Since the advent of COVID, chefs across the country have been instrumental in spearheading committees and programs to help the industry that they love. Tom Collichio used the last season of Top Chef as a platform for the Independent Restaurant Coalition and Saverestuarants.com; the always-inspiring Chef José Andrés and his World Central Kitchen has served more than 19 million meals in over 300 cities in response to the pandemic. It has inspired many other chefs to find ways to take care of people while bolstering small independent businesses at the same time.
One of these chef-started groups approached Chef Mike Cain of Gertie in New York City when he needed it. “Back in March, when the world exploded, I was suddenly faced with huge hurdles that I never imagined needing to stare down. I was seeing so much of my industry shut down in one swift motion—friends and family out of work with no prospects. It was devastating. It was tough trying to figure out how to survive and keep a restaurant afloat, especially seeing so many people and places shut down that have been doing this longer than I have. I had to lay off almost my entire staff and figure out how to make everything run with just my sous-chef and me.”
That’s when the LEE Initiative reached out and as Chef Cain puts it, “That crazy stroke of luck was such an insanely huge lifeline. I was able to do something to give back to the restaurant community that had pulled me out of some rough places over the years.”
The LEE Initiative stands for “Let’s Empower Employment,” founded by Chef Edward Lee and Lindsey Ofcacek to “bring more equality and diversity in the restaurant industry through work programs and continuing education.” When COVID began, they launched their Restaurant Worker’s Relief program sponsored by Maker’s Mark. The RWR funds independent restaurants so that they can operate as relief kitchens for those in need. Since March, the program has expanded to 19 cities and served over 400,000 meals. The RWR also uses donations to quite literally put food on the table by allowing these kitchens to operate and serve free meals to anyone who needs them: https://leeinitiative.kindful.com.
Gertie reopened as a relief kitchen, and Chef Cain converted their space into a catering and soup kitchen effort to get out enough meals to meet people’s needs. It felt “like I had started multiple new jobs [but] it made getting on the subway to work bearable and purposeful during a pandemic.”
Since then, Gertie has also partnered with City Harvest, NYC’s largest food rescue operation, and ReThink Food, a new endeavor founded by Matt Jozwiak and Chef Daniel Humm, of Eleven Madison Park. Both programs are designed to combat food insecurity and food waste by using “excess food” to create nutritious meals. In the US, up to 40 percent of the food we produce isn’t consumed. City Harvest “rescues” this waste in refrigerated trucks and redistributes it to soup kitchens, mobile markets, and their 32 Emergency Food Distribution Sites. The initiative has provided produce and pantry items to enable newly-established relief kitchens, like Gertie, to make healthy meals.
Similarly, ReThink Food provides their “partner restaurants” with the tools to turn excess food into nutritiously dense meals. They also provide sources for funding to keep the kitchens and the program running. The meals are then delivered to partnering community-based organizations, entirely free of charge. Together, these works have enabled Chef Cain to make 350 meals a day for homeless shelters, and send food to hospital staff.
In addition to participating in these initiatives and reopening their restaurant for outdoor dining, Gertie is also running a weekly program that creates grocery bags of produce and pantry items for residents of the Marcy Houses. They have also partnered with Drive Change, a program that provides formerly incarcerated youths access to training and living-wage jobs within the industry.
“It’s been crazy and stressful to adapt everything, seemingly daily, to rise to new challenges since COVID hit.” Chef Cain reflects, “That being said, having these programs has carried us through in so many ways.”
Independent restaurants like Gertie need lifelines to survive this pandemic. Through the work of some creative chefs, those lifelines are anchored to a sense of purpose and provide a way to give back to the communities around them.