Emergency Response Editorial: Cities, You’ve Got Cooks

After disaster, who do cities call to cook food donations? Post-disaster efforts by chefs highlight the overlooked capabilities cities have access to for emergency planning.


You may have missed it in the New York Times, but the publication credited celebrity chef José Andrés for a $400,000 per day heroic effort to feed Puerto Ricans and aid workers for the last month since Hurricane Maria devastated the island. What Andrés’s efforts accomplished was essentially organizing a roster of chefs to feed thousands everyday from the biggest Chopped basket ever:

David Thomas, accustomed to making $540 suckling pigs as the executive chef at Mr. Andrés’s Bazaar Meat restaurant in Las Vegas, suddenly found himself trying to figure out how to make meals out of donations that might include 5,000 pounds of lunch meat one day and 17 pallets of yogurt the next,” reported the Times.

Andrés cobbled together myriad donations and the support of his partners in the industry and outside of it to cook hot meals and boxed lunches. His charitable act, born out of his World Central Kitchen hunger philanthropy project, may not change how disaster aid is given, as the Times suggests, but there is a valuable lesson in emergency response planning here for all civic officials.

Right under your nose is an often overlooked corp of potential emergency responders.

Add Cooks to Your Emergency Response Recipe

Anyone who has worked inside a kitchen -- or in front of it, as I have -- understands the intensity, the camaraderie and the capabilities it takes to serve a mass of hungry people. What other professionals can work a 12-hour shift on their feet and manage scores of searing pans -- in very high heat, most of the time -- in kitchens, field kitchens and food trucks?

What other industry has the training and experience to organize and make sense of the storage areas cities will use for food donations -- while following HAACP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plans?

When Andrés’s operation was stretched wider than he ever anticipated -- after cooks arrived in Puerto Rico to volunteer -- he still needed to call in the Compass Group, a giant foodservice company. They have cooks that know how to organize feeding several thousand people at a time.

Cities best bets for feeding citizens and ensuring that food donations make it to plates after a devastating disaster are most likely the generally underpaid, hard working, adept people that cook and operate in their restaurants and institutional kitchens. Most often these resources have brigade-style training, practicing weekly at events like Saturday night, 7 pm, or daily with the lunch rush.

Here are some examples of the local restaurant industry stepping up, without being involved in any disaster response planning ahead of time:

Hurricane Harvey Kitchen Command Center

According to the Houston Chronicle, Cat Nguyen, a sommelier, was organizing crates of donations and directing donated meat to limited available refrigerator space when she couldn’t get to her own apartment after Hurricane Harvey. She organized the local restaurant industry’s relief efforts, setting up product so area chefs could access available ingredients to prepare proper meals for disaster victims.

California Wildfire Field Kitchen

Celebrity Chef Guy Fieri partnered with the Salvation Army and set up a temporary kitchen outside of the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building cooking for evacuees and firefighters of the recent wildfires, according to the Today show’s website.

Operation BBQ Response to 40+ Disasters

Since 2011, the nonprofit Operation BBQ Relief has prepared almost 1.7 million meals for survivors and first responders, according to CNN.

“The barbecue community is uniquely qualified to respond to disasters like this quickly,” said Stan Hays, champion pitmaster.

Call the Cooks Ahead of Disaster

Bob Ottenhoff, the president and chief executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, told the Times that corporations and individuals, like Andrés, look to apply their skill sets to solve problems after disasters.

It’s a trend regional and local emergency response planners should take more than note of -- involve your local restaurant industry in disaster response planning. Because chefs and cooks are cities most capable emergency responders in executing the critical aid of food after disaster.

Andrea Fox is Editor of Gov1.com and Senior Editor at Lexipol. She is based in Massachusetts.