The sound of parsley being chopped — a staccato of knives against a cutting board— rings in stereo as volunteer chefs prepare to add it to a simmer pot of marinara sauce. Dinner will be served at the evacuation center in an hour, and parsley is key to Domenica Catelli’s famous sauce.
Huddled in the kitchen of the Healdsburg Senior Center, a small squad of chefs from around Sonoma County works in sync, with few words, to prepare dinner for 200. On the menu is a simple spaghetti and marinara with garlic bread and salad. This isn’t commodity food from cans, but homemade tomato sauce, local butter, freshly chopped herbs and a mix of peppery greens with a light vinaigrette heading to Sonoma County’s northernmost evacuation center during the Kincade fire
Food, like wine, shapes the character of Sonoma County. We are farmers and we are foodies who appreciate water buffalo cheese and bespoke Asian herb gardens. It is in our DNA.
In moments of crisis, which have been in abundance over the last few years, we feed each other with arugula and tri-tip rather than canned ham and tater tots. In the days after the Tubbs fire devastated Santa Rosa in 2017 it was chef-prepared meals from Guy Fieri to top local chefs like Zazu’s John Stewart and Duskie Estes, three-Michelin starred Kyle and Katina Connaughton, John Franchetti, Miriam Donaldson, SF Chefs and hundreds of others that made more than calories — they made disaster cuisine.
At the Healdsburg shelter, which is a beehive of aid workers, news cameras, politicians and dazed evacuees, tables are piled with food. The smell of warm garlic bread wafts from a tiny community kitchen, the owners of Moustache Baked Goods, Osvaldo Jimenez and Christian Sullberg have laid out artisan cupcakes. A grain salad from three-Michelin star restaurant Single Thread has been prepared and throughout the day today, evacuees will have macaroni and cheese from celebrity chef Douglas Keane’s Healdsburg Bar and Grill, bread from Costeaux Bakery and meat from Pete Seghesio’s Journeyman Meats.
A line of hungry evacuees fills their plates, looking bewildered and tired. Most have no idea that the food they’re eating has come from top restaurants, highly trained chefs and local gardens. It doesn’t matter. These are chefs doing what chefs do: They feed people.
Ironically, some of these chefs have been displaced too. Domenica Catelli’s restaurant in Geyserville is in the evacuation zone, and while she’s making marinara, she’s also worried about her own family and the losses to her business that has come from two power outages. She has a worried bride whose wedding she’s supposed to cater this weekend, possibly without power.
The Sonoma County Tourism Bureau estimates that restaurants lose roughly $4,700 each time the power is cut as refrigeration goes down and food has to be thrown away. Most chefs are thriftier than that and cook up what they can and donate it. It doesn’t mitigate the financial loss, which is something few mom and pop restaurants can bear.
The food will continue to arrive wherever it’s needed, for as long as it’s needed from an army of Sonoma County chefs making amazing food for those who need it most.