Hurricane Maria had just hit Puerto Rico when José Andrés reached out to Nate Mook hoping to track down a satellite phone. The celebrity chef/restaurateur was about to leave for the island territory to see how his nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, could help, and Mook—a documentary filmmaker who had helped produce a PBS documentary about Andrés—had experience traveling to hard-to-reach destinations like Somalia and Liberia.
Mook decided to do one better than track down a satellite phone. He booked the second post-hurricane commercial flight to San Juan and spent the next two months helping Andrés’s team coordinate 150,000 meals a day across 18 kitchens.
That humanitarian effort in 2017 catapulted Andrés to a new stratosphere of fame, presenting at the Oscars and nabbing a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. For Mook, the experience sparked a need to fix a broken system. Last year, Andrés appointed him WCK’s executive director. While Andrés might get the spotlight for feeding fresh-cooked meals to cyclone victims in Mozambique, refugees fleeing political turmoil in Venezuela, or out-of-work federal workers during a government shutdown, Mook is the “producer” behind the scenes. On his watch, WCK has transitioned from a focus solely on long-term food infrastructure programs to a full-fledged, chef-led emergency-relief operation.
Mook, however, had never worked for nonprofits or aid organizations before. The Reston native started his career as a tech blogger in the late ’90s before founding a series of tech companies, including Localist, a software platform for events. He got bored and began managing TED conferences and producing films, including an HBO documentary about Freddie Gray’s death in police custody.
Mook’s experience with startups has helped at WCK: “We act first. We don’t wait for funding to come in for things. If people are hungry, we’re going to jump. We’re not going to go and apply for a grant.”
Not that money isn’t coming in. After Puerto Rico, contributions and grants skyrocketed from about $664,000 in 2016 to more than $21 million in 2017. (Last year, they were closer to $9.5 million.) The three-person staff has grown to 25, and a small fleet of disaster-ready food trucks will be ready for deployment in the US this fall.
As the group grows, Mook is looking to give it an identity that transcends its celebrity founder. Other chefs, from David Chang to Andrew Zimmern, have gotten more involved. “While José certainly is the face and has been the one on the frontlines, ultimately this isn’t the José Andrés Foundation,” Mook says. “He’s got a lot going on.”
This article appears in the September 2019 issue of Washingtonian.