By the end of the day on Wednesday, Sept. 19, Christi Ferretti, owner of Wilmington’s gourmet shop, restaurant and catering company Pine Valley Market, will have helped send out more than 80,000 meals in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. She and her head chef Paul Smith have been one of many helping hands chopping vegetables, preparing sauces, prepping meats, and packaging it for delivery through Chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen (WCK).
Founded in 2010, after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Andrés—a James Beard award winner and Michelin star restaurateur—has set up shop among five natural disasters to help feed those in need in its wake, from first-responders, to folks in shelters, to the linemen who help cities get up and running again. Andrés himself was in the throes of delivery on Florence’s heels of pouring 25 inches of rain and swirling 105 mile-per-hour winds around our Port City.
Last Saturday evening, he set out with the US Army and the sheriff leading the way to deliver meals in treacherous flooding conditions (Gov. Cooper sent SWAT teams and the Army to help assist Andrés’ efforts). Yet, they were sidetracked when the military vehicle slid into a ditch, causing them to lose 300 plates of food. The United Cajun Navy (read here) set out to aid in their rescue. Without determent on Sunday, Andrés and his crew were at it again and served more than 1,000 meals to folks in Columbus County.
Having set up four or five days before Hurricane Florence in Wilmington at Diamond Catering at 127 S. College Rd, #44, near the government center, WCK launched their local Facebook page (@chefsforcarolinas) and put a call out for volunteers to help. Hundreds have answered, including local culinary mainstays, like Keith Rhodes of Catch, Tommy Mills of Little Pond Catering, Jon Webb from Blue Surf Cafe, and Michelle Rock from Mamma Rock, as well as folks from Hibachi To Go, Munchie’s, S. College Deli, and Spoonfed Kitchen, not to mention reps from Wards Produce and US Foods. Even Harper Peterson, former Wilmington mayor who is running for NC Senate, showed up to help.
“I am blown away by the people I have worked alongside,” Ferretti praises. “I wasn’t surprised when I walked in on the first day and saw Keith, but then they kept coming.”
“We are so grateful and inspired by how folks have come together for our community,” Rhodes adds. “World Central Kitchen is tactfully executed, in a professional, urgent manner—stressful at times and a lot of sweat, but they never let you see them sweat. They’re an amazing group of organizers, volunteers and chefs from across the country.”
When Ferretti arrived she was told to cook 150 seasoned pork loins. “They want to not only feed the masses but to feed them great food,” she tells. “The emphasis is as much on quality as it is quantity.” In other words, the meals aren’t bologna sandwiches and a bag of chips. They are thoughtful, homemade plates of hot food to comfort people. Roasted pork loin over garlic mash with grilled vegetables made up the menu that day. “Once cooked, the pork had to be sliced, plated, garnished and then another team covered, labeled and distributed them,” Ferretti explains.
Pulled NC BBQ with corn chow-chow and pickled relish was plated next. Mac ‘n’ cheese with chicken and jalapeños and pasta Bolognese also were prepared.
“Delivery of meals all depends on how many volunteers we have,” chef relief team leader Tim Kilcoyne explains. “Generally, the longer we are around, the more locations we get that need a meal, so the need for volunteers to drive goes up.”
Susan Dietsch responded to the call of help on Monday. She was going on day four without power and was lucky enough to have no damage to her home. A culinary instructor (and former partner) at The Seasoned Gourmet, Dietsch had heard of Andrés’ disaster outreach over the years. “[It gave] me something purposeful to do—to help neighbors who were forced from their homes due to flooding or mandatory evacuations, plus help keep the first responders going,” she tells.
The efficiency and will of the organization impressed her most. WCK arrived with a loaded tractor trailer full of food on day one. “I don’t think anyone in shelters or first responders would have been adequately fed without them,” she says. And Dietsch would know; she served in the US military.
“It’s a great model for disaster response, and I’m glad I’ve had a chance to see it in action and be part of the early solution here.”
Kilcoyne says WCK purchases food from local purveyors and farms. They also depend on a network of local chefs to help when needed. For instance, one day Ferretti put out a post on social media for the need for uncompromised, frozen seafood. It didn’t take long before local chefs shared it, and calls were coming in from Seaview Crab Company, while local eatery Bento Box delivered tuna. What it would become would be at the hands of those helping in the kitchen.
“Generally, we have a base of different recipes and dishes we will put in our normal rotations,” Kilcoyne says. “But when we start working with local chefs, it gives them an opportunity to do local, familiar dishes. Familiar food is comforting.”
While Kilcoyne isn’t sure how long WCK will remain in Wilmington, the effects of the agency already is far-reaching. Ferretti opened Pine Valley Market on Wednesday, Sept. 19, as a second sanctioned World Central Kitchen to help reach smaller neighborhoods and feed 500 people or more daily (the Diamond Catering locale serves up to 13,000 daily). Pine Valley Market will deliver the food, and also have the ability to send out ice and cold items like milk. “Plus, we set up a fundraiser to continue doing the work after World Central Kitchen leaves,” she tells. “We want to keep it going.”
As well Chef Keith Rhodes began a fundraiser, in order to send out a network of food trucks to operate and feed people who can’t get to a place where food is easily available for free. Both Ferretti’s and Rhodes’ fundraising platforms will direct monies toward food costs.
“Any money we do not use toward feeding people in need from our fundraiser will go back to World Central Kitchen,” Ferretti tells.
The two chefs continuing outreach efforts are in and of itself a feat; both wear multiple hats in business and life. They each have families to look after and their own restaurants to get up and running again—and with much of their staff being displaced or having been evacuated.
“Our restaurant will survive,” Rhodes assures. “We had water damage, loss of food and of course loss of business revenue. All can be replaced; I’m just so happy none of my family, friends or staff were hurt. . . . My house went from a family of five to an extended family of 12. Everyone works together to make sure we all have [what we need.]”
Ferretti agrees. She evacuated her son and wife to Florida in order to stay behind, and feed her neighborhood or others nearby who needed it. She set up a “to-go kitchen” of sorts out her own home, which recovered quickly from power outages during Florence.
“When there is a crisis, I am a go-into-action kind of person,” she notes. “The morning my father died, I was in the kitchen within the hour, making breakfast and planning the meals for the days to follow. It brings me comfort. I have always been someone who wants to solve problems for people . . . I cannot ‘fix’ the situation [we are in from Florence,] but I can help fix one facet of it: People are hungry, I can cook. It’s no different than the folks with chainsaws who are helping people out in their neighborhoods or electricians, roofers and plumbers.”
All apologies to Susan Dietsch for the misspell of her last name in the print edition. encore regrets the error.