Karla Hoyos planned on a busy February. The chef had been working to open her first restaurant, Tacotomia, at the upcoming Julia & Henry’s seven-story dining and entertainment complex and to participate in the South Beach Wine & Food Festival’s (SOBEWFF) Our Sunday Table: Jazz Brunch with the Grey and Mashama Bailey on Sunday, February 26.
Then, a catastrophic act of nature occurred. On February 6, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and Syria. José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen (WCK) mobilized a team to set up kitchens as soon as it was deemed safe. As she has in the past, Hoyos volunteered to be one of the first on the ground.
“I got my visa, and I’m leaving tomorrow,” Hoyos tells New Times in the wake of the disaster, explaining that WCK had to delay its response so as not to interfere with rescue efforts. “Literally, we try to get there hours after a disaster, but first responders only had a limited amount of time for their rescue missions. The streets needed to remain clear for the first responders,” she says.
Hoyos explains that she’ll fly to Turkey, work, and return home in time to make 600 fresh tortillas for her SOBEWFF brunch. “It’s only two weeks, I’m going to set up the kitchen. I told José [Andrés] I cannot not go. Even if it’s for two weeks. I have this urge. I need to go and help people.”
This isn’t Hoyos’ first time flying into a disaster with WCK. In 2017, Hoyos responded to the call for help after Category 5 Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. The chef, who was working with Bon Appétit Management Company, a company that runs cafés at universities and corporations, answered the call. “José had just landed in Puerto Rico, and they needed a chef to set up a kitchen to feed several thousand people. I wound up staying for three months. That’s when World Central Kitchen started to call me.”
Hoyos impressed the world-renowned Andrés so much that he implored her to relocate to Miami. “I was going to go back to Indiana. I never dreamed I would be living in Miami.” Hoyos helmed the Bazaar by José Andrés in Miami Beach for more than four years while continuing to go wherever WCK was called to help. Hoyos has cooked for Bahamians after Hurricane Dorian, Haitians after the most recent earthquake, and first responders after the Surfside condo collapse, among other missions.
Last year, Hoyos spent several months on the Ukraine-Poland border, helping feed people displaced by the war. In an Instagram post from last year, Hoyos shared her thoughts from the front line: “Today was hard, so hard I broke down like I never had before. This should not be happening in 2022, people should not be suffering like this, children should not go through this. I’m so mad. People, be grateful, we are so blessed just to have a place to sleep, food, and not watching your children cry cause they are cold and not being able to do anything about it.”
Hoyos says that although she has traveled to some of the most dangerous spots on Earth in the past few years, she has never feared for her safety, thanks to WCK’s concern for its volunteers and the people they are helping. “I’ve never felt unsafe with WCK. They’re very adamant about safety, even in Poland and Ukraine.” Hoyos says that each person is given a tracker and must check in several times a day. She did add that there was one person who allowed himself to go into harm’s way. “The only person who goes into places that might be deemed unsafe is José. He feels he needs to see for himself what is going on and to put himself in a situation before he allows anyone else to go.”
Seeing that level of human suffering does take its toll. “War is devastating. It’s such a different situation every time I go to a place. Right now, I’m not afraid of my safety, it’s what I might see and what I might find.”
The hardest part, says Hoyos, is coming back home. “You’re in a disaster zone, and you’re feeding people who lost everything. You get into this bubble for three months. Then, you get pulled out, and suddenly you’re into your life in Miami.” The chef says everything — from the air conditioning to a refrigerator stocked with food and drink is shocking. “There’s a guilt to it. It’s hard. The guilt is hard. It does things to your head. We’re cooks. We’re not trained for war.”