Working the Line
Sunday – October 15
It was inevitable we’d get to this point. It’s that intersection where goodwill and energy and charity meet up against real life and people’s desire and need to go back to their day-to-day. That’s what about 10 of us are meeting about right now. How do we best take our efforts, and moving forward, still continue to help those affected by the Route 91 tragedy and then the community at large?
Sunday – October 1
I’m at The Park outside of the Monte Carlo. I’m enjoying a meal, talking with a friend and some people we’ve never met before. It’s 10:20 p.m. I decide I should head out.
As I leave, I’m within walking distance of the Route 91 Festival when Stephen Paddock unloads an AK-47 on thousands of concertgoers. I see the streets being blocked off and as I drive home, swarms of police and SWAT members heading in the opposite direction. I have no idea what is going on.
I turn on the news when I get home. I am not shocked or even surprised – how could you be when the same thing happens over and over again and we do nothing to change gun laws? – I’m numb. I’m not saying I expected this, but I am saying I won’t be surprised the next time another gun massacre happens either. We need to do better for our fellow humans but that’s a different article.
Monday – October 2
By the time I turn on my computer, I find a colleague of mine, food writer Al Mancini, already driving around the city, talking to first responders, cops, and blood banks, getting information about who needs food.
That kind of sparks my efforts. Let me make this clear. I have no plan. I’m just gonna see what I can do. I don’t know who needs to be fed or how much or at what time. I just know food helps. I know enough chefs and have enough resources that I could maybe help some people. I start making calls to some chefs who I know will contribute. I start asking on Facebook who needs food and how much they need.
And this becomes my week. Every day, all day and night, I spend my days coordinating from social media and my nights out with a rebellious team of chefs, restauranteurs, urban farmers, and random volunteers delivering free food to the victims and first responders.
When your city gets hit with a tragedy like a mass shooting or a natural disaster – something Americans seem to experience more and more these days – you can feel devastated and powerless to help. But we in the culinary scene were (and continue to be) determined to find a way to do what we could with the resources and skills that we have.
As I talk to more chefs, we are rolling. Someone sends me a Facebook message like, “The blood bank on Charleston has a four hour wait. They need food for donors and volunteers.” I post that information on Facebook and call restaurants that might contribute. Within a few hours, we have 15 restaurants donating time and food. By the end of the week, the number will be up to nearly 60 restaurants.
I have a team organizing needs for me. I don’t know how or why, but we just kind of become a unit. Jenn Hyla, an Air Force veteran who I used to see at concerts, makes a bunch of phone calls to police precincts and we take food orders. Carolina Chacon, a public servant who always seems to be helping the community, has boots to the ground and messages in more requests like: “40 counselors need lunch Tuesday at 12 p.m.” It’s like putting a puzzle together. Take the order, find the chef and get a volunteer to drive and deliver the food. We start with maybe five people working together. By the end of the week, we have a Facebook group with over 100 volunteers.
My team is not the only group of people trying to make things better through food. Different restaurants are separately deciding on their own how they can best help. Not surprisingly, it starts with pizza. Three of my favorite pizza shops are already delivering fresh, free pies to those waiting to give blood and others in need all over Las Vegas. Chris Palmieri of Naked City Pizza drives out to Las Vegas Motor Speedway where he has a kitchen and just starts cooking. I hear he made 800 slices that he delivered throughout the city. Evel Pie, the hipster pizza joint Downtown, is all over Sin City as well. The group that bases out of there will come to be known as the Helpful Hooligans. They deliver food and care packages and, with the tireless efforts of shop owner Branden Powers and Hooligans leader Dustin Hoots, they make a huge impact today and throughout the week.
I’m in constant contact with John Arena of Metro Pizza, who is handing out slices at blood banks throughout Vegas. John gives me the location of which of his shops to pick up the pies and we have drivers grab them and get them to hospitals and more blood banks.
I call Jamie Tran, the chef at the new suburban hot spot The Black Sheep, for her help. She is in line to give blood but contacts friends at Fleur and Yardbird, two chic restaurants on Las Vegas Blvd. Within an hour, food is going out the door from both those locations to the Red Cross and others. I call her back hours later. She is still in line.
So we have pizzas, lunches from major Strip restaurants and also off-Strip eateries like Le Thai and District One all looping around the city, all because people care.
People keep asking me what the name of our organization is. I chuckle and think to myself, “This is the least organized organization I can think of.” We don’t really have a plan in place. We just see a need and fill it.
Then there’s Jolene Mannina. She is a force in the culinary scene as the director of culinary partnerships for Urban Seed, the futuristic vertical aeroponic farming organization that is going to feed a lot of people as they grow.
It’s 8 pm. I drive to Spring Valley Hospital where a food truck Jolene wrangled, courtesy of George Morales’s Quality Food Trucks, sits at the entrance to the emergency room. George takes orders. Expediting the food is Justin Kingsley Hall of the popular Chinatown eatery Sparrow + Wolf. Dan Krohmer of the acclaimed Other Mama, a modern Japanese joint, messaged me earlier in the day saying his restaurant’s food wasn’t really the right fit for what was needed but if we found a truck he’d cook all night. He, along with Chris Decker of Metro Pizza, Joshua Clark of The Goodwich, George’s wife, and some dude named Mike who cooks at Momofuku are preparing everything from cheeseburgers to elote sandwiches to tempura lobster tails. I work front of house with George and Justin while Jolene visits patients and nurses inside the hospital. She texts us orders which we relay to the chefs. They cook the requested meals and Jolene shows up with a rolling cart to bring everything to those inside. That’s eight different people from seven different areas of the culinary scene teaming up and just hoping to make people’s days a little easier, a little better with good food.
Tuesday – Friday Oct 3 - 6
That became the jumping-off point for the rest of the week. Sit at my desk, wait for orders to come in from Jenn or Carolina or any random message I got and figure out how to place the food. Coordinate chefs and make moves.
Then at night, we stationed outside of UMC where we had two food trucks going each night plus about 50 volunteers feeding everyone from victims and their family members to nurses to Helivac pilots. This was done in conjunction with Jolene and Urban Seed’s Annmarie Feiler, who was often first on the scene and last to go. She was a leader amongst peers at these events.
We had people drive up from San Diego just for the day because they wanted to help. We had parents and kids and chefs and writers. It became a communal gathering point and as much as getting sustenance in the bellies of nurses and doctors working 12 hour shifts was important, it also helped to get them some fresh air, some time to socialize, some time to take their mind off of everything. This became our rallying point and the reason we were able to serve about 3000 meals a day going forward. Requests for the next day would come in and we’d be able to start working in our make-shift, outdoor, food truck frenzy.
With things running somewhat smoothly, we decided to try something different. My friend Dan and I used to work with someone who was shot at the fest. She was in the hospital recovering from surgery and we wanted to be a little more personal. He got the names of a few victims recovering at home and we stopped by Evel Pie and picked up eight pizzas. We delivered them to people recovering and their family members and you would think we were buying them new houses by the way they reacted. The joy of pizza is one of the great joys in the world.
One guy who answered had no idea why we were there. We explained that we were bringing pizza to his family and specifically his daughter. He told us, holding back tears, that he was a security officer at the festival and had to do his best to protect everyone while having zero idea what was going on with his kid. Just listening and letting people know you care does more than you think.
Monday – Oct 16
I get messages every day from more people wanting to volunteer – massage therapists, acupuncturists, private chefs, and documentarians to name a few. We’ve utilized most of them but now we have to figure out what’s next. We got an email from one restaurant that donated, saying they were “charity-ed out.” I understand and respect that but I hope we can utilize this civic enthusiasm, this communal spirit, and find more ways to help.
I hope nothing like this ever happens again, here or anywhere. But it will. And if it happens here, we are working towards a more efficient way to bring food to those in need going forward.
In a time of crisis, you don’t think, you do. Most people on the outside looking in are horrified to see that 58 innocent people died and over 500 were injured, but they probably don’t consider how exhausted doctors and nurses, ambulance drivers and blood donors need to be fed.
But this is Vegas. We pride ourselves on our hospitality and our hospitality industry stepped up enormously.
For more information, please join our Facebook group #VegasStrong First Food Responders.