Fifteen miles outside of Redding, you start to see the signs. Handwritten posters bright markers thanking first responders and firefighters posted on overpasses: “Firefighters Kick Ash!” “Thank you firefighters!” and “We Love You!” are among the sentiments welcoming incoming workers to the hellish burn zone of Shasta County.
It’s all too reminiscent of October 2017 here in Sonoma County, and after a three-and-a-half hour drive up I-5, visibility has gone from grey haze to a yellow fog that obscures everything farther than a few hundred feet away. Ash covers the car. I’m sobbing uncontrollaby.
After nine months of running a non-profit fire survivor feeding program in Sonoma County, Sonoma Family Meal, I made the decision to head into the fire-ravaged community to help where I could. After talking to a handful of local chefs, including James Vereb of Mosiac Restaurant at the Sheraton Redding Hotel at the Sundial Bridge, I found out I wasn’t alone.
At its height, the Carr Fire raging through Shasta County reached 121,000 acres, with nearly 40,000 people evacuated in a city of just 91,000 residents. More than 700 homes have been lost, and the relatively remote Northern California location is just one of Northern California communities on fire.
From celebrity chef Guy Fieri and Missouri’s Operation Barbecue to Mercy Chefs and Chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen, disaster survivors throughout the world are benefitting from the deep knowledge chefs bring to feeding hundreds — and even thousands of people at a time with limited resources, space and funding.
Traditional relief agencies like the Salvation Army and Red Cross, focus on the most immediate of needs. When thousands of people are streaming into a shelter, a cheese sandwich or a bag of potato chips, or a fast-food hamburger is good enough. But long-term, food is one of the greatest comforts to those experiencing trauma.
And while local chefs and the food community are the key to the long-term recovery of fire victims, in the heat of the moment, the World Central Kitchen may be one of the fastest-growing and most effective chef teams in the world.
I met Jason Collins two glasses of red wine into Tuesday night. We both happened to be outside our hotel in the ashy smoke having a stress cigarette. I know, ironic. Don’t judge us.
His World Central Kitchen T-shirt was the entry to a conversation about the program. He had just come from a WCK recovery kitchen in Kona, Hawaii via Guatemala, where volcanoes were exploding, via Ventura County, where he is a chef who helped serve survivors after a fire raged in his own community.
The organization sets up in disaster zones, paying local purveyors, local kitchens and farmers — stimulating the local economy — and turning out thousands of beautifully made meals in record time. Jason explained that WCK’s Chef Andres has access to a lot of funds, and the 8-year-old nonprofit has fed more than 4.5 million since January 2018. And counting.
The next morning, we met at the downtown Redding kitchen for their first full day of service.
At 8:30a.m., the kitchen was already quietly buzzing with a handful of volunteers, and everyone there was a volunteer — from the chef lead (who lives in Guatemala and flew up with his wife to help) to Collins himself, who runs a catering business in Ventura. “My wife is holding things down,” he said.
The day’s meals were neatly written on a Post-It easel pad. Red Cross would be there at 10:30 a.m. Two easy breezy hours to prep a dozen hotel pans of Mexican Rice, 20 gallons of salsa verde, hundreds of pounds of sausage (purchased from a local purveyor) and an avocado salad with pepitas, cherry tomatoes and tortilla strips that would rival one in any upscale bistro.
“Presentation counts!” was announced repeatedly, reminder and serious request. For the WCK team, nothing goes out without considering how it looks. “We want it to look like it came from a restaurant,” said one chef. “It has to.”
The team powered through and, at 10:35 a.m., hot boxes filled with beautiful, nourishing, healthy, chef-made — and most importantly, safely made — meals went out to the Red Cross.
Moments later, after a quick picture and round of applause, the team went back to work on the next meal going out in two hours, lunch bags for firefighters. With 300 bags to fill, the volunteers for WCK got back to work, because there were thousands of mouths to feed in the hellish burn zone of Shasta County.
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