For a year, Josh Phelps and I shared a desk. Kind of. He didn’t work for BYT (except when we could guilt trip him into helping us set up for an event), but he worked inside of our office. I’d see him for a couple days, we’d chat about music or movies, and then he’d disappear for a couple of weeks. I’d check out his Instagrams from Colombia or Mexico or California and wonder, what the hell does Josh do? How can he just pack up and leave? What is he even working on when we sit across from each other?
And now, years and offices and career changes later, I know. After working in the pharmacy world for 14 years, Josh left his 9-to-5 and joined World Central Kitchen. He travels more than he used to, but instead of spending a week in Medellin, he spends two months in Guatemala. Or a month in North Carolina. Or Tijuana. Or Florida. He helps set up kitchens in towns that have been destroyed by hurricanes or are struggling with political violence. He helps people get jobs. He helps feed people.
In honor of World Central Kitchen’s annual fundraising event Dine-N-Dash (get your tickets here if you like food and you like feeding people), I called up Josh to chat about his career switch, how it feels to be on the ground during a disaster (natural or otherwise) and how he manages to pack for two month trips. It will make you re-evaluate all of your packing skills… And possibly your life.
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What was your first job?
I would say my first real job was working in a pipe yard of a plumbing and heating company. It was based where I grew up in Newport News and they sent me up to New Jersey. It was the dead middle of winter and I was outside pulling pipe fittings from bins covered in snow. It was very Springsteen, very blue collar.
Did you like it?
I did. I really liked working in the warehouse. Working long days, getting in early, the people. It was physical, but I liked the physicality of it… And the people. It was people just working their asses off everyday.
Obviously that’s different from what you do now, but it’s not entirely dissimilar. You’re outside, working crazy hours, working with people that you really like.
I’ve never really sat down and put it to words, but I think about that a lot, how it’s come full circle in a lot of ways. My first really long mission volunteer with World Central Kitchen, I was helping manage inventory and just moving boxes back and forth from a kitchen to a freezer that was two blocks away… On a cobblestone road with a broken hand truck. It reminded me everyday of what I was doing in that warehouse. Like you said, just working long hours with people that you enjoy being around versus being in an office all day long.
What’s your job title at WCK? What do you actually do there?
The title is manager of relief operations. The daily activities can change all the time. A lot of us have different titles but, especially during a disaster, we’ll end up with a lot of the same responsibilities. Just doing whatever it takes to get the food prepared on time and out to the people that we’re serving, making sure it’s served hot and it’s safe. Then it comes back to a lot of stuff that isn’t just the physical work and the cooking or the carrying things. You’re tracking, you’re doing a lot of research and project management stuff, which dovetails with what I was doing during the last 14 years or so.
I’m glad you brought up your old job. I never entirely understood what you did, but I knew it was within the pharmacy world.
I audited and sometimes managed clinical trials for early stage oncology. There was a lot of travel, as you know. We’d see each other for a few days and then not for a few weeks. What that entailed was a lot of training doctors and nurses on the trial and returning and reviewing data, making sure all the proper regulatory documents were in place, making sure there was no fraud being committed.
How did you make the jump to WCK?
A friend I grew up with lived in Puerto Rico. He was an air traffic controller, so I had connections in Puerto Rico through him and some of his friends. After Hurricane Maria happened, living in D.C., you couldn’t not see what was going on, on the relief side, with World Central Kitchen. They were doing amazing things, they were serving 150,000 meals a day, and I wanted to go down and take part in that somehow. On Thanksgiving of 2017, my mom came up to Washington D.C. and we went to Walmart and filled a couple bags full of blankets and water bottles, supplies a friend on the west side of Puerto Rico said they could use. The next day, I flew down and went to the west coast of the island and dropped some supplies off. At that point, I was borderline harassing Erin Schrode, who was helping manage some programs for World Central there. She put me in touch with some chefs in San Juan.
So I left the west side and went to San Juan. They were actually in transition and I worked with some chefs that were adjacent to World Central Kitchen, but two months later I went back and I took around 10 women, including Katalina Mayorga and Marcella Kriebel. We worked in a kitchen WCK had set up at Dorado Beach Club. That was really my first week of seeing how World Central Kitchen worked in a disaster. I met chef Alejandro Pérez there. I saw him again in 2018 when he came to our fundraiser and now, full circle, I’ll see him in three days in Colombia where he’s helping with a lot of projects on the Venezuelan border. It’s another crazy circle.
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I had no idea there was a D.C. caravan that had gone to Puerto Rico to volunteer.
Yeah. [José Andrés’] personality and his drive to help people is contagious. He had chefs coming from all over the place. He’s inspiring, so that makes our job a lot easier.
When did you realize this wasn’t a one off volunteer thing? That it was a real career move?
While I was volunteering I still kind of had a 9-to-5. I could say it was when I went to put it my two weeks… But I really wasn’t enjoying that job anymore. It was a gamble, but I stuck around and it got to the point where I gained the trust of the group. Myself, and a lot of people, we just kept showing up.
This is a big question, but what is it like to do emergency response work? How does it feel on the ground?
It’s the widest range of emotions. When you get on the ground and you’re working with the team… Some would debate whether it’s wise or not, but with hurricanes we can go in before and we can wait it out. [With Hurricane Michael] our team went in a day or two before. I came down the day of, I remember it was the day after a Nine Inch Nails concert. I flew into Atlanta to buy some restaurant equipment and then drove down. Unfortunately, the hurricane turned north and not east, so I drove right into it. I got a hotel for the night, but our crew down there was sleeping inside a very secure emergency operations center, which is great, because that’s what we were going to use as our kitchen and the hotel just got completely destroyed.
In the beginning you are so focused and working so hard for the common goal of getting the kitchen up and running, finding out where the meat is, you’re so busy. You don’t have time to think, you just do. We don’t take in any hard equipment, we don’t have food trucks. If you have a food truck, you can’t take it in before. You’re limited in when you can go somewhere. That’s why we’re usually the first people on the ground cooking hot food in any of the disasters that I’ve worked.
Theres a lot of adrenaline involved and then once you start taking the food out into these neighborhoods… It’s invariably the poor neighborhoods and mobile home parks and stuff like that. People are still living in their mobile home that has a tree going through it. They can’t work because the whole city was destroyed. Once you get into the humanity aspect of it, you have to switch gears. You have to have sympathy, or empathy if you’ve gone through it yourself. One of my colleagues, Matt LeMasters, is an army vet who lost his home in Hurricane Florence. He came on board doing the same thing that I do and now he lives in D.C.
In Hurricane Florence we were serving people in Lumberton, North Carolina, which had just flooded a year or two before. We were going into this church where this woman was not at all worried about herself, but was receiving donations and helping organize the food. At the end of the day, driving the hour or two back to Raleigh, I was just sort of losing it in the car. You just have to allow yourself to process all of the emotions, but during the day you want to be strong for the people you’re serving. You want to be on your game.
There’s a lot of good stuff. It’s a disaster and it’s sad, but you see people help each other. We’re hugely volunteer based. We will have thousands of people over the course of a month come through and do volunteer shifts. Seeing that kind of stuff is what keeps you grounded.
Obviously a huge part of your job is being on the frontline and making sure that people who are going through a tragedy have access to what feels like a fundamental human right, a hot, nutritious, good meal. Has that changed the way you eat? Has it changed your relationship with food?
It should… And this is something we’re working on and we have a director of nutrition now, her name is Alison Sosna. Sometimes, I eat so gross when I’m on a mission because I’m just busy. Most of the food is going out to the people we serve, it’s not for the lack of our chefs making amazing food and offering some to us, the problem is I’m in a truck for 10 hours a day. There’s just so many different varying flavors of chips at gas stations. It’s shameful.
It’s really seeing the relationship other people have with food. We serve a lot in the south, and I’m southern, but people might associate southern food with things that are fried… But the way that people reacted when we had fresh greens and salads. If you haven’t had that in a week or two and you’ve just been eating canned food and MREs? People want to eat healthy food. That could be a whole other conversation, but people went nuts over salads. We have a video of a little girl doing a salad dance.
It does make me think that I need to eat more salads. We work in food and we’re constantly around it, we do calorie breakdowns, especially now that we have someone one staff that has that institutional knowledge. When we’re working missions we need to be better. I was in Tijuana for two months, you can walk outside and on the corner is the best taco that I’ve had in months. D.C. has great tacos, but they’re not on every street corner. I’m trying to eat healthier, but the really healthy food goes to the people we’re serving.
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I’m sure there is a better way to phrase this, but where is the best place you’ve traveled with WCK? What place has left the biggest impression?
Working in Tijuana and working in Cucuta, in both of those missions we started kitchens and we hired people to work in the kitchens who were refugees. You hear people say, “Oh, they just want to come and take take take,” but when you meet them, they just want to work. They just want to work and not be susceptible to violence. They didn’t want to leave where they grew up. Seeing that restores your faith in humanity and makes you complain a little less about whatever may be going on in your life.
In Colombia, we have folks who are cooking who crossed over with just the clothes on their back and if we can ever set a kitchen up in Venezuela, they’re ready to go back. By giving them this opportunity and paying them every day, they’re able to bring their daughter over and things like that. That kind of thing touches me because it speaks to more than the food aspect.
On a domestic level, we just have people coming out who want to help. In Chico, when Paradise burnt down there were thousands of people over the course of a month. You really get to see the best of what people have to offer.
How often do you travel for World Central Kitchen?
I went to Puerto Rico twice… Guatemala for a few months… Hurricane Florence, so North Carolina for a month or two… Then Michael in Florida… Chico in California… Tijuana… Colombia… Then Nebraska for the floods and we also helped out the Oglala Sioux Nation in Pine Ridge… Then El Paso and Juárez to check on some shelters… Then I just went back to Tijuana and I’m going back to Colombia. I might be forgetting something, but outside of that I think I’ve only been home for a week or two. Two weeks at the most. That’s by choice, they’re not forcing me to do anything, but it’s part of the job.
We just had a team do a really hard mission in Mozambique. We’ve had teams in Indonesia, we have ongoing programs in Puerto Rico and Haiti. I haven’t even been to all of the different places, but the opportunity is there. On some down time I would love to go and see our long term programs which include a school in Haiti and sustainable farms in Puerto Rico.
For these very long trips, how do you possibly pack for that? What do you bring with you?
This is a good place for some sponcon! It’s funny because it’s gotten a lot easier. You take too much stuff the first couple of times and then, depending on where you’re going, I can buy underwear and socks there or whatever. I take a duffle bag and a laptop bag. That’s it. I’ve got some work boots that I like… From Sorel! [Laughs] We get t-shirts for every mission. They use to have the hashtag like #ChefsForVenezuela or #ChefsForFeds.
One thing I didn’t mention, and it’s not because I’m bitter and wasn’t there, but we did the whole thing where we fed all the federal employees! It was huge and amazing. I got to come back for one day and in that day I met Nancy Pelosi and some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. In that 24 hours, it was insane. It was so bitter cold and we had a resource center set up, but that was inspiring.
Honestly, I can pack in a couple hours now. We all have our go bags. We have these Garmins where I can hit a button, if I’ve charged it, and tell people where I am in the word. Some people are better than me. José will show up with a backpack and his cargo vest, his calling card. He’ll show up even on a mission where we’re not serving that much food, but it’s important to be there. He’s in the middle of opening Mercado Little Spain in New York, one of ThinkFoodGroup’s largest projects, but he took a day to come and see the team in Nebraska and supported us in our decision to send some food up to Pine Ridge.
That’s another thing too, largely on these missions we have our executive team, but we’re trusted to use our resources wisely. It’s not a lot of tape to go through. It’s a phone call or a couple of texts to say, “Hey can we send this food up to the reservation? Because they aren’t getting anything.”
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That’s interesting. How do you decide when you need to go somewhere?
It’s something we’ve cultivated, especially [executive director] Nate Mook and our director of chef release Tim Kilcoyne. They’ve just cultivated these relationships with the Red Cross and to some extent FEMA. You just start following social media. We follow all the hurricane accounts and the earthquake accounts. They will reach out to us in certain situations. Now we’re just in the loop. There’s a group called VOAD that helps coordinate aid in every state when there’s a disaster. We’re part of the conversation now and that’s huge.
Those decision are made judiciously, but we don’t want to think too hard… Also, people will just start tweeting at José.
Is this your dream job?
Yes. For me, when I think about this… Like I mentioned with the first job, the physicality of working and all the folks in the warehouse, this is sort of a combination of all that. And the project management aspect and the necessities of tracking data and managing budgets and working across different teams. We have such a great team.
Not that I’m old, but to make transition to something like this at my age, I feel lucky. I don’t take it for granted and I don’t want to have any arrogance about it. I feel lucky to be able to earn the trust of the team. We have to trust each other. I don’t think we always realize some of the situations we’re in, sometimes politically in international situations, or safety-wise because of the disasters. Working in a place where you know that everyone has your back, that’s important… That’s everything.
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