From 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy, big-hearted chefs 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 are selflessly giving of themselves. Through their restaurants or by partnering with nonprofits, a number of prominent chefs and restaurateurs have raced to set up relief operations for preparing and delivering free food to those most vulnerable or overtaxed by the Covid-19 virus, from isolated seniors to out-of-school children of impoverished families to quarantined cruisers.
Chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen, who recently made his New York City debut at Hudson Yards, has been on the scene with relief for disasters for years, and its Covid-19 response geared up in mid-February, providing meals for the quarantined passengers and crew of the cruise ships in Yokohama, Japan and then Oakland, Calif. In mid-March, Andrés announced that the virus had come to the home of his restaurant empire in Washington, D.C., and he would close his restaurants nationwide, including Restaurant Award winners Jaleo and Zaytinya, plus his eateries in New York and Las Vegas. Some were converted into “community kitchens” and have dispensed free meals to those in need, following careful sanitization and social distancing procedures, starting March 17.
“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.”
Shortly thereafter 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; within 72 hours, there were 19 such locations, including in 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. WCK then touched down in Los Angeles to begin its “grab and go” meal program there, aimed at providing lunches to students during school closures. Finally, WCK 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 in Covid-19 relief, 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.
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 noted. 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.
“The culinary community has always been so supportive of Citymeals and our mission,” said Citymeals executive director Beth Shapiro. “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.”
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).
These acts of kindness and Covid-19 relief are not limited to the incredible compassion of “Celebrity chefs”. Ryan Carroll, a 2011 Sayville High School and Culinary Institute of America grad now living in New York City, was left without work after Mayor Bill de Blasio’s order to close all bars and restaurants. “I didn’t want to sit in my apartment so I packed up all my stuff and moved back home,” Carroll said of his decision to spend some time in his Sayville-family home. “I was thinking about making dinner then I automatically thought I had to bring a dish to my grandmother. Then it hit me, why don’t I bring a dish to every one’s grandma for free?” The model is $14 per meal, plus your grandma eats free. He is also donating 25 percent of his proceeds to Island Harvest, the rest goes towards making more meals.“I chose Island Harvest because I know for a fact that they feed people, especially the poor and elderly, which just adds to my main goal,” he explained.
Carroll is a trained chef working in NYC. He started his career working under Jean Georges at The Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton. He now works for John Frazier at the Times Square Edition in NYC at a 5-star hotel. He served chicken parm diners with Rigatoni Ala Vodka and a side of semolina bread. The next day he made short ribs with truffle mash. He has future plans for other high-end dishes like seafood and steaks, cooking everything out of his Sayville kitchen. He promises to travel to drop off dishes anywhere from Sayville to Massapequa.
“I’m just cooking simple delicious foods,” he said of his passion. “The first day I donated $382.50,” he added explaining that he also spent about $600 at Restaurant Depot and served about 50 people and three grandmas for free.
Soon, he hinted at the possibility of linking up with other, out-of-work, chefs from NYC to help out. He plans to continue until the need is gone.