There wasn’t enough chicken soup in the world to soothe our souls in 2020. And getting ingredients for the actual chicken soup proved difficult for many of us as COVID landed Stateside, straining the supply chain and leaving food pantries understocked. So industry leaders spoke up, stood up, and got to work. Some chefs transformed their restaurants into soup kitchens while others delivered meals to frontline workers. Activists and average Joes collected donations to keep growers afloat. At the same time, as Black Lives Matter protests moved through our streets, chefs found ways to nourish the marchers and the movement. In a year full of shadows, many people worked to break through and bring some light. Here, we salute the chefs, educators, and leaders who saw a hungry society, both literally and metaphorically, and fed them.
Chef Josef Centeno is 46 years old, “but I feel 90 inside,” he says. The Tex-Mex master and James Beard finalist behind Los Angeles restaurants Bar Amá, Amácita, and the Michelin-starred Orsa & Winston has experienced a lot of change in a few short months. He was one of the first major restaurateurs in Los Angeles to close voluntarily when COVID-19 loomed in late March. “We had team members who lived with their parents, who were elderly. It just felt reckless to remain open,” he says. He shuttered the restaurant doors and then got to work—making hundreds of enchiladas to feed workers on the front lines.
Centeno partnered with Dine11, an L.A.-based nonprofit that provides safe meals to health care workers, using donated produce from Thao Family Farm in Fresno, California. He cooked alone, chopping chicken and boiling grains. He wanted the staff to stay home, their well-being his top priority, so he persuaded Dine11 to donate any money they would have paid him to the relief fund he set up for his employees. His work continues, and in his spare time the chef hand-dyes T-shirts, tote bags, and face masks—a process he compares in its meditative and creative qualities to cooking—then sells them in his restaurants’ online stores to fund staffers’ health insurance.
Cooking, for Rasheeda McCallum, has always been for others. After graduating from the prestigious Johnson & Wales University Culinary Nutrition Program in Rhode Island, she worked at making hospital menus better for patients at New York Presbyterian and set up an advisory to provide better food options in Black communities. After the death of George Floyd, she and her friend and fellow chef Kayla Davis founded Black Chef Movement to help feed the protestors in NYC. “I connected with other chefs. We had the groceries delivered from Instacart, and we sat in our individual kitchens and made vegan and chicken wraps,” McCallum says; then they handed them out at a mass BLM gathering in Brooklyn on June 6. And with the help of grassroots fundraising, they haven’t stopped since. Black Chef Movement now includes 20 chefs who are feeding thousands of activists all over NYC.
“There are times when we don’t even sleep. When we first started, there were three of us and we had no help. Now we can communicate with organizers,” says McCallum. Black Chef Movement is currently seeking a permanent community space where it can safely cook and store donated food, to sustain the team’s efforts not only for today’s protesters but for the long term. “We want to have cooking classes for people of color in urban communities,” she says. “It’s needed.”
Forty percent of food is thrown out in the U.S., while 40 million Americans remain food-insecure. It’s a statistic that makes no sense to Matt Jozwiak, a former fine-dining chef at New York City’s Eleven Madison Park. So in 2017, he started a nonprofit, Rethink, with a lofty goal: Feed everyone.
Beyond their everyday efforts to repurpose excess food into nutritious, low- or no-cost meals for New Yorkers in need, Jozwiak and the Rethink team increased operations in response to the coronavirus outbreak. With its Restaurant Response Program, Rethink put nearly $2 million into the local economy, providing funds to turn restaurants into community kitchens; saving jobs; keeping suppliers in business; and helping to feed those in hospitals, family shelters, and communities in need.
In the Bronx—one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in NYC—Rethink partnered with Ghetto Gastro food collective and La Morada, a local Oaxacan restaurant known for its mole and activism. Together, they’ve made and delivered 60,000 meals (chicken soup, veggie quesadillas) to food-insecure folks throughout the borough. And in a full-circle moment, Rethink joined forces with Jozwiak’s former employer, the upscale Eleven Madison Park, to turn the famed restaurant into a commissary kitchen to prepare thousands of daily meals for frontline workers during the COVID-19 crisis.
For chef Brian Yazzie, food is a connector to the past, to the future, and to his people. A Diné (how Navajo members prefer to be identified) from Dennehotso, Arizona, Yazzie has centered his catering business on indigenous food culture and is now using his skills to feed Native American elders in his adopted Minnesota. In March, he and friend Ben Shendo began providing up to 200 meals per day from the Gatherings Cafe at the Minneapolis American Indian Centre. Volunteers drive the free meals directly to elders’ homes in a program that has spread from south Minneapolis to the entirety of the Twin Cities.
Along with the hot meals, Yazzie serves up traditions: Half of the ingredients used in the meals are indigenous. This means cooking with no gluten or dairy and using only natural sweeteners and native game. “Last week we made a bison chili with wild ramps,” Yazzie says. “We’re sourcing from Indigenous farmers and vendors,” he says. It’s more than just giving the elders a taste of home. “There’s a phrase in the community: Food is medicine.” Healing is on the menu.
Mark Noguchi & Amanda Corby Noguchi
Three years ago, Oahu-based chef Mark Noguchi and his wife, Amanda Corby Noguchi, shuttered their Pili Group restaurants and dedicated themselves full-time to Chef Hui, their organization focused on culinary education and community-building through food. When the coronavirus pandemic hit the shores of Hawaii—where a quarter of the population needs food support—Chef Hui went into overdrive to help feed the state’s affected populations, and not just on the Big Island. “We work with 26 different organizations to help fulfill communities’ needs statewide,” says Corby Noguchi.
The Chef Hui organization—now comprising more than 50 chefs and food providers—supports local farmers and restaurants with their Give & Go Community Meal Program, which pays eateries a stipend to produce additional locally sourced meals to be donated and delivered to residents facing financial hardships due to COVID-19. So far in 2020, the nonprofit has purchased over 20,000 pounds of indigenous crops from their partner farms, helping to feed tens of thousands of their fellow Hawaiians.
Ben Cohen & Jerry Greenfield
There’s only one Ben & Jerry’s. Since 1978, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have churned social change right into their brand. Greatest hits include hiring ex-offenders; salaries set at twice the minimum wage for the lowest-level employees; climate activism; and even a popular flavor, American Pie, developed as a critique of American military spending. “Business needs to acknowledge the powerful role it plays in society,” says Cohen. “It needs to expand its purview beyond its own self-interest in order to address and take actions to solve social problems.”
And while the company was purchased by Unilever in 2000, Ben & Jerry’s kept a separate advisory board to maintain its values. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, the company issued a strong statement supporting Black Lives Matter and implemented a four-point plan to address racial inequality. “We wanted to clearly call out the need to dismantle white supremacy,” says Greenfield. And as COVID-19 raged, the company supported People’s Bailout, which tackles systemic issues the pandemic helped to expose, like access to health care. “As Congress develops recovery packages to address the effects of COVID-19, they need to prioritize the health and well-being of all people, not corporations and the wealthy,” says Greenfield. We’ll happily take our ice cream with a dollop of activism.
This article originally appeared in our Holiday 2020 issue. Get the magazine here.