Food industry, farmers step up response to natural disasters in Sonoma County
If practice makes perfect, it’s no wonder North County chefs and farmers have gotten so good in the last few years at responding to natural disasters.
Since the Tubbs fire in October 2017, fires and floods have afforded folks from every corner of the local food industry ample opportunities to sharpen their ability to provide food for victims, first responders and those in need.
As a result, response efforts that hinge on local chefs and farmers have gotten more streamlined, more strategic and more advanced.
“The more fires and floods we have, the better we’re getting at responding to them and getting people what they need,” said John Franchetti, chef and co-owner of Franchettis’ in Santa Rosa. “If there’s a silver lining in any of this, it’s that.”
A role for every chef
The response to last month’s Kincade fire is a perfect example of how the new approach plays out.
As soon as the fire started, even before the evacuation site opened in the Healdsburg Community Center, local chefs such as Dustin Valette of Valette, Kyle Connaughton of Single Thread and Domenica Catelli of Catelli’s mobilized to do what they do best: Prepare multicourse meals for evacuees and first responders through the night.
Connaughton noted chefs were downright “tactical” in volunteering to prepare specific dishes: One cooked main courses, one did starches, another did vegetables.
“The first time (in response to the Tubbs fire), everyone was just scrambling to help,” Connaughton said. “Since then we’ve learned it’s better to take an approach that’s more like, ‘You cook this, I’ll cook that.’ That kind of preparedness and cooperation is key.”
Duskie Estes and John Stewart, owners of Black Pig bacon and the Black Piglet food truck, also were involved in those initial responses.
Every good squad deserves a name - Estes, Valette and Catelli referred to themselves as the “Three D’s.” When Stewart and his wife weren’t working with other chefs, they’d often take their food truck to a burned-out neighborhood and give out free food to those returning to survey the damage. For Stewart, feeding first responders was most meaningful. His father was a volunteer firefighter in upstate New York for more than 67 years, and Stewart said he learned at a young age that when there’s a crisis, you help however you can.
“I can’t fight fires, but I can cook dinner,” he said. “I just kept thinking, ‘If we cook and feed them so they can fight the fire, we’ll get through this.’?”
Sonoma Family Meal
Few understand the evolution of response efforts better than Heather Irwin, dining editor for The Press Democrat and founder of Sonoma Family Meal, a nonprofit designed to feed fire survivors who lost their homes, first responders and others in need.
Irwin started her organization out of necessity following the Tubbs fire, and essentially put her life on hold as she forged relationships with about a dozen local chefs to get people fed.
Chefs made the food and Irwin and her team of volunteers served it. In the months following the Tubbs fire, they doled out thousands of premade meals each day. Meals were packaged for four people at a time; they comprised everything from tuna casserole and chicken noodle soup to rabbit ragout with polenta, baked chicken with braised greens, or focaccia pizza.
“We sought to provide a moment of normalcy in a very scary time,” Irwin wrote in a recent email. “We asked for no documentation, no proof of residency, nothing. We just fed people.”
In the beginning, after the Tubbs fire, Irwin sought many of the donations herself. Since then, Irwin has put into motion a plan to manage volunteer chefs under de facto “captains” who can spearhead response in different areas. The group rolled out its plan following the Kincade fire, when it gave out roughly 8,000 meals.
Since January 2018, Sonoma Family Meal has continued to cook for a core group of somewhere between 50 and 80 families. This constant demand has inspired Irwin to streamline the organization in other ways. First, she secured commercial kitchen space in Petaluma to cook the food. Second, she hired an executive chef: Heather Ames, who was the executive chef at Skywalker Ranch for 18 years. The initiative has resulted in close ties between volunteers and the families they serve.
“We’ve been there with (these families) as houses are rebuilt, as babies are born, as (sadly) a few of them have died, as they leave the country, and as they generally rebuild their lives,” Irwin wrote. “They are truly our family at this point.”
Sharpening farm response efforts
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