The scene is akin to that outside of a stadium before a major sporting event. There’s a big satellite truck parked on the sidewalk; a couple of detached big-rig trailers full of food and supplies clog the roadway; and an army of volunteers transports meals to waiting delivery trucks.
It’s not a visual that one would expect in this normally sleepy cul-de-sac at the end of Bellarmine Court. But it turns out that, with very little fanfare, World Central Kitchen (WCK) has come to town to feed those affected by the Camp Fire, and its home base in this south Chico light-manufacturing zone is now one of the busiest places in the city.
“We got here Friday,” said Ventura chef/caterer Jason Collis, “I drove up with supplies.” Collis is the team leader for the WCK Camp Fire Response, and he and his crew got cooking as soon as they arrived on site—at Italian Guy Catering, the local facility they are renting—on Nov. 9, the day after the Camp Fire started. On the 10th, the volunteer-run nonprofit served 1,000 meals; by the next day they were up to 8,000, and now that number is around 10,000 meals a day being served at Red Cross shelters, first-responder bases and more—18 sites (and counting).
“We’ve had a great outpouring of support,” Collis said, pointing out that roughly 80 local volunteers a day have signed up via the Google Doc linked from the WCK Facebook page. “We’re basically able to serve everybody who has a need.”
WCK has been feeding those affected by natural disasters since the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Founded by world-renowned Spanish-American chef José Andrés, the organization works with an army of leaders via its network, which features respected chefs from around the world (celebrity chef Tyler Florence has been here twice since Nov. 8). In 2017, WCK activated 35,000 volunteers and served 4 million meals (3.4 million of them in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria).
Collis was first introduced to WCK last year when the Thomas Fire hit. After he and fellow Ventura chef Tim Kilcoyne led the assistance efforts in their own backyard, the two of them joined the chef network.
As he gave me a tour of the facility, crammed with local volunteers who wrapped silverware, packed sack lunches (with messages scrawled on them by local kids) and hot meals and loaded trucks, Collis introduced some of the core WCK crew who’d come from all over to help.
There was Matt LeMasters, the head of mapping and deliveries, who flew in from North Carolina. “He lost his home in Hurricane Florence,” Collis said, “and he needed an outlet to help and he came to volunteer at our kitchen—him and his wife—and they were there every day.”
And in the kitchen—overseeing the preparation of a lunch of beef and cheese ravioli with tomato cream sauce over roasted local veggies—was head chef Elsa Corrigan, a chef/restaurateur now based in Truckee who got started with WCK during the 2018 Puna Volcano eruption in Hawaii.
“What I love about this organization is it’s grassroots, and we build from within,” Collis said.
Other than the handful of leadership roles, though, most of the workers are local. And for the Camp Fire Response, this reporter recognized many familiar faces from the local restaurant scene on site, including Rico’s Tamales owner/chef Antonio Flores, Italian Guys owner Paul Lema and Mom’s Restaurant/Madison Bear Garden owner Steve Vickery, who was wearing an apron and helping out in the kitchen. “I can’t go rescue people; I can’t put out fires,” he said, “but I can cook.”
In addition to its help during crises, WCK also helps devastated areas rebuild infrastructure, providing grants for small businesses and farms, chef training and food-service job creation. For now, though, WCK is focused on the acute needs of Butte County—and Collins assured, “We’re here until the need is gone.”