As of Wednesday night, Sonoma Family Meal had served 16,000 free chef-made lunches and dinners to anyone affected by the wildfires ravaging the North Bay – give or take a few thousand. Because, when you’ve got people who’ve lost everything waiting in line for a warm meal, keeping counts isn’t really the point.
Through dinner Saturday, anyone in Sonoma County (and beyond) who needs a little help feeding friends and family can simply show up at the Sonoma Family Meal pop-up at the Santa Rosa Junior College’s Culinary Arts Center parking lot (1700 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa) for a pre-packaged to-go meal for 4-6 people, made by some of the best chefs in the Bay Area. Just drive up, pick up, and then get back to your family.
And trust us when we say, you don’t have to be needy to be in need. We’ve seen Mercedes and broken down vans pull up for meals. Disaster doesn’t discriminate – anyone can be affected – and we’re all in this together.
So, what’s this initiative all about? The idea to create Sonoma Family Meal came to me as my own family was displaced after the Nuns Fire engulfed Santa Rosa’s Annadel. Fortunately, a friend from San Francisco offered his apple farm and ranch home for my 94-year-old grandmother, my son and my parents to stay in while they were evacuated.
Sitting around a huge harvest table, I saw that – despite our fortunate situation – our family of ten was struggling to put together a meal. We were traumatized, and cooking was the last thing anyone wanted to do. We ate whatever anyone could gather together — pre-made salads, a quiche, some risotto cakes, a loaf of bread — not exactly a cohesive meal, but we were grateful to simply eat together, all of us safe. I figured we were hardly the only ones in this situation – not in an evacuation center, not necessarily in financial difficulty, but simply in need of a warm, nourishing, healthy meal.
I spent Saturday working every contact in the restaurant world I could think of. It turned out that a number of chefs in Sonoma County and San Francisco – including Sonoma’s Sondra Bernstein (girl and the fig) and Sheana Davis (Epicurean Connection), Traci des Jardines (SF’s Jardiniere), Miriam Donaldson (Petaluma’s Wishbone), Marianna Gardenhire and Daniel Kedan (Forestville’s Backyard), John Stewart and Duskie Estes (Zazu Kitchen and Farm, Sebastopol) and Evelyn Cheatham’s Worth Our Weight (Santa Rosa) – had already started high volume feeding programs for first responders and fire victims in shelters.
But, so far, no one was feeding the folks who weren’t in shelters, but needed some extra assistance feeding a house full of family and friends; who didn’t have gas or electricity, or were coming home to a house full of spoiled food in their fridges. While grocery stores were slow on restocking, maybe these people wanted to take something to a friend in need, or they were older folks caring for a wife or husband after having been evacuated from senior centers. The stories of need were endless, but had one common theme: These were people afraid to ask for help because they thought other people needed it more.
And there were many other chefs who wanted to help in any way they could. Unfortunately, shelters couldn’t accommodate pans of lasagna, gourmet cookies, cupcakes, tofu scrambles and veggies for vegan folks, and the myriad of other contributions they wanted to make.
Sonoma Family Meal (named for the hearty “family meal” that restaurant staff enjoy together before starting service) bridged that gap. Offers to help started pouring in: 800 meals from SF Chefs Fight Fire, 800 meals from Jackson Family Wine’s gourmet kitchen, trays of lasagna from Single Thread, 100 burgers and fries from Healdsburg Bar and Grill, 1000 meals from Operation BBQ, a pallet of fresh vegetables from FEED Sonoma, trays of gourmet cupcakes and cookies from Moustache Baked Goods, tubs of pasta from Josh Silvers’ Jackson’s (Silvers lost his home) and the list kept growing.
We needed a place for operations, and John Franchetti of Franchetti’s Wood Fire Kitchen stepped up first. With gas cut off, the Santa Rosa restaurant was closed, but the kitchen was available for bringing in racks of food, keeping it refrigerated and handling it in a professional environment.
On Sunday morning, a team of volunteers showed up at Franchetti’s and went to work: Holly Hansen PR and other volunteers worked their social media magic to get the word out while professional chefs manned the kitchen (Trisha Davis of Whole Pie coordinated operations), volunteers handed out food (including my parents) and I worked the phones. Chaco’s Catering offered hundreds of chicken paella meals, along with many other contributions from local chefs throughout the day. That first day, we served 4,000 meals through our little pop-up, drive-up service with the help of many locals (including Zazu’s John Stewart who brought trays of meat and sides from operations at the Vets Building after emergency calls went out when we ran out of food during dinner service).
On Tuesday, Sonoma Family Meal moved to Worth Our Weight, taking over the Santa Rosa restaurant space and bringing in so much food we overloaded the walk-in refrigerator. Cold Stone Creamery served free ice cream sundaes that were a big hit with children, who walked away with sprinkle-covered face as their parents brought home bags of fresh produce and trays of food.
To support our effort, the board of Santa Rosa Junior College decided (in an emergency session) to offer their Burdo Culinary Arts Center as a kitchen and pick-up location.
And so, on Wednesday morning, we moved again. This time, Aaron Jonas of Aaron Jonas catering brought an entire team to cook fresh food that was being donated by the pallet and needed to be used before it went to waste – in addition to the thousands of meals donated. Miriam Donaldson of Petaluma’s Wishbone is sharing the space to coordinate her ongoing meal services. We all hope to figure out a way to continue food operations for the foreseeable future.
There’s no way to thank everyone who has supported, and continue to support, Sonoma Family Meal, but in the coming weeks I will try. Nor can I find the words to share every heartbreaking story I’ve heard, or convey the desperation felt in the wake of the fires and the humanitarian crisis that we now face in Sonoma County. We are simply chefs, volunteers, friends, family and one restaurant writer who want to make sure everyone in our community can get a hug, a nourishing and dignified meal and a little more hope as we face an uncertain future together.
For more details, visit facebook.com/sonomafamilymeal