At Lodger in Newburgh, Chef Leon Johnson stepped up and prepared hundreds of lunches for students whose schools had closed.
This virus squeezes our vital organs: the lungs that pump oxygen through our bodies and the kitchens that feed life into our communities. School kids who depend on free breakfast and lunch programs are home where cupboards may be bare; restaurant dining rooms are quiet and the pots hanging in the kitchens are cold. Through this, we have learned that the chef’s impulse to nurture never falters, even when they are short of breath.
In Newburgh, schools shut down on a Friday. They planned to arrange food pick-ups for the families who depended on them, but they needed help. The city council informed Chef Leon Johnson of Lodger that the district wouldn’t have meals ready for students until the following Tuesday; Johnson shifted from organizing his communal dining events into disaster relief. The night before that first emergency food service, Johnson sat alone in his dining room to reflect. Early memories brought him comfort and direction:
“Sitting in an empty Lodger tonight, conjures a primary image — my mother’s kitchen late at night in Cape Town in 1975, a large pot of oxtail stew on the stove top, prepared for my friends and me, after a night out. We would eat quietly, conspiratorially, so as not to awaken the house. So, here I am in an empty kitchen, at night, thinking of home. Well, thinking of my mother and her kitchen, for such is the discreet territory of home demarcated in my heart.
In the morning we will start preparing 200 school-lunch-replacement meals for pickup or delivery starting at 10 a.m., in collaboration with our neighbors — and so we adapt, and so we proceed, to nourish and to encourage. In our vast industry, inclusive of wildly varying scales of operation, we have the tools, protocols, and the instincts to adapt, collaborate, and serve.”
By Monday at 10 a.m. Lodger’s two long dining tables were covered with brown paper bags filled with fresh fruit and sandwiches. Volunteers helped with delivery; one shared a review from a recipient, “I don’t know what kind of bread that was, but it was the best I’ve ever had.”
Everywhere, chefs with similar instincts are finding ways around the new barriers between their most potent expression of care, and those who need to receive it.
In Ulster County, more than a dozen restaurants — including Santa Fe Uptown, Tony & Nick’s Italian Kitchen, Country Club Grill, Palizzata, Sue’s, Frida’s Bakery & Café, Main Street Bistro, Rosendale Café, Hudson Valley Dessert Company, Dallas Hot Wieners, Savona’s Plaza Pizza, and Provisions — signed on to Project Resilience, a program created by County Executive Patrick Ryan through which restaurants receive funding to supply meals in coordination with organizations like the United Way. Project Resilience is one of a few examples of symbiotic top-down planning that bolsters the local restaurant industry, enabling them to feed those in need.
Far more common are grassroots efforts by restaurateurs. Dave DiBari’s Dough for Dough program in Dobbs Ferry encourages customers to donate a $13 pizza in addition to their regular order; DiBari matches each customer’s donation with another pizza. Their goal is to distribute 150 per day. In the Roundout Valley, Cherries Ice Cream Bar and Grill is offering free kids’ meals to children Monday through Friday. They are accepting donations of juice boxes and cash donations via Venmo. In Catskill, Michelle Williams, owner of The Mermaid Café, organized a group of local restaurants to make soup using donated ingredients from restaurants that have been forced to close their doors. Volunteers in masks and gloves deliver soup to doorsteps in town.
In Westchester, soup has also been the source of serious inspiration. Chef Eric Korn of Monteverde at Oldstone entered his walk-in cooler a few days after COVID-19 began to tighten its grip. He noticed a grim sign of slowing business: wilting produce. Whatever he felt, it compelled him to make soup. He and restaurateur Louis Lanza devised the Million Gallons project. They mobilized area chefs Dave DiBari, Demitri Vourliotis, Mogan Anthony, Scott Frantagelo, and Navjot Arora. Together these chefs pledged 15,000 gallons en route to their goal of one million, and more are pledging every day. Their soup is now coming to a simmer on household stovetops, thanks in part to organizations like Feeding Westchester, which has distributed the donations. To date, Feeding Westchester has distributed 1.3 million pounds of food — some of it at drive-thru locations — to those affected by the pandemic.
While chefs are keeping us nourished through these hard times, their own livelihoods and dreams are vanishing. At this point, most restaurants have laid off the majority of their staff, with the intention to eventually hire them back. You can help by supporting their individual fundraising campaigns on social media, buying gift cards for future use, and using their curbside pickup options. Call restaurants that aren’t set up for gift cards and ask them how you can help. While you’re at it, call your government representatives and urge them to support hospitality industry bailouts.
We can eat at home, and we will; but when the time comes to celebrate our oldest and most primal need — to feed ourselves in the company of those we love — we will do it in a restaurant. We will rebuild it because we need it.
Johnson offered a closing message of hope: “I have to believe, as proposed by [performing artists] Arnie Zane and Bill T. Jones, that a system in collapse, is a system moving forward.”