MIAMI, Florida — He didn't hesitate, not for a moment. When Miami Chef José Mendín received a call last Wednesday from the local United Way asking if he could help provide meals for search and rescue teams working the hard-hit Florida Keys in Hurricane Irma's aftermath, he immediately sprung into action.
First, he dialed his restaurant's main purveyor, Gordon Food Service, to ask about donating ingredients. Next, he called an investor to see if he could chip in to help cover costs. Lastly, he reached out to his partners at the city's American Airlines Arena where Mendín's company, Food Comma, operates several concession stands. From them, he hoped to get additional cooking space and hands.
"We asked everyone if they could do something to help," Mendín recalled, standing in the kitchen of his James Beard-nominated South Beach Pubbelly gastropub, which suffered virtually no damage in the storm. "And everyone said yes! Everyone did their part."
Just 24 hours later, the United Way arrived to pick up tray after tray of simple but comforting, hearty food, inspired by Mendín's Puerto Rican heritage: marinated pork chops, rice and beans. "It was actually really good," he said with a chuckle. "I had it for lunch myself that day!"
Like Mendín, who went on to make and send food for the rescue workers almost every day of the subsequent week, many other South Florida chefs and food industry staff also leaped into action in the days following Irma's devastating Florida tear, even as the area continued to grapple with massive power outages, sweltering temperatures, fuel, ice and water shortages, and spotty internet and mobile phone service.
Some, like famed veteran toque Dewey Losasso, operated out of shelters where thousands of residents sought refuge. Others, like south Miami's Adrianne Calvo, worked out of her restaurant's tiny kitchen, where she and her staff whipped up oversized trays of braised pork tenderloin and short ribs, grilled shrimp, pasta, mashed potatoes and french fries for residents of a multi-story Little Havana senior citizen housing complex, where power had been out for days, elevators had stopped working and people were stranded without food and medications.
"Everyone on the staff was working on getting these seniors their meals," she said. "I had the bus boys peeling potatoes, the dishwasher prepping shrimp. It was amazing to see us come together to do something this important."
This being a Little Havana meal, it naturally needed to end with a traditional cafecito, the classic potent shot of Cuban coffee, which had also been scarce since the storm. So when local coffee shop Tu Café saw on social media that the elders were craving their afternoon caffeine, they rushed over with shots and delivered them door-to-door with the from an army of volunteers already pitching in.
"It was just an incredible day," said Tammy Klingner, Chief Strategy Office of the Miami's United Way chapter, which coordinated this as well as several more food deliveries in the area. "And a reminder of how powerful food is in bringing people together."
Alexia Gonzalez, general manager of the about-to-debut Pilo's Street Tacos in downtown Miami, didn't have a means of cooking but wanted to do something personal and meaningful anyway.
"We were about to open when the storm hit," she said. "We obviously had to push that back and, without power, we were going to lose all the food. I didn't want it to go to waste. I wanted to bring it to people who it would really help."
So she packed up her entire inventory—pound after pound of corn and flour tortillas and Mexican cheeses—and made the hour-long drive to Homestead's Centro Campesino Farmworker Center, an agency that helps migrant worker families find and build stable homes. "Most of the people there were Mexican and so this was comfort food for them," she said. "It could not have been more perfect!"
Even as much of South Florida begins to get back on its feet, the local chefs and restaurants are vowing to keep relief efforts alive to benefit areas that are still struggling, like the southernmost parts of Greater Miami, where thousands remain without power, and the Keys, where residents are only now starting to return to a devastated landscape.
Over the weekend, Florida-based chain Pollo Tropical signed up to deliver chicken, rice and beans on Monday to 400 Homestead senior citizens who haven't had a warm meal since the storm. Eateries of all stripes—from the swanky Area 31 atop downtown Miami's glittering EPIC Hotel to the tiny Fresa Francesa, a French bistro in working-class Hialeah, to Wynwood's hipster caffeine emporium, Panther Coffee—have planned fund-raisers, donating as much as 100 percent of their proceeds to relief efforts.
More chefs—like Chopped alum Giorgio Rapicavoli and local star Todd Erickson—are already in line to cook later this week wherever they are asked to do so.
"In a way, it's not surprising because there is so just much humanity in the food industry," Klingner said. "And these are homegrown Miami chefs stepping up to help their hometown. It makes you feel really good to see this response." Perhaps Chef Calvo put it best: "What's the point of being a chef and having a restaurant if you don't feed people when they most need it?"