Sunday, December 17, 2017

Chefs Cook for the Neediest Community Members

Celebrity chefs currently and in the past have at times been interested not only in producing food for wealthy diners, but also in addressing social problems with hunger, malnutrition, and deprivation. Some raise money through charity galas; a few have rolled up their sleeves and actually tried to produce appealing meals for the needy. Running such a program involves different skills than running a high-end restaurant, and some of their efforts have been more successful than others. My knowledge of such endeavors comes from Food Gatherers, a centralized organization for collecting and distributing food to the hungry. They run a community kitchen to prep food for distribution and to serve meals directly to hungry people. (Photo of workers in the kitchen at right, from Food Gatherers' website). Learning about local issues has made me aware of what's involved when anyone, celebrity or not, tries to run such a program.

I found several very interesting instances of celebrity chefs who have worked on such programs. It's surprising how much the programs vary with the individual chefs.

Alexis Soyer

Alexis Soyer is considered one of the earliest celebrity chefs. Soyer, who lived from 1810-1858, is best remembered for his flamboyant cuisine at the Reform Club in London, where his kitchen full of novel inventions was as famous as his creative dishes such as his Reform Club Lamb Cutlets. I'm thinking about him because
Soyer's Irish Soup Kitchen
from The Cork Examiner, February 26, 1847. (source)
my culinary reading group is currently reading a fictitious detective story, The Devil's Feast by M. J. Carter, which is set in the Reform Club (which I reviewed here). This novel includes quite a bit of background about Soyer and his accomplishments including his commitment to develop new ways to feed impoverished workers, specifically, the silk workers who had recently become unemployed. He set up a soup kitchen to provide them with a nourishing soup of his invention, and also wrote pamphlets about the theory of how to feed the hungry.

Looking for more about Soyer's charitable efforts, I found an an article in the Irish Times with a summary of his role in trying to feed the desperate famine victims in Ireland:
"The Soup Kitchen Act of 1847 called for food to be distributed under Sir Robert Peel’s Relief Commission. But with British taxpayers unwilling to pay for Irish needs, the government was overly dependent on private benevolence. Quaker soup kitchens were rarely productive or efficient enough. But Soyer believed he had devised a palatable soup that was easy to prepare, 'of trifling expense' and, if properly administered, capable of helping to arrest the crisis.  
"The key word was 'palatable' – the poor were believed to have simpler alimentary needs than the rich – so the soup required only a leg of meat, dripping, flour, root vegetables, pearl barley and fresh herbs to revitalise. Soyer published his “receipts”, meticulously calculating the price of each ingredient and the measurement needed to minimise waste: 100 tons, he promised with bravura, could be made for just £1." (source)
Soyer's efforts to raise money and create feeding programs for the Irish had mixed success. His recipe for economical soup didn't in fact provide enough calories, and Irish newspapers of the time objected to his over-the-top personal style.

José Andrés

José Andrés cooking in Puerto Rico (New York Times article)
José Andrés, founder of many innovative restaurants in the US, perfectly fits the definition of celebrity chef today -- he received two Michelin stars in the 2016 guide to Washington, D.C., for one of these restaurants along with high praise for Zaytinya, China Chilcano, Jaleo, and Oyamel. Andrés has recently been in the news for his efforts to feed the victims of last summer's hurricane in Puerto Rico; earlier, he created a program to help victims of the Haiti earthquake.

The New York Times, in an article published October 30, 2017, described his efforts:
"Since he hit the ground five days after the hurricane devastated this island of 3.4 million on Sept. 20, he has built a network of kitchens, supply chains and delivery services that as of Monday had served more than 2.2 million warm meals and sandwiches. No other single agency — not the Red Cross, the Salvation Army nor any government entity — has fed more people freshly cooked food since the hurricane, or done it in such a nurturing way. 
"Mr. Andrés’s effort, by all accounts the largest emergency feeding program ever set up by a group of chefs, has started winding down. But it illustrates in dramatic fashion the rise of chefs as valuable players in a realm traditionally left to more-established aid organizations. 
"With an ability to network quickly, organize kitchens in difficult circumstances and marshal raw ingredients and equipment, chef-led groups are creating a model for a more agile, local response to catastrophes." (source)

Narayanan Krishnan

Narayanan Krishnan (From HuffPost)
In India in 2002, Narayanan Krishnan was a rising hotel chef, but left his celebrity job to found a charity, the Akshaya Trust, for feeding and housing the poorest people of the south Indian city of Madurai. In 2010, he was listed as one of CNN's heroes of the year.

Unlike the other chefs I've read about, Krishnan entirely left his celebrity life behind. All his efforts are dedicated to housing, feeding, and trying to bring dignity to the lives of homeless and often mentally ill people -- even cutting their hair.

The most recent article about him that I found was published in the Huffington Post in 2013: "Narayanan Krishnan: Chef Dedicates his Life to Help the Homeless in India." Even the charity's website has not been updated recently, so I don't have any recent information. Unfortunately, he was at one time accused of abuse in his home for poor people, but has been exonerated by an Indian court ruling.

From the HuffPost article:
"The Akshaya Trust is currently building a shelter home for the deserted and helpless and working towards providing medical and water facilities with the help of voluntary donations.  
"Krishnan's day begins early morning at 4 a.m. and finishes at 11p.m. He and his team cover nearly 125 miles in a donated van, routinely working in temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Krishnan had approached a team of barbers to help give haircuts to the homeless, however they declined and he decided to take matters into his own hands. 'I decided to attend a hair cutting training school for six months and have done more than three to four thousand haircuts for people on the road.' Krishnan said."

Massimo Bottura

Massimo Bottura (right) greets diners in his Milan Reffettorio. (Guardian)
At the Milan food expo in 2015, several celebrity chefs were asked to produce a showy meal for homeless people. Massimo Bottura, whose restaurant in Modena had three Michelin stars, was one of these chosen chefs. His vision for feeding refugees, victims of poverty, and other needy people has developed into a permanent organization, created with the cooperation of Pope Francis and others. His establishments are called Refettorios; besides Italy, one is in Rio and another is currently opening in London. An article, "Massimo Bottura and his global movement to feed the hungry" published in the Guardian in May, 2017, described his efforts.

Using ingredients donated by supermarkets, chefs in these kitchens for feeding poor people do very imaginative and delicious cooking to please their clients. An example from Milan: "aubergine and courgette with mozzarella and parmesan, a cannelloni (the chefs are just rolling the pasta), raspberry ice cream (from a mountain of glorious slightly overripe fruit that has just been delivered)." And: "He looks forward to the challenge of creating his British menus as much as anything, working with what comes through the door each day, spreading the Italian tradition of cucina povera, make do and blend. As we head back inside to prepare for that night’s service he is full of talk of a rice and pumpkin soup he created here recently, from the previous day’s risotto, with the addition of some ginger, the softened crust of parmesan and some leftover herbs."

Feeding the Hungry in My Own City

As the end of the year approaches, I am faced with decisions of how to donate money for many good causes, including feeding hungry people. Food Gatherers, the local organization that collects food and distributes it to a variety of social service organizations, is a very effective Ann Arbor organization, which I've written about several times. Several local organizations rely on volunteer cooks to prepare meals for homeless and underprivileged people; though we don't have any celebrity chefs, we do our best! I hope you will also find a good way to help people who are in need.


Debra Eliotseats said...

Great article. So many good causes and so many good people.

Beth F said...

A great way to help others.

Deb in Hawaii said...

A really interesting article. I have been watching/hearing about Chef José Andrés ann his amazing efforts in Puerto Rico.

Thanks for sharing your research and Happy Holidays!

Carole said...

Great thing for these chefs to d o. Merry Christmas