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Tuesday night, California chef Tim Kilcoyne took off for Onslow County to feed 800 firefighters the first hot meal they had eaten since Hurricane Florence slogged through North Carolina.
The meal came courtesy of World Central Kitchen, a relief organization started by renowned chef Jose Andres that has fed millions of people in the wake of natural disasters since 2010.
And for the past week, Kilcoyne has been running the Raleigh kitchen for the organization, its work grounded in one of the most basic needs of the storm. Thousands of people must eat, and warm meals are best.
The long days have meant making sandwiches and packing utensils, even peeling a thousand pounds of sweet potatoes.
World Central Kitchen opened kitchens in Raleigh and Wilmington ahead of the storm, the first time they’ve ever been on the ground before a disaster, and this week opened another in New Bern. Two others in Kinston and Jacksonville are expecting to come online soon.
Kilcoyne said the group is here indefinitely, seemingly finding more and more people to feed each day. They started with enough supplies to feed 150,000 and they’ve already done that, with no signs of stopping.
Sun-up to sundown
The Raleigh kitchen is housed in Rocky Top Catering in North Raleigh, a busy kitchen that hit pause on numerous catering events when the storm hit.
The kitchen — a sun-up to sundown operation — has attracted both people in the Triangle’s culinary industry and volunteers who just want to help their friends and neighbors in a moment of need.
“We’re the non-culinary volunteers,” said Kathryn Mueller, standing with a group of retirees at the back of the kitchen, all from North Carolina, from Hillsborough to Wilmington.
Mueller said the story of the organization’s best-known moment — when Andres and his team served millions of meals in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria — put the group on her radar and compelled her to track down the Raleigh kitchen.
“When Chef Jose was feeding people in Puerto Rico, that’s when I first heard of him and what he’s doing. That’s where I fell in love with his mission,” said Mueller, who had just finished her second straight six-hour day.
The kitchen has sent food to a few local shelters and first-responder stations nearby, but also sent thousands of meals into Eastern North Carolina. The flooded rural lands to the Southeast are the hardest hit by the storm. And while the Wilmington kitchen is often much closer, Kilcoyne said it’s cut off by flooded roads.
The routes to Jacksonville and Duplin County can take three hours one way. Because of the shifting water, sometimes routes are only clear for a few hours, meaning a different route there and back, found in the dark through trial and error.
The scenes are eerie, Kilcoyne said, with ditches and roadside forests filled with water. One time, he turned down a road he heard was clear, only to find it blocked off by two crashed trucks, abandoned and still smoking. It looked like the end of the world.
In Raleigh, those scenes can feel very far away. The power is on, and the streets aren’t covered in water. The only gripe is it can be hard to find a place to park.
In Rocky Top Catering, Dean Ogan runs one of the area’s largest catering kitchens. Earlier this year, the company cooked for 23 weddings on a single Saturday.
Ahead of Hurricane Florence, with the entire weekend of events canceled, he opened his space up to World Central Kitchen.
“I felt like it was our moral obligation as human beings to help other human beings. …This isn’t something you slam a door on. You’ve got to follow it through.”
Inside, the kitchen is busy and quiet. There’s an urgency that’s unspoken but understood, everything happening quickly and deliberately, all hands moving as one.
On one table, sandwiches formed on an assembly line are dropped into paper bags. On another, cake pops are being dipped in Carolina blue icing for this weekend’s UNC football game.
By mid-week, Rocky Top was back to work alongside the chefs and volunteers. Things will get interesting, when Rocky Top does nine weddings this weekend, and World Central Kitchen makes thousands of meals.
Next Saturday, it’s 16 weddings and two parties for more than 2,000. Ogan said World Central Kitchen is welcome to stay.
“It’s funky right now, but we’re figuring it out,” Ogan said.
Thanks to Andres, the group has ascended into the mainstream of disaster charities. He is often on the ground with volunteers, while drawing attention the group and recruiting volunteers on social media. He’s been in North Carolina since early Saturday morning, landing in Raleigh from New York and driving through the night to Wilmington. All the while, he has documented the group’s efforts and thanked first-responders.
While feeding thousands along the coast, he has missed publicity stops in Los Angeles for his new book “We Fed an Island,” which chronicles their time in Puerto Rico last year. Those efforts led to Andres receiving the James Beard Award for Humanitarian of the Year earlier this year.
Locally, the group has attracted its share of culinary talent to the kitchens. In North Carolina, volunteers have included Lionel Vatinet of La Farm Bakery in Cary, Andrew Ullom of the future Union Special Bread, cooks from Ashley Christensen’s restaurants, Whiskey Kitchen, 18 Seaboard, Viceroy and others.
Chefs have traveled from New York and Nashville, Cincinnati and South Carolina.
Kilcoyne said he gets about 400 emails a day from people wanting to volunteer, folks with no culinary background who want to help out.
Pennie Coussit and her husband left Wilmington more than a week ago, hoping to get ahead of the storm and the traffic. She thought back to the rush to evacuate from Floyd as she worked in the kitchen Tuesday, helping victims of the storm that had spared her. A friend checked on her house and said it was fine, though the power was likely still out.
“Just something to help out,” Coussit said.
Volunteers passed phones back and forth, showing photos of friends and neighbors who hadn’t been so lucky, with fallen trees cutting through rooftops.
Chef Jennifer Uphold drove up Tuesday morning from Spartanburg, S.C., leaving at 5 that morning. She runs a corporate cafe there and said her company, Bon Appetit, gave her the OK to head to North Carolina. At the end of a 13-hour day, she was tired but fulfilled, feeling like she was helping make things right.
“The most devastating thing to happen in your life is a fire or flood,” Uphold said. “You work your whole life and then have it washed away. It’s been so rewarding, knowing this sandwich in this bag is going to feed someone’s child that day.”
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson
Rally + Relief in Raleigh has organized a city-wide fundraiser for World Central Kitchen. So far, 27 restaurants and local shops have pledged to donate a portion of their sales from Saturday, Sept. 22, to the organization. For participating businesses, go to facebook.com/RallyReliefNC.
Restaurants and bars participating so far:
▪ Another Broken Egg Cafe
▪ Capital Club 16
▪ Fiction Kitchen
▪ Kings Entertainment in North Hills
▪ Night Kitchen
▪ Quarter Horse Arcade
▪ Spring Rolls
▪ Trophy Brewing
▪ Apex Outfitter
▪ Arrow Haircuts
▪ Father and Son
▪ Hawks and Doves
▪ House of Swank
▪ Kendra Scott
▪ Lily Pulitzer
▪ Raleigh Wine Shop
▪ Retro Modern Furnishings
▪ So & So Books
▪ Videri Chocolate