"You want to feed their souls," Francis Lam said to a fellow volunteer as they sorted through a service tray's worth of cauliflower in search of blemishes. "You don't want them to think, 'oh, this is just someone else's garbage that they're throwing away.'"
We were working the prep table of Bay Ridge Cares Kitchen (BRiCK), a pop-up soup kitchen that's been putting out 800 meals a day*, six days a week for those suffering from Hurricane Sandy. Run out of the basement of Saint Mary's Church on 81st and Ridge Avenue in Brooklyn, the kitchen has just one oven and stovetop. Most of the equipment is donated. The backbone of the operation is found in an army of local home cooks, who spend hours dicing stock pots of celery, carrots, and apples. Members of the food industry—whether they be local grocers or high-end cooks—have been helping the operation produce the finest fare possible.
*By the end of the day, they will have served 12400 meals.
BRiCK was born out of the efforts of Allison and Matt Robicelli, whose grassroots relief efforts we profiled; Justin Brannan, an aide to city councilman Vincent Gentile; and Karen Legnetti Tadross, a local theater producer who has taken on the role of floor general with untold vigor.
Occupy Sandy, who the Robicellis connected with before the operation launched, has provided drivers and intel. It is where the gourmet food industry, the church, and radical politics intersect. An early grant from the Mayor's Fund, in tandem with $5,000 credit at Whole Foods secured by Food52, has covered the organization's funding.
"I've been there sporadically working a few days, sketching out menus based on what we had donated, but mostly my job has been outreach. It's a weird time for me as this is also my company's busy season. We just launched the online store and the MadeInNYC thing, my first draft of the book is due in a few weeks, I've had obligations at my kid's schools, and the boys have been coming home from school covered in germs and getting me sick every week. I am trying to juggle all of this the best I can," Robicelli told me. "I feel like there needs to be six of me right now."
During the days leading up to the kitchen's launch, Robicelli continued to "scream as loud as she could on Twitter and Facebook." Her calls were heeded when she was contacted by Lawrence Daggett, a navy veteran with a background in pastry. Although he had not worked in a professional kitchen for almost a decade, he fell right back into it. Daggett, now a student at Fordham University with aspirations of working in the business side of the food industry, has helped Tadros—described by Robicelli as "the real star of the show"—to run the operation. Robicelli believes the kitchen would not be able to function without Daggett, who she described as "my rock" and a hero. For his part, he wants nothing more than for his love of food to touch those he is cooking for. This was never more obvious than when he recounted a woman enthusiastically thanking BRiCK for making a salad; she had not eaten greens in a week.
There has been other help from within the industry. Robicelli is, herself, in the kitchen whenever possible. Dan Rothstasdt, the River Cafe's banquet chef, relieved Daggett on Fridays and Saturdays for the first two weeks. He logged additional hours this past week, working Monday through Wednesday. Joe Dobias of JoeDough sandwich shop swung by one Monday. Other writers have joined Lam, including Siobhan Wallace and our own Donny Tsang.
"It takes a lot of foresight to put out a meal for 800 people, and Dan knows how. Me and Francis made chili for 500," Daggett told me, "using 30 pounds of beef. It's guerrilla warfare, you just make it work. The first few days were rough. We were trying to piece things together without everything we needed. You have to think about who you're feeding."
Local businesses have been integral to the kitchen's success. Robicelli cited both Charles Elias Salon and the Arab American Association of Bay Ridge as having donated "huge" quantities of meat. She praised Three Guys From Brooklyn for donating fresh produce until they could no longer afford to. On Saturday the 11th alone, local CSA Yellow Hook dropped off three boxes of apples, and Cathy Chambers of Grow NYC dropped off a box full of bread and twelve industrial-sized trash bags stuffed with produce donated by local farmers at a nearby market.
Both The Bread Depo and the International Culinary Center have donated bread. Yemeni live poultry shops brought turkeys for Thanksgiving and—after a kitchen space fell through—many of these birds were roasted at the eleventh hour by local restaurants Tanoreen, Ho'Bra, Elia Restaurant, Something Greek, Casa Calamari, and Cebu.
"My biggest concern when we started was that we knew Thanksgiving was on the horizon. Doing sides and turkey at the same time would've been impossible," Lawrence admitted. "So last Tuesday, I went with Katie [Benner, of Fortune] to the bakery in Bed-Stuy we were supposed to cook turkeys at. But the ovens were too small. At that point, I just didn't know how we were going to do it. I didn't want to put out something I wasn't happy with, and the process of cooking 24 turkeys at 160° and keeping them at holding temperature was daunting. Tommy Casatelli, who owns Ho'Bra and Kettle Black was instrumental in making it happen: he personally butchered and cooked six turkeys in his restaurant, himself. We wouldn't have been able to pull it off without him."
I talked with Lawrence about how his blue collar background has informed his views on food ("I always thought of it as a gift," he told me) and how he never visits Philly, where his two children still live, without getting a roast pork sandwich. We talked about Court Street Grocers, a favorite of his, and how their new Red Hook location was lost to the hurricane. Because they had not opened, taxes were not filed. There will be no relief besides generosity.
BRiCK will close shop on December 15th, when the church will start undergoing renovations. But Robicelli imagines they will have run out by funds by then. She will continue to work on relief-related projects on the side and intends to help out at Occupy Sandy's new Bay Ridge operation. Robicelli is worried, still, that volunteerism will fade. But she has never been prouder to be from Bay Ridge.
As we walked together to his Bay Ridge apartment, Rothstadt told me about how he had been only a few credits away from a masters degree in social work when he dropped out to attend the Culinary Institute of America. But his first foray into the food world had been in high school, when he and a few friends started a soup kitchen that exists to this day. The connection between the soup kitchen and the opulent River Cafe, in Dan's work and the food industry at large, is illuminated by Lam's words on volunteerism in the food world.
"What is it about people in food who reach out to give even when they're not rolling in dough themselves? I don't know," he wrote. "Maybe it's because, for all the glamour around food, it's still very very much a working class industry, and people who work in it know what it's like to be nervous about making it. Maybe it's because some people do get into food service because they love to feed or serve people. Maybe it's because hard work is the primary ethos in food service, and these are people who live and breathe hard work all the time. I can't say, but I do know that Allison and Larry are inspiring to me in how much they care and how much of themselves they're putting into this."
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats column. Follow him on Twitter, or contact him directly at chris.e.crowley [at] gmail.com. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.