Updated June 15
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 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, and first responders to quarantined cruisers.
Frontline Foods has been one of the star charities of the COVID relief effort, partnering with dining do-gooders like José Andrés (through his World Central Kitchen), chef Michael White's Altamarea Group, BlackBarn, Fieldtrip, Fleming's, Park Avenue Tavern and many others to raise $5.3 million for feeding overtaxed healthcare workers—to the tune of 350,000 meals across 57 cities. Frontline's star got a little extra luster late last month when Kerry Washington and the cast of Scandal sponsored dinners one night for hospitals in New York, Chicago and Flint, Mich.
"One of the most inspirational things we have experienced in this crisis has been the generosity and support we've received from people across the country as we have worked to feed hospital workers in the community. We're thankful to Kerry Washington and Frontline Foods for their support that ultimately helps Fieldtrip continue to pay our staff and keep the doors open,” chef JJ Johnson told Unfiltered via email. Other A-listers like Octavia Spencer, Melissa McCarthy, Ariana Grande and Jimmy Fallon have also contributed to the Frontline efforts.
Like everyone, standup comedian, actor and author Sebastian Maniscalco is feeling the strain of sheltering in place. “When everything kind of came to a halt for me, touring-wise, it was pretty much a shock to my system,” he told Unfiltered. To help bide the time, he turned to cooking for his family at their L.A. home. “I like to get up early in this pandemic and start making breakfast for my kids. I feel like I'm running a hotel over here! I have to get up before the guests do to get their breakfast on the table.”
Now, he's teaming with chef Dominick DiBartolomeo to open his kitchen-hotel for a (virtual) Italian dinner on May 14 at 9:30 p.m. ET, with a portion of proceeds benefiting the Good+ Foundation, which has distributed $1.5 million worth of essentials like baby food and diapers to families in need during the pandemic.
“I've always been looking for a way to marry comedy and cooking,” Maniscalco told us, which led to the idea of a virtual dinner. "It's charity and giving back and raising some money for a good cause. And for me, it's just interacting with people and trying to provide some sort of entertainment.”
Tickets to the shindig include a box with a bottle of wine, Planeta’s Sicilia La Segreta, and food from DiBartolomeo’s company Domenico’s Fine Foods, including baguettes, cheese, eggplant parm and bucatini. “We will have a nice toast. Dom will explain how to put together a nice cheese plate, and it will be very interactive with the audience. We will maybe do some trivia and have a special guest or two pop in and just see where it goes.”
Benevolent ruler of Flavortown Guy Fieri has already raised a truly off-the-hook sum of $22 million so far for the organization he co-founded, the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund. Now, the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives eminence has enlisted the man who pioneered the practice of reliving the same day over and over again, Bill Murray, for a virtual "Nacho Average Showdown" nacho-making competition to be held May 15 at 5 p.m. ET, livestreaming on Food Network's Facebook page.
In a statement, Fieri said he's spent years on the road "meeting other folks who’ve dedicated their lives to this business, and let me tell you something, they are the hardest-working, most real-deal workers you’ve ever meet … the heartbeats of their communities. But they need our help." Nacho aficionados Carla Hall, Terry Crews and Shaq will adjudicate.
Chef and winemaker Charlie Palmer has also kept busy during the shutdown, hosting friends (and foes?) for "Chef Match" cook-offs and "Pigs and Pinot" cooking and wine-pairing tutorials. Donations from purchases made through most of the sessions, as well as sales of other Palmer paraphernalia, have benefited hospitality worker relief funds, including Palmer's own Charlie Palmer Collective Relief Fund and Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants, as well as first-responder care charities like Frontline Foods. Palmer most recently took on Bryan Voltaggio in a bacon and eggs battle.
After suffering the now-familiar story of closures and furloughs, the Di Pietro family, owners of restaurant group Tarallucci e Vino, founded Feed the Frontlines NYC, putting restaurant kitchens to work in the service of healthcare workers looking for a quick, healthy meal. The organization has now raised nearly $1.4 million and dispensed 88,000 meals. Another New York hospital aid org, Meals 4 Heroes has served nearly 20,000 meals, with restaurants like Leonelli, Franco's and Harlem Burger Co. among the many to chip in.
Also in New York, Brine restaurant launched Chicken for Courage, matching every dollar spent on takeout and delivery with an in-kind food donation to hotel-bound healthcare workers who came from out of state to aid the city's COVID relief efforts. Babylon, N.Y., wine bar Molto Vino set up a mobile pizza kitchen on May 9 to feed 1,000 workers at Long Island's Southside Hospital.
At a local level around the country, restaurants have been whipping up funds and meals for COVID relief, with more gearing up every week. In Napa, wine mecca and Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner Press took inspiration from the team at fellow wine-country restaurant SingleThread (see below) to launch a Feed Our Families drive with restaurants Gott's Roadside and Brasswood; in two weeks, their kitchens have provided more than 3,000 meals to the underserved in the North Bay community. Ohio farm the Chef's Garden has created "provision packs" with ingredients for recipes by marquee chefs like Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud that home chefs can recreate; a portion of proceeds goes to employee-relief funds for those toques' restaurants. Boulud also partnered with New York's SL Green Realty Corp. to create the non-profit Food1st late last month; it has now prepared nearly 40,000 meals for those in need. And chef Todd Corboy partnered with San Francisco hunger organization Food Runners to expand its offerings to include prepared meals for the homeless and other at-risk groups in the Bay Area.
April 9 update
Last week, one of the most celebrated restaurants in America announced it would be undergoing perhaps its most dramatic—and noblest—reinvention yet: Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park, a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner, is now a soup kitchen. Chef-owner Daniel Humm is on the board of Rethink, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit for hunger relief. He quickly realized that his out-of-commission kitchen and staff could be put to work preparing meals for vulnerable New Yorkers and first responders as part of Rethink’s COVID-19 Restaurant Response Program.
“[EMP] is making meals all day. We do regular pickups from them either once or twice a day and we bring them to other areas in need, especially the frontline and hospital workers,” the group’s executive director, Meg Savage, told Unfiltered. “That’s [Humm’s] way of not only helping his staff and his Eleven Madison Park family, it’s also his way of helping New York.” Little Tong Noodle Shop and meat-substitute producer Beyond Meat are also pitching in to partner with Rethink. The organization usually serves 15,000 meals each week at distribution centers around the city. “But right now we’re serving almost that a day.
”We are rolling out, within the next two weeks, 10 food trucks that will be parked outside select medical facilities throughout New York, to be a constant stream of food for people on the frontline. At no cost.”
In Napa, chef-owner Ken Frank of La Toque, also a Grand Award winner, faced a similar predicament and alighted on a similar path. He told Unfiltered of the fine-dining situation, “All of us are competitors, but we are all in the same boat. And at the end of the day, we all feed people. We’re crazy. This is what we do.” Frank is making 75 meals a day—soon to be 100—for recipients like the South Napa Shelter for the homeless and, soon, the Rainbow House shelter. He’s been working in tandem with restaurants like Heritage Eats and Zuzu in Napa and getting ingredients from local food banks, Trader Joe’s and wineries like Silver Oak—its garden “has got this spring harvest coming up and nobody to eat it.”
Frank and his remaining kitchen staff have been getting creative. “Last week, we got a donation of a 30-pound case of a product I’d never heard of: Who knew you could buy a 30-pound box of broken bits and pieces of Oreo cookies? It turns out that if you put a bunch of broken Oreo cookies into bread pudding, it makes pretty damn good chocolate bread pudding,” he said. “We’ve been through the fires and floods and earthquakes. And this community comes together to support each other.”
Frontline Foods, is also getting a boost from some big names in California dining. San Francisco restaurants Cockscomb, Lord Stanley and SPQR, and chef Michael Mina’s eponymous group, are all cooking for hospital personnel, with private donors funding the effort.
The idea for the program started when cofounder Frank Barbieri texted a friend who was working at the emergency department at UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay as it prepared for the COVID-19 response asking, "How can I help?” His friend’s response: “Pizza.”
“As hospitals continue to grow their COVID response, we are determined to continue to scale up to support them,” organizer Ryan Sarver told Unfiltered via email.
At least one restaurant-related initiative is providing a way to help from the comfort of your couch. Flapjack Food Entertainment released its first feature film, a documentary about chef David Kinch and his team at Best of Award of Excellence winner Manresa in Los Gatos, Calif., on Friday. A Chef’s Voyage chronicles Kinch’s journey through France to stage elaborate meals with iconic French restaurants like Le Taillevent and Le Petit Nice on the occasion of Manresa’s 15th anniversary.
For now Manresa's dining room is closed (it still offers to-go meals), but Flapjack’s founders decided to donate 100 percent of proceeds from the movie’s rentals to the Lee Initiative’s Restaurant Workers Relief Program, an aid program for out-of-work hospitality pros started by chef Edward Lee of Washington, D.C.’s Succotash. “It is my hope that those who watch A Chef’s Voyage will take comfort in knowing they are helping restaurant workers and their families throughout the country with meals and other essentials,” Flapjack cofounder Mary Wagstaff said.
The United Sommeliers Foundation is another new group marshalled to lift up upended restaurant staff. “The entire restaurant world went into shutdown mode and sadly, thousands of my sommelier friends and colleagues are now unemployed,” said vice president and founder of the hospitality consulting firm Somlyay Erik Segelbaum, in a statement. “They are at home, struggling to make ends meet and hoping that they have a job to return to when this crisis is behind us. While everyone in the restaurant business is hurting, the sommeliers are often the first to be laid off and the last to be rehired.”
Segelbaum told Unfiltered that the group is soliciting donations of both money and wine from consumers, collectors and businesses in the drinks industry. The wine gifts will fuel a rolling charity auction with Acker Merrall, which will donate 100 percent of proceeds and match an additional percentage; it is slated to go live as soon as next week. Among the first lots will be two dozen magnums of Hundred Acre; Vega Sicilia, Staglin and Charles Krug are some of the many other winery donors. "Here's a way to support the people who can keep wine in your hands and in your glass, and take care of you when you go out," Segelbaum said. "Even if it's $20, even if it's $5, even if it's one bottle of wine, no amount is too small."
March 26 update—updated
Among the first chefs on the scene after the coronavirus outbreak was José Andrés, whose World Central Kitchen meal-making juggernaut has been feeding the needy in times of crisis for years. Its coronavirus response geared up in mid-February and has rapidly deployed around the world in the weeks since. By April 8, it was operating meal preparation and distribution centers in more than 30 cities around the world, from Los Angeles to Madrid, having delivered more than 1 million meals to medical workers, the homeless and other populations in need.
By June 15, WCK had enlisted and paid restaurants around the U.S. to cook and serve food to those in need as well: 1,800-plus restaurants in more than 200 American cities had distributed more than 2.5 million meals, helping boost WCK's output to 11.8 million meals total, with 250,000 more prepared every day.
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."
Last month, 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 April 9, WCK was also serving Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Newark and Elizabeth, N.J. to the tune of 40,000 meals per day. “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."
After planting its flag in the Big Apple, WCK touched down in Los Angeles to begin its “grab and go" meal program there, aimed at providing lunches to students during school closures, and has gone worldwide since. Finally, the group has set up a map online that provides times and locations of meal distribution networks across the country.
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 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.
Altamarea Group is 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.
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. 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,” 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 late last month, with “substantial social distancing, and having cars keep windows closed as much as possible"—but to a “very appreciative" community. The next will be April 9.
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.
Tiffany MacIsaac, owner of Buttercream Bakeshop in Washington, D.C., started the #ButtercreamCares campaign in mid-March 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.
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, Colgin, Jordan, 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.
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 in March. After making the decision to close prematurely in light of new governmental restrictions, 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.
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 Lee 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.
Other charities for hard-hit hospitality workers include the United States Bartenders' Guild Emergency Assistance Program, Restaurant Workers Community Foundation, Restaurant Employee Relief Fund and Children of Restaurant Employees. Wine producers have been major donors.
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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