It was the light that drew Vince Sanchez to the window. He and his wife had just put down their five-month-old baby and were settling into the couch for a movie when an odd glimmer pulled Sanchez to the window of his Calistoga home.
It was October 8 and the Tubbs Fire, which would destroy more than 36,000 acres and kill 22 before being extinguished, had just started about a mile from Sanchez’s back door.
The family evacuated, and the next morning Sanchez rose with a singular sense of purpose. “I just thought, ‘What can we do? We have food, why not feed people?’”
Through friends, acquaintances, fellow food professionals, and the folks behind smoked meat disaster response network Operation BBQ Relief, a plan emerged. Aimee D’maris Events provided a commercial kitchen. Sanchez spent thousands on ingredients and supplies. Volunteer cooks began to arrive, heeding a word-of-mouth call for people who knew their protein and barbecue pits.
“Before you know it we had a pit. Then there’s three pits, five pits,” Sanchez said. On Tuesday, the very first day they were up and running, the motley crew of cooks fed 1,250 people.
As the fires continued to ravage Wine Country, more people pitched in. Del Monte Meat donated hundreds of pounds of pork and chicken. Sysco reps made sandwiches. Wineries lent generators. Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery donated bread.
“On Saturday I think we had 20 executive chefs from wineries,” Sanchez recalled. “I asked and people just said Yes. No one said No.”
By the time the fires were out, 11 days after Sanchez first noticed the glow beyond his living room window, his barbecue brigade had fed more than 33,000 meals to first responders, evacuees, and relief workers.
And he was hardly alone. Across the Bay Area chefs have up stepped up to the proverbial plate, donating time and product to provide wildfire victims with fresh, healthy food and holding fundraisers and benefits to support longer-term recovery.
Since October 15, Sonoma Family Meal has served more than 50,000 chef-created meals to North Bay residents, and the organization continues to feed people in need. More than 100 restaurants offered special menus and dishes benefitting displaced residents during ChefsGiving Week from November 13–19.
In San Francisco, culinary stars Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski (State Bird Provisions, The Progress), Traci Des Jardins (Jardinière) Ravi Kapur (Liholiho Yacht Club), Sam Mogannam (Bi-Rite Market), and Craig Stoll (Delfina) banded together to form SF Fights Fire, enlisting their peers to cook restaurant-quality meals for those affected by the flames.
“It was amazing to see the San Francisco restaurant community come together so quickly and within two days begin to serve massive numbers of meals for the displaced,” said Des Jardins. “Over the course of two weeks, 250 San Francisco restaurants sent food to Napa/Sonoma daily to provide over 35,000 meals. This was all done on a volunteer basis and not one restaurant asked about reimbursement of any kind. Pretty incredible.”
Des Jardins is also leading Rise Up Sonoma, a December 3 charity event in Santa Rosa jam-packed with winemaking and culinary talent with 100% of proceeds going to ongoing initiatives like Rebuild Wine Country and UndocuFund.
In St. Helena, after Acacia House restaurant at Las Alcobas hotel reopened, chef Chris Cosentino offered free meals to first responders and community members in need. “Come and get a meal, take a rest, let us take care of you!” the chef posted on Instagram. And Cosentino’s Feast of the Seven Cultures—an international spin on the Italian Christmas celebration—will welcome guest chefs from across the country December 18–24 for a week’s worth of dinner parties benefitting the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund.
Even after five-star Napa resort Meadowood closed during the fires, a small group of staff stayed on site, housing and feeding some firefighters who battled nearby blazes. Chef Christopher Kostow of the Restaurant at Meadowood and The Charter Oak has already helmed one fundraising dinner, which brought together the local community for a night of celebration and solidarity. “That dinner was one of the highlights of my career,” Kostow said. “It was the most spirited, high-energy thing that I’d seen in a long time.”
Along with Thomas Keller (The French Laundry) and Kyle Connaughton (SingleThread), Kostow is also helping chair the Napa & Sonoma Relief Fund, which will hold A Night of Friendship & Neighbors (and fancy food and wine) December 2 at the Culinary Institute of America.
Woodhouse BBQ’s Vince Sanchez is also planning benefit events for January, when he’ll smoke meat for a good cause once again. For him, seeing local food pros feed their neighbors in a time of need makes perfect sense. “We’re chefs,” he said. “This is what we do. We cook.”