Karla Hoyos Shares Her Experiences on the Front Lines of World Central Kitchen

By Aiman Javed | Will Blunt


Aiman Javed
Will Blunt
Chef Karla Hoyos putting the finishing touch on the dragon fruit ceviche
Chef Karla Hoyos putting the finishing touch on the dragon fruit ceviche

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, Chef Karla Hoyos used her corporate catering experience to lead disaster relief operations through World Central Kitchen. Impressed by Hoyos, co-founder José Andrés offered her a position as chef de cuisine at The Bazaar by José Andrés Miami. Since she accepted the job, Hoyos has also been on the front lines of WCK efforts in the Bahamas, Spain, and Miami. We spoke with Hoyos about her role in disaster relief and what her colleagues refer to as The Karla System.

How did you first become involved in community work? 

In 2010, there was a huge hurricane in my hometown in Veracruz. My family and I—since I had a catering business—brought a lot of equipment. And I just started cooking at the shelter for people. It was 200 people a day, but I was a culinary student, and for me, that was a lot.  

What was it like to be in Spain during the pandemic last year?

One day, you would have five volunteers arrive; another day, you would have 20, but you need to make the same amount of food. This kitchen was on the second floor, and the elevator would break. So we made human chains to bring all the purchases up and all the food down. We started making 950 meals a day. By the third week, we were making 14,000 a day.

What memories come to mind when you think about your time in disaster relief?

During Hurricane Maria, we were some of the first ones to this island. We’d fill [the World Central Kitchen private charter] up with food, supplies, a couple of solar water filters. When we got there, people didn't even know what time it was. One of the ladies was like, “We just haven't eaten in days. There's people that don't have water.” It was shocking to see. The kids were soaking the humidity from the dirt because they were so thirsty.

In Spain, I broke down. I'm not gonna lie. We went to this area in Madrid. I remember this girl. She was like 14 years old. She had no shoes. We gave her food, and she ate the sandwich super fast. And then she stood up for only five minutes. I had to go to the car, and I was like, “I can't. I can't.”

What is The Karla System?

I'm very methodical in how we do things depending on the equipment that we have to make sure we are as efficient as possible. Every single situation, every single kitchen is different. In Spain, the method was that somebody was cooking all the proteins, somebody was cooking all the veggies, and somebody was cooking all the starch. You need to create systems that people can repeat easily. Because if you do a lot of steps, people get confused. It needs to be very efficient, very practical, and fast.

How has José Andrés mentored you in this area?

He remembers everything he promises, and when you're working side by side, he thinks of everything. I've seen him almost fainting but trying to help. He just cares. Makes you want to do more.

What’s something you wish people knew about being a chef in disaster relief?

It's not for everyone. If you don't make it on a disaster relief operation, it's your responsibility that families are not going to be eating that day. And that's a different kind of pressure. The stress, oh my God, I cannot even explain. But you want to help. That joy, you can't compare it to anything.

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