With Wilmington food community, chef José Andrés serves victims of Florence

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World Central Kitchen, the aid organization founded by Andrés, has worked with thousands of area chefs and volunteers to make 150,000 hot meals for first responders and those affected by Hurricane Florence.

Even those who don’t know culinary celebrities might be familiar with chef José Andrés’ efforts to feed people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

“I remember seeing that and thinking I’d love to help,” said Christi Ferretti of Pine Valley Market in Wilmington. “Of course, I imagined going to where they were and not it being here in my own backyard.”

Andrés is the famed chef and restaurateur credited with bringing the small-plate, Spanish tapas trend to the U.S. He founded World Central Kitchen in 2010 after the Haitian earthquake and it has since grown to include a number of chef-driven initiatives. As Hurricane Florence spun in the Atlantic Ocean, slowly moving closer to North Carolina, the disaster relief arm of the group was already mobilizing to come to the area. They arrived on Tuesday, Sept. 11.

“We wanted to be on the ground, ready to work,” said Nate Mook, executive director of World Central Kitchen.

The group coordinated with Diamond Catering Services near the New Hanover County Government Center and arranged for food deliveries before the area was cut off by floods.

Mook said a key part of their work is coordinating with the community. Even while the storm was overhead, local chefs and food friends donated their time and talent to help the group. Chef Keith Rhodes of Catch in Wilmington was one of 5,000 or so to respond. Ferretti, and Pine Valley Market chef Paul Smith, were initially sidelined by a downtown tree on her car, but arrived when they could.

“One of the first things they asked us to do was cook and slice 150 pork loins,” Ferretti said. “We said, ‘OK.’ I can pick up pine cones any time.”

As of Friday, Mook estimated that they’d distributed 150,000 hot meals throughout Southeastern North Carolina to those in need, from first responders to shelters and community groups.

This kind of cooking, though, comes with challenges. Andrés was delivering in Brunswick County, with the help of local authorities, when they crossed a flooded road that was deeper than they anticipated. Their military vehicle was swept off its axis and left tilted on the side of the road. The Kitchen’s hot boxes floated away and the group was rescued by the Cajun Navy volunteer organization.

Even in the midst of natural disaster, Andrés has a high standard for the food he serves. Each tray must feed 40 people, meet a certain food cost and include a starch, meat and vegetables. Meals are also served with a salad or cold vegetable.

“We feel strongly that you can’t feed people MREs for more than a day,” Mook said.

Andrés often comes in to taste each meal, Ferretti said. Gloopy bottled dressing is frowned upon. Homemade dressings are preferred. Everything is garnished. Even in the midst of a storm, it’s important to have fresh cilantro on hand.

“I think a hot meal on your table is important,” she said.

On Wednesday, Paul Bobotas was watching over four large vats of cauliflower and vegetables. He had no previous food service background. He said his family and home had escaped the storm damage.

“We’ve been lucky,” he said. “I wanted to do something to help.”

The main kitchen hub in Wilmington is still busy as dozens of volunteers attend to their work.

And the operation has expanded. Rhodes started a fundraiser that has raised more than $30,000 to help with food costs and he’s been delivering meals via his Catch food truck, everywhere from Houston Moore Public Housing to local police departments. Meanwhile, Pine Valley Market has become an annex for World Central Kitchen and continues to cook and deliver meals.

As flooding continues to threaten other areas of Southeastern North Carolina, WCK has responded by flying hot meals to New Bern and opening a kitchen in Lumberton. The organization is now operating out of four kitchens and eight food trucks — and they have no plans to leave while there’s still a need.

“As business get re-opened and can help the local economy, we’ll leave,” Mook said. “But we are here to keep people nourished and support them while we can.”

Ferretti said that being able to help has meant more than she could imagine.

“This is what I know how to do,” she said. “There’s a lot I can’t do to help. But I can prepare a meal. I can make people feel respected and serve them something that was prepared with love and care. It’s what my dad would have wanted me to do.”

Contact Allison Ballard at Allison.Ballard@GatehouseMedia.com.