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Money Culture

5 Chefs Who Helped Save the Service Industry During 2020

The restaurant industry was one of the hardest hit during the pandemic. Instead of standing by, these five chefs used their money and influence to help support their communities in times of need.

Tori Dunlap • June 30, 2021

From the student debt crisis to stagnating wages, the pandemic has only highlighted the statistical truth that money is the biggest source of stress for Americans. Not that you needed reminding. But with so many negative news stories surrounding money, I wanted to take a moment to highlight the good it can do in the world when used to uplift others.

Here’s the thing –– I am a huge Food Network fan. GGG has basically gotten me through quarantine. I closely follow my favorite chefs and creators in the food industry. Good food is also one of my top three value categories, so even though I don’t work in the food industry, I feel deeply connected to it and its community.

When COVID-19 rocked local restaurants and workers across the country, I was heartened to watch some of my favorite foodies come together to help lift the burdens of their community.

For some background, there are an estimated 15.1 million people who work in the restaurant industry. It’s one of the largest employers across the nation, making up 10% of the workforce. This industry was also one of the hardest hit by COVID-19. Workers who relied almost completely on tips saw tremendous dips in their monthly wages, and many restaurants had to close their doors temporarily – or permanently. Government-funded programs like the PPP Loans and unemployment helped immensely, but many workers had to wait to see these benefits, if they saw them at all.

In a moment where it would have been easy to sit back and just manage their own restaurants, these chefs and influencers decided to serve the greater restaurant community by implementing programs to help ease the financial burdens of its workers. 

J. Kenji López-Alt

J. Kenji López-Alt is a California-based restaurant owner and chef. His business, Wursthall, faced tough times – like most restaurants in the beginning of the pandemic. Wanting to keep his employees on payroll, López-Alt used his industry connections to fundraise money to keep his team working while serving the needs of the greater local community.

He raised enough funding to serve gourmet boxed lunches to hundreds of families, including first responders, hospital staff, unemployed workers, and parents now juggling childcare alongside their day jobs. 

Side note: J. Kenji López-Alt also has an absolutely delightful YouTube channel where he makes late-night recipes that are 1000% as mouth-watering as they look.

Dominique Crenn

Dominique Crenn is a San Francisco-based chef and owner of Atelier Crenn who has been a longtime advocate of equality in the service industry. She’s also the first and only US-based female chef to ever receive 3 Michelin stars. Talk about impressive.

Crenn used her unique and wide-reaching influence in the upscale restaurant community to promote and lobby for an aid package for San Francisco’s small and medium-sized businesses.

On top of that, she’s a part of the Independent Restaurant Coalition’s Save Restaurants campaign and has been responsible for helping consumers and restaurateurs get in contact with their local legislation to help pass similar aid packages in their own communities.

Chef José Andrés

José Andrés is a D.C.-based chef who worked alongside J. Kenji López-Alt during the pandemic to provide food to those in need. In addition to running three restaurants, Adrés heads the World Central Kitchen, an organization that “uses the power of food to nourish communities and strengthen economies through times of crisis and beyond.”

A part of the World Central Kitchen’s COVID-19 efforts is the #ChefsForAmerica program which has donated over 36 million meals across 400 cities and paid $160 million to restaurants. This program provides food to people in need and helps restaurants continue providing jobs and paying for their valuable employees. It also runs outside of the pandemic, serving children and families in food deserts – where poverty is high and nutrition hard to find – and in the aftermath of natural disasters.

You can learn more about the World Central Kitchen and donate to their meal program here!

Cat Cora

Cat Cora is another California-based chef who runs the non-profit Chefs for Humanity, which supports No Kid Hungry.

Throughout the year, No Kid Hungry provides meals and food skills education to under-resourced communities across the country. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they redoubled their efforts to ensure that every child received 3 square meals a day.

No Kid Hungry worked directly with states and the USDA to develop an online map to help families find free food near them – including schools, food banks, and more. 

Cora and the No Kid Hungry team have used their immense influence and fundraising to advocate for increased SNAP benefits, EBT, and school waivers to make sure children are fed. So far, they have sent $80 million in emergency relief funds to schools and community groups.

You can learn more about No Kid Hungry and donate to their cause here.

Guy Fieri

As mentioned above, I’m a little bit (ok, a lot a bit) obsessed with the Food Network and, if you are too, Guy Fieri is no stranger. The charismatic host of shows like “Diners,Drive-Ins, and Dives” and “Guy’s Grocery Games” realized waiting for government funding wasn’t an option for the food service industry.

In a short seven weeks, Fieri raised an astounding $21.5 million for restaurant workers through his Restaurant Employee Relief Fund. This fund helped 43,000 workers financially impacted by the pandemic, giving out grants of $500 to each employee. 

Guy also went to bat for the restaurant industry, working with California officials to help get restaurants back to a place where they could safely do business and take care of their employees.

The restaurant industry is home to some of the most incredible people, from the top chefs you see on TV to the back-of-house staff and everyone in between. This industry is home to immigrants, people of color, mothers, fathers, teenagers, retirees, side hustlers, and so many more. It’s an industry that could have crumbled under the weight of 2020 but didn’t because of the kindness, influence, and fundraising of those who support it.

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