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Harvey's Aftermath: Chefs Bring Hope to Houston

As Houston and surrounding areas assess storm damage, the hospitality industry helps the recovery
Photo by: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Some 10,000 people have taken shelter at Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center.

Emma Balter, Lexi Williams
Posted: September 1, 2017

After escaping her flooded apartment complex, wading through 2 miles of chin-deep water and surviving for days on little food, by Monday, Emily Fagan had started losing hope. The 24-year-old musician and part-time restaurant host had sought shelter with seven others in one apartment, but the dwindling food supply, originally meant for two, had become an immediate concern.

"We were thinking, if this goes on for days, and everything is closed, then we may actually be without food," Fagan told Wine Spectator. "We had already experienced such awful things, we just really didn't know how optimistic we could be."

That’s when Richard Howell, operating partner at Fleming's River Oaks (and Fagan's boss) called to check in. He told her to go to the restaurant.

Though Fleming's was closed until Wednesday, chef Elias Miranda was there each day, checking for damage and taking stock of the restaurant's food supply. When Fagan and the others arrived, he served them macaroni and cheese, salad, cheesecake and coffee, and prepared hamburger patties for them to take home for dinner. "We got in the car afterward with all this food and we all just broke down in tears because we couldn't believe that somebody had been so generous to us," she said.

To Howell and Miranda, though, it was just another part of the job. "If I have the tools to help people, that's what I'll do," Miranda said in a shaky voice. "I thank God that I'm able to."

One week after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas and brought devastating winds to the coast, followed by record-breaking rains, the region is trying to regain its feet. Floodwaters are receding in Houston, and rescue crews are going door-to-door in the worst-hit areas, looking for survivors. Closer to the Louisiana border, Beaumont and Port Arthur are still dealing with floodwaters.

At least 7,000 homes have been destroyed and another 87,000 homes damaged. More than 42,000 people are in shelters across Texas. As of this morning, 46 people were confirmed dead.

In Houston, people are seeking food and assistance. And the restaurant community, a vibrant 10,000 venues strong before the storm, is leading the way in helping people get a hot meal and a sense of hope.

Open for Business

Wednesday was the first day the rains slowed and eventually stopped, and while some neighborhoods remained flooded, others began to dry out. The Houston Food Bank reopened that morning, and a long line quickly formed outside as people who had been trapped inside for days ventured out to find food.

Republic National Distributing, the state’s largest alcohol distributor, reopened its Houston warehouse and offices on Thursday morning and began making deliveries to restaurants.

On Tuesday, Matt Crawford, beverage director and general manager of State of Grace, opened with a limited team, to cook for two shelters. "It was probably 25 to 30 individual steaks in [one pan]; we had an entire hotel pan of roasted chicken; an entire hotel pan of Gulf redfish; an entire hotel pan of hushpuppies; and then we had like three hotel pans of carrot cake," he said. "There were three of our chefs here cooking and packing it up, and two local chefs here who are good friends of ours and we loaded up [two trucks]."

Crawford has lived in Houston for just two years. "The people here are incredible, and you can really see it. It’s not surprising to see how everybody’s really jumping in and specifically the restaurant community here."

Chef Chris Shepherd tried to open his Montrose restaurant, Underbelly, on Monday. His plan was to feed the local fire station. They cooked for three hours, until everybody's phone started flashing with a flood warning, and Shepherd called it quits for the day.

By Wednesday, Shepherd was back in business at Hay Merchant, a craft beer bar adjacent to Underbelly, where he oversees the kitchen. "Now, it's time to take care of our city," he said. His crew cooked for first responders and delivered food to 150 nurses at a children's medical center nearby that day. Food deliveries to the restaurant have been slowly trickling in.

Justin Yu had been planning on opening his new restaurant, Theodore Rex, on Thursday. Now that will be delayed by a month or two, he estimates. Nearly 2 feet of water seeped into the restaurant, wrecking brand-new furniture. His other two bars fared better, with Better Luck Tomorrow opening on Tuesday, and Public Services Wine & Whiskey expected to open Thursday evening.

When Yu reopened Public Services, the team just cooked all of the food they had and gave it out to first responders. "It's been a little difficult, to be honest, you're just not sure where to deliver everything to," he observed. "You also don't want to gum up the streets." He's found that the best place is fire stations, which have the vehicles to distribute food effectively.

"The restaurant industry has been nothing less than spectacular and it's been a lot of donations by distributors," Yu said. One day, one of their meat distributors showed up at their door with a whole cooler of meat. "Just, 'Hey, cook this, get it warm, and then we'll come pick it up later,'" Yu said.

Pax Americana, in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston, reopened on Wednesday with a limited menu. Executive chef Martha De Leon and her team have been using whatever they had stored in their freezers to cook for the community. Some of her staff that live in the Sugar Land and Missouri City areas of Greater Houston knew of small shelters that weren't getting as much press as the George R. Brown convention center. Fried chicken and brisket sandwiches were among the goods donated. The restaurant has set up a donation drop-off box, where people can contribute necessities such as diapers, feminine hygiene products, new clothes like socks and underwear. "We'll drop those off wherever they need to go," she said.

De Leon had been using a Facebook group where members of the restaurant community posted about things they need or can do to help. It's been supplanted by a website, IHaveFoodINeedFood.com, that both chefs and shelters can use to coordinate distribution. Restaurants that have items to offer can fill out the “I have food” form on the site with detailed information about their donations, and shelters in need fill out the “I need food" form to request items based on their specific needs and in the correct quantities. Local media reports that Houston chefs and cooks are preparing upward of 10,000 meals per day for delivery to the shelters scattered across the city and its surrounding areas.

Outside Help Arrives

Chefs around the country were quick to organize efforts to help, and when chef José Andrés decides to get involved, he plunges in head first. Andrés arrived in Dallas Wednesday morning and gathered food donated by Target, which he and his team drove down to Houston to distribute to hunger-relief efforts. The chef founded his World Central Kitchen nonprofit in 2010 after seeing the devastation in Haiti.

Austin-based Salt Lick BBQ has set up "Operation BBQ Relief", while chain In-N-Out Burger has set up a mobile kitchen outside the downtown convention center.

Del Frisco’s restaurant group announced that from Thursday, Aug. 31, through Monday, Sept. 4, they will donate 20 percent of sales from all 53 Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House, Del Frisco’s Grille and Sullivan’s Steakhouse restaurants to Houston-area food banks, with the goal of raising more than $1 million for the cause.

"As a restaurant company, food is intrinsic to who we are," said Brandon Coleman III, chief marketing officer for the Texas-based restaurant group. "It's how we generate revenue, but it's also a great way to give back."

Though all of Del Frisco’s Houston-area properties that closed during the storm have reopened, the company is still providing payment to employees that were unable to work during the past week. Additionally, the restaurant group has an internal collection, the FEED Employee Support Fund, in which staff members can donate to support fellow employees affected by Hurricane Harvey. The company matches each donation.

E. & J. Gallo Winery announced Thursday that it has donated $100,000 to the American Red Cross for relief efforts. The company will also match employee donations dollar for dollar. "Our hearts go out to the millions of people who have suffered tremendous losses," said Joseph E. Gallo, CEO and president, in a statement. And Stumptown Coffee has announced that 100 percent of its cafe and online proceeds on Sept. 4 will go to the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.

Ti Martin, coproprietor of New Orleans landmark Commander’s Palace, announced that she is creating the Hurricane Harvey Hospitality Employee Relief Fund, with the help of the Louisiana Restaurant Association and the Greater New Orleans Foundation. The fund will donate individual grants to area restaurant and hotel workers who are in need during this trying time.

“After Hurricane Katrina, the Houston community was there for New Orleans and we'll never forget it. Today, we are returning the favor,” said Martin, whose brother Alex Brennan-Martin, runs Brennan’s of Houston and started the New Orleans Hospitality Workers Disaster Relief Fund, which raised and gave away over $1 million in small grants in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

Those wishing to make donations can find worthy assistance programs using Charity Navigator.

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—With reporting by Samantha Falewée and Mitch Frank

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