In a Time of Need, Restaurant Cooks Feed Each Other

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A woman worried about how she would eat. She was a server at a New Orleans restaurant, and she had no work when the governor shut down all dining rooms on March 16 to slow the spread of the coronavirus. She wrote about her fears in a private Facebook group for the New Orleans service industry workers. Melissa Daigle, herself a laid off bar manager from the Uptown restaurant Atchafalaya, saw the post and offered to help.

“My restaurant owners were getting rid of perishable stuff in the walk in earlier that day. As soon as I saw that she had posted that on Facebook, I put together a little care package,” Daigle said.

Daigle made a flatbread with arugula and meat, tortilla salad and a batch of stew with potatoes, carrots and cabbage. Since she has been out of work Daigle has made meals, cookies and big batches of cocktails, dropping them off on the porches of friends and co-workers. She is from New Orleans. Her family lives here. So she has support that others who work in New Orleans bars and restaurants do not.

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“Luckily, mom’s always cooking and I can always go pick up care packages from her,” Daigle said. “That’s why I feel like I definitely have to share whatever resources that I have.”

New Orleans is a tourist town. And the tourism industry, according to a Brookings Institute study, is one of most vulnerable during the coronavirus crisis. Among large U.S. cities whose economies are at most at risk, the study ranked New Orleans in the top five.

The majority of the people in New Orleans who made their living taking care of customers at bars and restaurants are out of work. They don’t know when they will work again. Now those cooks, servers and bartenders are stepping up to take care of each other.

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Trey Rintala was the pastry chef at Meauxbar, a modern bistro on the back edge of the French Quarter. After the restaurant closed, he started making desserts and cakes to earn some money. Jessica Orgeron, a clerk at the Louisiana Supreme Court, tasted one of Rintala’s desserts and got an idea. She would raise money and pay Rintala to cook for New Orleanians in need. It would help him with his bills, and make sure those in need were well fed.

“The people I’m most concerned about are people that I know in the service industry and my musician friends,” Orgeron said.

Rintala and Orgeron are calling their effort Tres Bon Food Fund. Out of Rintala’s home kitchen, they hope to give away 40 to 50 meals a week of Louisiana dishes like beans and gumbo.

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“I have a decent amount of savings,” Rintala said. His restaurant also paid him through March and will cover his health insurance through the end of April.

“So I feel like I’m in a better position to help out right now,” he said.

Restaurants around New Orleans have been offering free meals to their laid off staff. Creole Cuisine, a large restaurant company, has been making 1,500 meals a day for its workers. The Link Restaurant Group, which runs celebrated places like Cochon, Herbsaint and Peche Seafood Grill, is giving away thousands of meals a week to its staff and in partnership with the nationwide Lee Initiative to other local service workers. At Toups’ Meatery near City Park, the Cajun-born chef Isaac Toups gives away free meals every day from 3 p.m. until the food runs out.

Tom Levings is a prep cook at Blue Oak BBQ, which is across the street from Toups’ Meatery. Although his hours have been cut, he still has a job. Seeing the lines of people waiting for food at Toups’, he decided that he could also help. Levings enlisted two laid off friends, bartenders Raluca Giurgiutiu and Diana Morari, and formed the Krewe de Greens.

“We’re people who know where to get large amounts of food and, more importantly, how to cook large amounts of food,” Levings said.

Louisiana Fresh, a local food distributor, donated four cases of greens and a case of beets. A neighbor picked a box of grapefruits from their tree. A few friends sent cash through Venmo. The Krewe de Greens turned those donations last week into 20 gallons of smothered greens, which they passed out at spots around Mid-City.

“We don’t say no to people,” Giurgiutiu said.

Now they plan to pass out and deliver meals every Monday and Friday, advertising the free food on Facebook, until the coronavirus crisis ends and everyone can get back to work.

“We want our friends to eat good, but we don’t want them to spend any money on anything they don’t have to right now,” Levings said.


By AP reporter Todd A. Price


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