These Chefs are Focused on Healthcare Workers
How restaurants and nonprofits have come together to feed doctors, nurses, and moreSarah Maiellano
April 13, 2020
Our industry is in crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered restaurants, forced millions into unemployment, and left us with a future that is uncertain at best. Efforts are happening on the ground nationwide, from communities rallying around their local businesses, to national calls on Congress and our own relief fund. But behind the sobering statistics in those calls to action are individual industry professionals who are making hard decisions and watching their livelihoods skirt the edge of disaster. With that in mind, we're sharing stories from the front lines. Below, Sarah Maiellano spotlights some of the chefs and restaurant groups from coast to coast who have turned their attention to making sure our healthcare workers won't go hungry.
When COVID-19 struck the United States, everything changed for restaurants. Within days, dining rooms closed, kitchens went dark, and thousands found themselves jobless.
Almost as quickly, chefs got creative. Restaurants all over the country pivoted to delivery models, fundraised to support employees, and launched efforts to keep their neighbors fed. With hospitals in crisis, some chefs have pivoted to feeding a new customer base, partnering with nonprofits to provide meals for healthcare workers.
“It’s in our DNA to take care of people,” says James Beard Award winner Ken Oringer, co-owner (with fellow Beard Award winner Jamie Bissonnette) of Coppa, Little Donkey, and Toro.
As soon as the Boston-based chefs realized they would have to close their restaurants, they partnered with James Beard Award semifinalist chef Tracy Chang and friend Natalie Guo to form the nonprofit Off Their Plate. The effort has quickly raised more than $360,000 to pay local restaurants to cook for hospital workers.
It’s a win-win for restaurants who can pay some of their employees again (Oringer and Bissonnette, who are volunteering their time, have brought some employees back to work) and a relief for the doctors and nurses working around the clock.
“Safety is our number one concern, so we implemented standard operating procedures,” Oringer says. “We wear masks and gloves, take temperatures upon arrival, clean the stations every hour, sanitize products, and keep social distance.”
Off Their Plate, which is currently expanding to other cities, is already poised to deliver more than 36,000 chef-inspired, nutritious meals to local hospital workers. “These people are our heroes,” Oringer says. “They’re putting their lives on the line. It’s the least we can do.”
In Philadelphia, a group of six friends in the finance and technology industries launched a similar project, Fuel the Fight. “Business had slowed down and we were all stuck working from home,” says co-founder Alex Penza. “We thought: how can we help?” The project quickly surpassed its initial $50,000 fundraising goal and the group began hiring local eateries to cook and deliver restaurant-quality meals to area hospitals.
Fuel the Fight pays and tips the restaurants, though some chefs have chosen to donate their services. “If cooking 50 meals can help a restaurant stretch funds and pay employees, that’s a big part of our goal,” Penza says.
The group has already worked with more than 20 restaurants—including James Beard Award semifinalist Cristina Martinez of South Philly Barbacoa—to deliver meals to a dozen of the region’s busiest hospitals.
For Martinez, whose two restaurants are only doing take-out, working with Fuel the Fight has helped pay bills, including rent. The effort has meant more to her than simply cooking chiles rellenos and tamales, though. “My daughter is a nurse in a hospital [in Mexico],” Martinez says. “It feels like I’m sending her fuel and encouragement, even though we’re not together.”
For the last few weeks, Los Angeles chef Josef Centeno, an eight-time Beard Award semifinalist, has been working alone. The owner of Bäco Mercat, Bar Amá, Orsa & Winston, and amá•cita decided that asking his staff to work during COVID-19 was too risky. But that hasn’t stopped him from personally cooking large-scale meals for local hospitals.
Through the new nonprofit Dine One One, Centeno has been cooking meals a few times a week for 75-100 healthcare workers. He’s volunteering his time and using fresh produce donated by Fresno, California farmer Kong Thao. Dine One One plans to contribute to Centeno’s employee healthcare fund.
The chef hopes to keep cooking for hospitals as long as he can and doesn’t mind making grain bowls alone for six hours, though clean-up has been a task. “I started working more efficiently, so I don’t spend more time cleaning than cooking,” he says.
“We nurture people for a living and also give them an escape from daily life,” Centeno says. “I hope that I’m able to still do that—even if it’s for a minute while doctors and staff take a break from the mayhem.”
Beard Award nominee Meg Galus of Chicago’s heralded Boka echoes that sentiment. For chefs “to go from 60 to zero is emotionally and mentally challenging,” the pastry chef says. “Feeding people is such a part of our identities. To be able to still do it in a time of crisis, for people who need and deserve it, is important.”
When the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation offered to pay Boka to cook meals for hospital workers, the team happily got to work. Galus baked pastries for breakfast and Boka’s executive chef Lee Wolen, also a Beard Award nominee, delivered roast duck and beet salads for lunch.
Over the years, Boka’s chefs have been very involved with the Chicago Cubs first baseman’s foundation—auctioning dinners and providing food for charity events. “In addition to helping hospitals, Anthony Rizzo and his family decided to give back to the restaurants that have helped them so many times,” Galus says.
“I’ve only cried twice during this whole thing and one time was after I got that phone call,” Galus says. “We’ve donated our time, effort, money, and food to many causes over the years. It’s weird to be on the other side of the coin now asking for help, but it’s beautiful that they want to support restaurants.”
These are just some of the efforts taking place across the country. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you know of additional chefs and restaurants helping healthcare workers out nationwide. Here are some we've heard about since publishing this piece:
- Chef Michael Fiore of Mary Giuliani Catering & Events and the Meat Up Grill started Soup-4-Support, where donors help purchase fresh-made soups which are packaged and sent to healthcare workers across the metropolitan New York area.