There was star power to spare at the inaugural Chow Chow Culinary Festival in Asheville last September: high-profile local and regional chefs; James Beard Foundation Award nominees; an appearance by JBF 2017 Book of the Year author and Burnsville resident Ronni Lundy; esteemed craftspeople, farmers and makers.
But the spotlight shined brightest on José Andrés, the Spanish-born chef, restaurateur and humanitarian who 10 years ago founded World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit devoted to providing meals in the wake of disasters. He participated in the festival at the invitation of Cúrate and Button & Co. Bagels chef and owner Katie Button, who met her husband and restaurant partner, Felix Meana, when both worked for Andrés in Washington, D.C. Flying in from the Bahamas, where he was overseeing WCK operations in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, the ebullient Andrés cooked paella in Pack Park with the Cúrate team and spoke movingly to the crowd about his work.
Chow Chow has been postponed until 2021, but Andrés’ WCK has parachuted into Asheville via Button with his newest initiative, Restaurants for the People. “This program is doing three very important things,” Button explains. “It is putting people back to work, it is putting the supply chain back in order through the purchasing of product, and it is feeding the community where the need is still so great. It is doing that through funds raised by WCK, and those funds enable those three things.”
In mid-March in response to COVID-19, WCK created Chefs for America, a meal program that partnered with institutions and nonprofits in cities and towns across the country. By May 9 — its eighth week in operation — Chefs for America had delivered more than 6.5 million fresh meals to children, families and seniors in need, with 1 million of those coming from restaurants. Restaurants for America, launched in mid-May, represents Phase 2 of the initiative, a $50 million commitment to help local independent restaurants open and get back to work. The program now includes more than 1,800 restaurants in over 200 cities in 35 states.
“Linton Hopkins reached out to me and said, ‘Hey Katie, you guys should really do this,’” Button says. Hopkins, chef and owner of Atlanta’s Restaurant Eugene and three H&F Burger joints, opened his first H&F Burger outside Atlanta in Asheville last year. Button talked with her operations team and community partners to ascertain their needs.
Button’s staff members began cooking the last week of May and, by week three, were at their goal of producing 1,500 meals a week for distribution through MANNA FoodBank, Haywood Street Congregation’s Downtown Welcome Table and via Food Connection to Southside Kitchen and a curbside drive-thru in Swannanoa. “We had been keeping up with what WCK was doing to mobilize culinary folks to cook for people who need support right now,” says Kara Irani, MANNA’s marketing and communications director.
MANNA’s first delivery was 300 meals to the Community Table in Sylva, paired with its regular shipment of fresh produce and shelf-stable products. “The great thing is these meals are paid for through another initiative and is adding more food to the system,” Irani says. “This is the first time MANNA is doing a prepared food partnership. Whatever they’re cooking I’m sure will be amazing.”
Button put Matt Brown — hired as the chef for her in-limbo Tillie Hall event space that had been scheduled to open mid-March — in charge of the effort. “Matt is creating a menu for each week,” she explains. “The first week he did roasted pulled pork with collard greens and cornbread, and the second week rice, broccoli and chicken with compound butter.”
Button points out that not only does the program enable her to rehire some employees, but it also benefits the food supply chain by purchasing product rather than asking for donations from businesses also severely impacted by restaurant closures. “WCK pays us a certain amount per meal that covers labor, product and packaging. We can call our suppliers, see what they have and create nutritious, delicious meals at a reasonable cost.”
At Downtown Welcome Table, which pivoted in early March from serving guests in the church’s fellowship hall to distributing boxed meals in the parking lot, banquet steward Dave Holland welcomes the new benefactor. “She called me and said, ‘Let’s do this,’ so we talked it out, and they are bringing us enough food to feed 600 people a week,” he says. “They bring a protein, starch, and a side; we add another side, bread and dessert, then send it out to our folks.”
Flori Pate, co-founder and executive director of Food Connection, came on board when MANNA asked for help distributing 600 more meals a week. “On Thursdays, we pick up 300 meals to take to Southside Kitchen to distribute them through the Asheville Housing Authority,” says Pate. “On Saturdays, we’ll pick up 300 meals to take to Swannanoa for a curbside pickup in the parking lot of Symmetry Financial. The need in rural communities is great and growing — seniors, families and people we have never seen before. We are thrilled to be looped into this and hope it can continue at least through the summer.”
Button and Meana are currently navigating the complex considerations around how and when to reopen Button & Co. Bagels and Cúrate. “We’ve removed lots of tables in Cúrate to see how it will look and will start with probably dinner only when we do reopen,” Button says. She adds that she plans to keep Brown at the helm of the WCK program as long as needed.
To donate to World Central Kitchen’s Asheville program, fill out the form at donate.wck.org and type #Asheville in the comment section.