Updated: Chefs Rev into High Gear with Coronavirus Relief

Even as their own restaurants face closures and financial disaster, chefs all over the world are mobilizing to feed schoolkids, the vulnerable and overworked first responders

Updated: Chefs Rev into High Gear with Coronavirus Relief
Chef Marcus Samuelsson turned his Red Rooster Harlem restaurant into a community food hub for locals in need. (Twitter / World Central Kitchen)
Mar 20, 2020

Updated March 26

Through fires, floods and hurricanes, big-hearted chefs and their confreres in the hospitality industry have always stepped up to support victims and responders. But in the face of international curtailments or even forced shutdowns of entire communities’ dining industries, many have no means to keep their own restaurant businesses running during the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, through their restaurants or by partnering with nonprofits, a number of prominent chefs and restaurateurs have raced to set up operations for preparing and delivering free food to those most vulnerable or overtaxed by the virus, from isolated seniors to out-of-school children of impoverished families to quarantined cruisers.

Jose Andres delivering food to a cruise ship
José Andrés (left) and World Central Kitchen director of field operations Sam Bloch prepping food for a quarantined cruise ship (Twitter / World Central Kitchen)

Chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen meal-making juggernaut has been on the scene of disasters for years, and its coronavirus response, which geared up in mid-February, has rapidly deployed around the world in the weeks since. A WCK rep shared a snapshot of the operation as of March 26 with Unfiltered. “World Central Kitchen has worked with partners to coordinate delivery, via 160 distribution points, of more than 136,000 safe, packaged fresh meals for families in New York, Washington, D.C., Little Rock, Oakland, New Orleans, Madrid, Miami, Boston and Los Angeles."

On March 15, after providing meals for the quarantined passengers and crew of the cruise ships in Yokohama, Japan and Oakland, Calif., Andrés announced that the virus had come to the home of his restaurant empire in Washington, D.C. He closed his restaurants nationwide, including Restaurant Award winners Jaleo and Zaytinya, plus his eateries in New York and Las Vegas. Some have been converted into “community kitchens" and have dispensed free meals to those in need, following careful sanitization and social distancing procedures. “We cannot [keep] the restaurants open when we will only be part of the problem, when we need to be part of the solution," Andrés said in a video message on Twitter. “Let’s be strong, let’s be smart, let’s love each other, but at this time, loving each other means staying away from each other."

World Central Kitchen meal packages
A team member of World Central Kitchen hands out a meal package in the Bronx, N.Y., last week. (Twitter / World Central Kitchen)

Last week, Andrés’ team arrived in the Bronx, N.Y., with a plan to begin distributing 5,000 meals a day from six distribution centers across the borough; by March 25, there were more than 50 such spots, including in Manhattan and Queens, N.Y. “This is when it all comes full circle. We’re getting food out to folks, because everybody needs something right now," said Bronx assembly member and organizational partner Michael Blake in a video on Twitter, noting that the service would focus on underserved neighborhoods, many home to high populations of undocumented immigrants. Celebrated Harlem chef Marcus Samuelsson joined the brigade March 21, converting his Red Rooster into a community food hub. “Now is the time to get stuff done and really work together, work as a collective," he said in an interview posted to Twitter. “Food is everything. Food is community, food is a place of identity and gathering. But right now it’s a necessity."

This week, WCK touched down in Los Angeles to begin its “grab and go" meal program there, aimed at providing lunches to students during school closures. Finally, the group has set up a map online that provides times and locations of meal distribution networks across the country.

Volunteer delivering Bouchon baked goods
A volunteer delivers baked goods from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in New York to Citymeals on Wheels. (Twitter / Citymeals on Wheels)

Other restaurants are finding their own ways to be nimble, with many pivoting from packing dining rooms to packing vans with snacks for seniors, teaming with the charity Citymeals on Wheels. Chef Michael White’s Altamarea Group, the Rainbow Room and chef Thomas Keller all pitched in this week with the organization that feeds New York’s vulnerable during emergencies. All the restaurants are otherwise either closed or, in a few cases, operating limited delivery or takeout service.

For the next six weeks, Altamarea Group will be donating 25 percent of gift-card sales to Citymeals; they can be used at group establishments like Grand Award winner Ai Fiori, and Best of Award of Excellence winners Marea and Vaucluse. “We have a longstanding and active relationship with Citymeals, and despite our time of extreme stress, we still wanted to share something with those most in need," an Altamarea Group spokesperson told Unfiltered.

Citymeals on Wheels packaging center
The scene at the Citymeals emergency meal center (Citymeals on Wheels)

On March 18, Keller’s Bouchon Bakery donated baked goods to the organization; Keller’s TAK Room and Grand Award winner Per Se also donated products to City Harvest last week. Last Thursday, chef Mathew Woolf was pictured in front of the famed entrance to the Rockefeller Center and Rainbow Room with his Citymeals tote ready to go.

"The culinary community has always been so supportive of Citymeals and our mission," said Citymeals executive director Beth Shapiro in an email to Unfiltered. “And now is no exception, during the coronavirus emergency, when our frail aged neighbors need us even more. We’d like to thank the local restaurants, purveyors and food groups that have donated so generously to nourish this vulnerable population."

Just north of the city in Westchester County, N.Y., chef Eric Korn of the restaurant Monteverde at Oldstone launched what he dubbed the “Million Gallon Challenge" last week, entreating area chefs to join him in cooking 1 million gallons of soup for the Lower Hudson Valley’s needy. “This is probably the most important message I will write in my entire life," began his plea. A Million Gallons of Soup team member reported to Unfiltered that as of March 26, there were 11 Westchester chefs and restaurants ladling, with more to come. In most cases, donors and food banks provide ingredients to the chefs’ kitchens to be turned into stackable, car trunk–friendly quarts of soup. The first hand-out took place Sunday, with “substantial social distancing, and having cars keep windows closed as much as possible"⁠—but to a “very appreciative" community. The next will be March 27.

Soup delivery
Soup bridges the (social) distance: Volunteers for One Million Gallons get rolling with a delivery. (Instagram / Million Gallons)

At least two other D.C.-area businesses led their own relief efforts starting last week. Chef and sometime TV personality David Guas opened his Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Va. to area schoolkids for free vegetarian grab-and-go lunches, for as long as schools remain closed, in partnership with the charity Real Food for Kids. He reported to Unfiltered on March 19 that 450 meals had been distributed in two days. “We have received heartfelt comments and wanting to give back financially, but also just cheerleading and championing our mission. The outreach and support has been unbelievable," Guas said.

David Guas delivering food
David Guas of Bayou Bakery (left) in action, bringing lunches to Arlington, Va., public school students and their families. (Twitter / Bayou Bakery)

Tiffany MacIsaac, owner of Buttercream Bakeshop in Washington, D.C., started the #ButtercreamCares campaign last Wednesday to send care packages of sweets and pastries to local hospitals and essential medical workers and first responders. “The community has been incredibly excited and has come out in full force," said MacIsaac, adding that some participants had also begun donating to send treats to supermarket staffers, security officers and other workers unable to take time off. (Both Bayou and Buttercream continue to serve diners generally via delivery and pick-up options.)

In the Bay Area, San Francisco’s Che Fico and Healdsburg, Calif., Best of Award of Excellence winner SingleThread Farm have lit the torch. Che Fico chef David Nayfeld has been creating menus of “family meals" every day since March 20 for pickup from the restaurant, with one night featuring tri-tip steak with roasted root vegetables and salsa verde, and the next, roasted chicken with polenta and charred lemon. They feed two to three and can either be purchased for $50 or picked up free by those in need. With funds from donors and restaurant investors, Nayfeld’s team is now moving 250 free meals every night.

On Sunday, Kyle and Katina Connaughton of SingleThread took inspiration from Nayfeld, setting up a similar takeout model for both paying customers and Sonoma’s elderly and out-of-work, with a goal of 200 free meals per night. The nonprofit Sonoma Family Meal is helping distribute, and donors include area wineries like Kistler, Three Sticks, Grace Family, Peay, ColginJordan, Freeman, Lambert Bridge and Banshee, a SingleThread rep told Unfiltered. “We hope this can serve our community locally, our local farms and artisans, and also serve as a viable model for other restaurant businesses to increase their production and keep teams working," wrote the Connaughtons in a statement.

Andrew Wong and Kimberly Hernandez
Chefs Andrew Wong (top) and Kimberly Hernandez of Kym’s in London plate some boxes for delivery to seniors. (Courtesy of Lotus Restaurant Group)

Over in the United Kingdom, esteemed chefs are also looking out for the elderly and vulnerable, in some cases packaging food from their Michelin-starred establishments in to-go containers for the impoverished. Chef Roger Jones of the Harrow at Little Bedwyn, a tasting course destination in the eponymous village west of London, had planned to retire this month. After making the decision to close prematurely in light of new governmental restrictions last week, he wrote on Twitter that “this was not the way we wanted to end our 21 years at the Harrow, but the greater need now takes over, and we will for the next few months continue to support the local community with our meal packs." He has since been sharing pictures of preparations of dishes that can be sold prepackaged, like vegetarian curry and free-range chicken casserole. Fellow British fine dining toques Andrew Wong and Kimberly Hernandez of Kym’s in London are also preparing and distributing ready-to-eat meals to doorsteps of the vulnerable, with the aid of St. Peter’s Church in Eaton Square; the restaurant itself closed down last Thursday.

Roger Jones rhubarb trifle
Chef Roger Jones of the Harrow and Little Bedford in the U.K. has been tweeting his deliverable delicacies; on March 24, it was rhubarb trifles. (Twitter / @LittleBedwyn)

Restaurants are tight-knit, and many are doing their best to take care of their own during massive layoffs, with potentially millions of employees no longer drawing incomes for rent and food. Chefs in Chicago have launched a lobbying effort called the Chef’s Call to Action, urging diners to call their legislators and ask for federal small-business stimulus. Nationally and in New York, restaurateurs have started petitions for governments to provide legislative relief efforts like emergency unemployment benefits and rent abatement; the national initiative is called Save America’s Restaurants and the New York one, Relief Opportunity for All Restaurants (ROAR).

D.C. chef Edward Lee has partnered his Knead Hospitality with Maker’s Mark to transform Restaurant Award winner Succotash restaurant into a relief center for furloughed restaurant workers. The Restaurant Workers Relief Program is offering to-go meals along with fresh produce, diapers, baby food, toilet paper and other supplies every night to hospitality staff now out of work. “People who are suffering are still giving, and that means the whole country understands that this is a big crisis," Lee told Unfiltered. “Millions of restaurant workers suddenly out of work who rely on their paychecks for essentials are desperately running out of time and provisions. We give out everything and run out of food and supplies every night, but we will do this as long as we can afford to do it." Knead restaurants are closed but offering takeout and delivery.

We’ll keep this space updated with more information about dining-industry do-gooders and how you can help them help others in need throughout this crisis.


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