A #ChefsForFeds volunteer. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

José Andrés somehow still has time to think about condiments. The chef and humanitarian, who owns more than a dozen restaurants and leads efforts to feed natural disaster victims through World Central Kitchen, his donor-supported nonprofit organization, has recently shifted his focus to federal workers impacted by the government shutdown. On one recent afternoon, he implored #ChefsForFeds volunteers in D.C. to spread garlic aioli to the edges of every piece of bread.

“José is insistent that we must respect the food as much as we respect these people,” says Red Truck Bakery owner Brian Noyes, who has been volunteering to feed workers for two weeks. “He knows these workers need nutrition and calories to keep going.” 

The owner of the twin Virginia bakeries says he’s been putting in up to 12 hours of work per day. “I’ve been overseeing the sandwich making lately,” he says. “We’re slicing bread like crazy.” He says volunteering has reminded him that every kitchen task is equally important. “I have a new love for the dishwasher who I stand over waiting for a sheet pan.” 

Noyes has had an emotional reaction to the work. “I tried to get out of the kitchen a couple times to see how long the line was,” he explains. After seeing that it snaked around the block, he began to cry. “It’s not a soup kitchen. These are government employees. There are FBI agents in coats and ties and there were park police in Kevlar vests in line. It just gets you when you realize who you’re helping.”

When it emerged that furloughed federal government employees were going to miss paychecks during the longest shutdown in U.S. history, Andrés called on WCK to establish a kitchen in D.C. The doors of #ChefsForFeds opened on Jan. 16 in the ThinkFoodLab space at 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

Tim Kilcoyne is one of the chefs leading the charge. He first got involved with World Central Kitchen when fires swept through his hometown in Ventura County, California, in late 2017. He was evacuated for almost two weeks. WCK contacted him and asked if he’d run a kitchen; he’s been with the organization ever since. 

“This one is very different because there’s no natural disaster, so there’s still power and there’s no flooding or smoke from a fire or volcano,” Kilcoyne says. “A lot of people aren’t thrilled that they have to come in—these are people who have had good jobs for quite some time who might be embarrassed to come for a free meal.” But #ChefsForFeds has become a gathering place for the community, Kilcoyne explains. It’s about more than just food. 

Volunteers have served approximately 75,000 meals to date. On Jan. 23 alone, they served 11,400 meals between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. While the shutdown has temporarily ended, WCK plans to operate #ChefsForFeds through at least Feb. 1 as workers rebound and await back pay. Part of the daily routine now includes packing free bagged lunches and sending them directly to places like the FBI and the National Zoo.

While many #ChefsForFeds volunteers have been furloughed federal employees themselves, members of the D.C. hospitality industry have helped as well. “We’ve had servers, bartenders, culinary schools, and local chefs reach out,” Kilcoyne says. 

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Noyes learned of the volunteer opportunity from Chef Christian Irabién Gamboa, who is preparing to open Amparo Fondita in Northeast D.C. Irabién first volunteered with World Central Kitchen in December in Tijuana, Mexico, where the organization continues to feed refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. Within days of returning to the District, the former Oyamel chef agreed to coordinate #ChefsForFeds volunteers. 

Irabién can empathize with furloughed federal workers because he didn’t always wear a chef’s coat. He previously did economic work with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. 

“Everyone on the ground level gets totally screwed out of making a living,” he says. “Do you quit your job where you have some benefits and seniority and stability to get another job? Everyone is between the sword and the wall. All I know how to do is cook and that’s what I did.” 

Despite the challenges of growing demand, scratch cooking for the masses in a small kitchen, juggling ingredients that arrive by the truckload, and long days even by chef standards, Irabién says he can’t stop talking about the experience to anyone who will listen. “Everyone is being their best self, which is such a contrast to everyday life when your ratio of amazing people versus ‘Man, I could have done without that guy,’ has a different balance.” 

He says his biggest takeaway from the experience is a desire to make the food system more equitable and redistribute food waste to those in need. “There were days in the beginning where we’d end up with 100 [leftover] sandwiches,” he explains. “Volunteers bagged them up and took them to different shelters.” 

Like Irabién, Himitsu partner Carlie Steiner volunteered at World Central Kitchen in Tijuana. The day her return flight landed in D.C. in January, she rolled her suitcase straight to #ChefsForFeds and got to work. She’s volunteered there almost every day since. Steiner, who has a culinary degree, first connected with Andrés when she worked for his restaurant group’s playful cocktail bar, barmini

Steiner has mainly helped with operations and established systems to keep #ChefsForFeds organized. She says the experience has taught her how much a smart, strong team can accomplish. “I’ve never been a part of another organization that’s been so quick and on the ball … One of the biggest shocks to me is how the volunteers take this seriously. They’re on time. They’re early … Everyone is here and beautifully aggressive about everything.” 

Her restaurant serves fresh crudos and refined plates with a Japanese influence, but Steiner says the way they’re cooking at #ChefsForFeds isn’t extremely different, especially because the organization purchases its ingredients locally and puts money back into the local economy. “I can see where it’s necessary to provide nutritious meals that are decent in size versus when it’s time to do tasting menus, but the food we’re serving is food fit for restaurants,” she says. 

Dishes have included a grilled sirloin steak sandwich with pickled onions, roasted tomato, and spring mix finished with a roasted garlic aioli; a roasted broccoli and basil tahini bowl with tzatziki, curry roasted garbanzos, farro, and cherry tomatoes; and a winter vegetable panzanella with butternut squash, sauteed kale, Brussels sprouts, purple cabbage, pine nuts, croutons, and chipotle pesto.

While #ChefsForFeds strives to make gluten-free and vegan or vegetarian offerings available, Pow Pow Chef Margaux Riccio noticed furloughed workers who keep Kosher might be cut out from the meals and decided to hold a free dinner at her restaurant. She filled the 50 slots almost immediately and received requests to hold another Kosher dinner, but ultimately decided to work with #ChefsForFeds instead. “We decided we can’t afford to do more, so we all agreed during our managers meeting that they would volunteer me,” she says. 

Riccio volunteered at #ChefsForFeds on Jan. 24. “I don’t think I’ve worked like that since I was 20,” she says. After making thousands of quinoa bowls, she is signed up for two more shifts this week. “I appreciate that they’re not cutting anything off [despite the shutdown being over] … Even though we are a transient community, we are supportive of each other.” 

Chef Matt Adler, formerly of Osteria Morini and Schlow Restaurant Group, believes D.C.’s general camaraderie is magnified in the restaurant industry. “The chef community in D.C. is tighter than anywhere I’ve ever lived,” says the chef, who now runs his own consulting company, MRA Culinary Solutions. “It’s a super generous chef and restaurateur community and everybody cares.” 

Adler says he has done his fair share of charity work over the years, but nothing has compared to #ChefsForFeds, where he has been volunteering most days from 7 a.m. to noon. He calls it “one of the most difficult things he’s done” and compares it to “opening a brand new restaurant twice a day with brand new staff.”

“This is the first charity work I’ve done that affects so many people,” he says. “As chefs, we get invited to ‘walking around’ tasting events where you put your dish up and leave and forget about it. This was a good opportunity to make a difference on a very large scale. That’s why I kept doing it.”