeli strike on an aid convoy that killed seven workers for the relief group World Central Kitchen in the Gaza Strip shook official Washington this week. It prompted President Biden to issue his sharpest public criticism of Israel to date and spurred Israel’s military to make a rare admission of fault.

It also revealed the power of something that is usually an afterthought in national and global politics: food.

José Andrés, the celebrity chef who built World Central Kitchen from a scrappy outfit feeding hurricane victims to a $500 million relief organization operating in war zones, dialed up political pressure on both Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. He spoke directly with Biden, White House officials said on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, in an interview with Reuters, he accused the Israel Defense Forces of “systematically” attacking the three-car convoy.

On Thursday, Biden held a tense call with Netanyahu, threatening to place conditions on future support for the country. Hours later, Israel said it would permit more aid deliveries in Gaza. It also promised new steps to reduce civilian casualties and broker a temporary cease-fire in exchange for the release of hostages who are being held in Gaza by Hamas militants after they attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people.

I spoke with my colleague Kim Severson, a reporter who covers food for The New York Times and has written extensively about Andrés, about the celebrity chef’s political activism and why the deaths of these seven workers have drawn so much attention in a war that has already been so deadly. The interview was edited and condensed.

JB: We know José Andrés as a celebrity chef who brings relief efforts all over the world, and who doesn’t hesitate to wade into politics. How did his message evolve over the course of this week?

KS: He began the week by expressing heartbreak about the deaths, and urging Israel to open more land routes for food and medicine. But after the Israeli government said the deaths had been an accident, one that, according to Netanyahu, “happens in war,” he began to call it a targeted act. He was clearly trying to hold the Israeli government and, I think, the Biden administration to a degree, accountable for all this. His organization studied how the hits were done, and they were able to go back and retrace the approvals they got from the Israeli military before they started.

That’s when, I think, he really went into full José Andrés mode.

JB: What is “full José Andrés mode”? What kind of political activism have we seen from him before?

KS: Andrés fought with Donald Trump and his administration on numerous occasions, including when he backed out of a restaurant he had planned to open in a Trump-owned hotel after Trump used anti-immigrant rhetoric as a presidential candidate. He tangled with the Federal Emergency Management Agency over hurricane relief efforts he was part of, especially after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017.

What’s more, he’s a charismatic figure who owns lots of Washington restaurants and cuts a high profile there. He’s a presence in government in some really interesting ways that no other chef has ever been.

JB: It’s not completely new for chefs to engage in politics. You’ve written before about how Alice Waters, the California chef, talked the Clinton administration into planting a vegetable garden on the White House roof. But Andrés’s activism — and the way in which he seemed to shape policy both here and in Israel this week — goes way beyond that.

KS: There’s been a wave of chefs getting more politically involved. Tom Colicchio, the celebrity chef who co-founded the Gramercy Tavern in New York, has lobbied Congress around hunger and breaking the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s hold on the food system. Recently, the James Beard Foundation has put together boot camps specifically to train chefs on how to make political change in their communities. Andrés has been a model for it, and someone who has risen on this tide.

I think Biden realizes that Andrés is not somebody who’s going to be quiet about this — and actually knows a whole lot about how this is going.

JB: This war has been happening since October. Nearly 200 aid workers had already been killed in Gaza before these seven, according to the United Nations, as have more than 30,000 civilians, according to health officials in Gaza. Why do you think this particular attack has resonated so widely, politically?

KS: It’s really a curious thing. Aid was already fraught; there were reports of Palestinians drowning as they tried to retrieve military aid.

In the United States, José Andrés is a celebrity, someone who has a credible organization, someone who was one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2018. He’s well connected and wealthy, and he has a platform that he knows how to use.

No. 2 — and this is really key — what World Central Kitchen does is deliver meals cooked by chefs and people who know the local food. They’re delivering comfort food of the country to people, and it’s just such a simple and unbureaucratic mission. That’s something people can relate to, as well. They are cooking these meals, making thousands of pitas every day and handing them to people. They’re working in Gaza, and they’re working in Israel, too. It’s sort of pure in a philanthropic way, and you’ve got a dynamic celebrity at the head of it.

Read more from Kim:

How José Andrés and his corps of cooks became leaders in disaster aid

Among American chefs, the Israel-Hamas war has spread to food

“You’re each going to have assignments of hundreds of people. Do you think wearing a MAGA hat attracts 50 percent of those people?”

— Tyler Bowyer, chief operating officer, Turning Point Action

My colleague Nick Corasaniti got access to a training led by Turning Point Action, the conservative political group, as it tries to erode Democrats’ mammoth advantage in early voting. This fascinating nugget shows how the right-wing group, which has spread falsehoods about past elections, is instructing its new staff members to dial down their outward displays of partisanship as they approach infrequent voters in a sprawling effort to get out the vote.

Read more about what Nick saw here.

On Monday, I used my inaugural newsletter to explain why I think the rerun election between President Biden and former President Donald Trump, a contest that can seem a little tired on its face, will be as captivating, revealing and utterly consequential as any in recent history.

And then I asked what you thought.

Hundreds of you wrote in. Some of you respectfully told me I was wrong. Some of you said that less respectfully. And lots of you told me that you, too, were thinking a lot about the stakes of this election, the role that you as voters will play and the course that 2024 will chart toward the future.

I want this newsletter to be a conversation with you, our readers, and in that spirit I’m going to share a slice of your responses.

Many of you wrote in to tell me the election feels as bleak or pointless as ever.

“I’m elderly,” Martha Tack of Sutton, Vt., said. “I’ve never seen this much ennui with the stakes so high, so I decided this morning that I will ask everyone I run into if they are registered and then ask them to vote.”

But you also saw a lot to look forward to. Like me, you expressed genuine interest in down-ballot races from California to Texas to New Jersey. And Nina Ruback of Blacksburg, Va., saw an upside to voters’ frustration.

“From their disappointment in Biden due to Gaza to their disdain for Trump, people are protesting more and becoming more involved not only with the national politics but their local politics by mailing their representatives, from the local level up to the national, and making their voices heard,” she wrote. “It’s beautiful.”

Some of you are excited about the growth in attention toward third-party candidates, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the independent candidate and prominent anti-vaccine activist.

“I think this is the first time in my adult life that there is a viable alternative to the two-party system that has real momentum, and I’m curious to see what happens,” said Amanda Albertson of San Diego. (That same factor has caused others among you great dread.)

Many of you wrote in to express your excitement about vanquishing the other side. “There is now a real possibility of stopping the Democrats’ relentless surge to make America a socialist country,” wrote Jayson Levitz of Queens, N.Y. Kathleen Toomer of Miami said she was excited about the possibility of defeating Trump a second time.

And some of you are simply excited that this election will end.

“To be honest,” wrote Karin Kemp of Charlotte, N.C., “I will really be enthused to have this election over.”

— Additional reporting by Taylor Robinson


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