A longtime yachtie pitches in to provide hot meals for hurricane survivors.
When disaster strikes and people are left with no power, no water, and no home, a nourishing hot meal can become the very essence of hope. No one understands that better than the volunteer chefs of World Central Kitchen. So when Hurricane Ian, a Category 5 storm with sustained winds of 150 mph, carved its widespread path of destruction across communities in southwest Florida, the WCK response team was ready — as was yacht chef Adrienne Gang.
Gang, a 17-year veteran chef/stew who lives in Tampa, was grateful to have escaped the brunt of the storm herself and immediately pitched in to help those who hadn’t. She soon found herself alongside 10 other chefs from around the globe, cooking for endless hours on five, butane-fueled paella pans, each 6 feet in diameter. One day of volunteering became a week, then two weeks. The need was immense.
In the first day, Gang said, they put out 12,000 hot meals, which were packaged and loaded onto helicopters that flew them every couple of hours to Sanibel Island, Pine Island and Fort Myers. Initially, with bridges demolished and roads closed, it was the only way to get them there.
“When you talk about food and water, people don’t want a solution one week from now, one month from now. The solution has to be now,” said Chef José Andrés, who founded the nonprofit organization in 2010. Chef relief teams have been immediately deployed in response to deadly landslides and catastrophic flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes, and even the ravishes of war — wherever the need for meals is urgent. Locales have included Pakistan, Venezuela, Guatemala, Panama, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Canada, the U.S, and Ukraine.
“I’ve never seen anything as impressive as what I’ve seen with this,” Gang said of WCK’s chefs at work.
The group eventually shifted operations from downtown Tampa to the Minnesota Twins spring training facility in Fort Myers, where they could be closer to the worst-hit areas. Volunteers are responsible for their own expenses and living arrangements, but in this case, the training facility’s athlete dorms were made available .
Cooking starts at 5 a.m each morning and continues all day, with no breaks, Gang said. “We just cook until it’s all done. We want to make sure the food gets to all the distribution sites on time, and there are seven or eight distribution sites right now, covering seven counties.”
The chefs produce an average of 15,000 hot meals a day. About 7,000 boxed meals must be ready to go to the distribution centers by 11 a.m. for the lunch run, and another 8,000 or so must be ready to go by about 2:30 p.m. for the dinner run. Then there’s cleanup and preparations to start all over again the next morning.
As the relief effort expanded, local food trucks and restaurants partnered with the central kitchen. ”With their help, we hit a record of 50,000 hot meals served in one day,” Gang said.
On the group’s Twitter account, Andrés posted: “It’s been 2 weeks since Hurricane Ian hit. WCK we have served over 640,000 meals, delivering to over 200 locations! We’re cooking from our kitchen here & also have help of over 55 food truck partners!”
Donations are welcome, and donors can designate where they would like their donations to be used. Gang vouches for the group’s integrity: “I am physically in the kitchen every day, seeing where those donations are going.”
As a rapidly expanding organization, WCK is also in need of more trained chefs who can be readily deployed — but you don’t have to be a chef to volunteer. Yacht crew are particularly well-suited to the demands of adapting quickly to shifting work circumstances and high-pressure environments, and volunteers are also needed for such tasks as assembling sandwiches and boxing up meals.
“Many complex problems have simple solutions,” said Andrés. “Sometimes you just need to decide to do something. Sometimes you just have to show up with a sandwich or some warm rice and beans. You’d be amazed at the power of a plate of food. It can change the world, and so can you.”