Chefs Step Up

Even in the face of financial disaster from the pandemic, restaurant teams all over the world mobilized to feed frontline workers and neighbors in need

Chefs Step Up
Eleven Madison Park, led by chef Daniel Humm (right), teamed with Rethink, a hunger relief effort for at-risk New Yorkers. (Lucas Jackson/REUTERS/Newscom)
From the Aug 31, 2020, issue

Through fires, floods and hurricanes, big-hearted chefs and their confreres in the hospitality industry have stepped up to support victims and responders. Likewise, in the face of unprecedented challenges from the COVID-19 crisis, chefs and restaurateurs have raced to set up relief operations. Through their restaurants, by partnering with nonprofits and local agencies, industry leaders have joined to prepare and deliver free food to those impacted by the virus.

Among the first chefs on the scene in the coronavirus outbreak was José Andrés, whose meal-making juggernaut World Central Kitchen (WCK) has fed the needy in times of crisis for years (see news story). The organization’s recent response geared up in mid-February and has since rapidly deployed around the world. “People are in need of our support in a moment that they barely can even get an unemployment check. That’s the reason we do what we do,” Andrés said in an update on Twitter.

Chef Jose Andres, founder of World Central Kitchen.
Chef José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

WCK provided meals for the quarantined passengers and crew of the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama, Japan, and Oakland, Calif., and established meal distribution centers for communities in cities across the United States, including Washington, D.C., the base of Andrés’ restaurant empire, and in Spain.

In a matter of weeks, Andrés’ New York operation grew from distributing 5,000 meals a day in the Bronx to distributing 40,000 meals a day across all New York City boroughs, plus Newark and Elizabeth, N.J. As of mid-May, WCK was operating meal preparation and distribution centers in 276 cities around the world, with 8.8 million meals delivered as of press time.

Other prominent restaurateurs who have dived in include Daniel Humm, who transformed Manhattan’s Grand Award–winning Eleven Madison Park into a soup kitchen in early April. Chef-owner Humm teamed with Rethink, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit for hunger relief, to put his furloughed staff to work preparing meals for at-risk New Yorkers and first responders as part of Rethink’s COVID-19 Restaurant Response Program.

“That’s [Humm’s] way of not only helping his staff, it’s also his way of helping New York,” said Rethink’s executive director Meg Savage. The organization usually serves 15,000 meals each week at distribution centers around the city. “But right now we’re serving almost that per day,” she said in April.

Chef Michael White’s Altamarea Group, the Rainbow Room and several of chef Thomas Keller’s restaurants stepped up to help feed New Yorkers through established charities such as Citymeals on Wheels and City Harvest. Among other efforts, Keller’s Bouchon Bakery donated baked goods, while Altamarea Group donated 25% of gift card sales.

On the West Coast, California restaurants were equally quick to act, with more initiatives gearing up every week. In Napa, chef-owner Ken Frank of Grand Award winner La Toque has been cooking 75-plus meals a day for recipients including the South Napa Shelter and the Rainbow House shelter. He’s worked in tandem with Napa restaurants such as Heritage Eats and Zuzu, and has made the most of ingredients donated by local food banks, Trader Joe’s and wineries including Silver Oak and Robert Mondavi.

“In many cases, we’re using things we would otherwise not consider, or even knew existed. But we are resourceful and creative,” Frank said. “It’s amazing what people can do when they have to.”

To source produce for the meals, Frank is utilizing a program at the Napa Farmers Market called Shop for the Shelter; every Tuesday, he can shop there using cash donated by market customers—supporting his charity program and small local farms at the same time. “[It’s] a win-win,” he said.

San Francisco’s Che Fico has been donating meals via a takeout system since mid-March. Chef David Nayfeld has been creating menus of family meals—ranging from tri-tip steak with roasted root vegetables and salsa verde to roast chicken with polenta and charred lemon—that can be picked up for free by those in need. With funds from donors and restaurant investors, Che Fico has been able to dispense up to 300 free meals per night, for a total of 25,000 dinners as of late May.

Chef David Nayfeld of Che Fico in San Francisco.
Chef David Nayfeld of Che Fico in San Francisco. 

Kyle and Katina Connaughton of Healdsburg, Calif.–based Best of Award of Excellence winner SingleThread Farms took inspiration from Nayfeld and established a similar program, with a goal of 200 free meals per night. The nonprofit Sonoma Family Meal is helping distribute, and donors include area wineries Kistler, Three Sticks, Grace Family, Peay, Colgin, Jordan, Freeman, Lambert Bridge and Banshee.

“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,” said the Connaughtons.

Best of Award of Excellence winner Press in Napa launched a Feed Our Families drive with restaurants Gott’s Roadside, Brasswood, Farmstead and Charter Oak. By May 22, they’d served 7,500 meals to underserved communities through the Boys & Girls Club of St. Helena and Calistoga.

Chef Emeril Lagasse established a small local team to churn out more than 1,000 meals per week for first responders in his home base of New Orleans. But he’s also taken a wider approach through his Emeril Lagasse Foundation, pledging $500,000 in grants to nonprofit organizations that feed those in need and support youth programs across Louisiana, Nevada and Florida. Recipients have included New Orleans’ Second Harvest Food Bank and Youth Empowerment Project, as well as Las Vegas’ Three Square Food Bank. This fall, the foundation will distribute another $125,000 in grants to support hospitality workers affected by the crisis.

Other chefs too have reached beyond their local communities to support national initiatives such as Frontline Foods, another leading charity in the relief effort. The organization has partnered with WCK, Altamarea Group, BlackBarn, Flemings, chef Michael Mina’s namesake group and many others to raise roughly $8 million for feeding frontline workers—to the tune of 400,000 meals in dozens of cities.


If you’d like to donate, are seeking assistance or want ideas on how to help your local restaurant community, check out our Wine & Hospitality Solidarity Resources page. Please join us in supporting our friends in the restaurant industry—because wine and hospitality are stronger together.

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