Mollie Moore got thrown a curveball at Nationals Park on Monday morning. Even before Mayor Muriel Bowser implemented a citywide 7 p.m. curfew because of ongoing protests against police brutality, some of World Central Kitchen’s restaurant partners decided to close. Eateries around town typically prepare meals that they then sell to WCK for $10 to supplement the thousands of free meals the nonprofit prepares at the ballpark six days a week.
As one of WCK’s chef relief lead operations employees, Moore had to quickly make 500 extra servings of chicken pot pie. The recipe is one of Moore’s most popular, even if it doesn’t resemble the chicken pot pies one may have encountered in the past. Pastry crusts are too delicate to pull off in mass quantities.
“It’s chicken, peas, carrots, chicken stock, and all that creamy stuff over rice, garnished with parsley,” Moore says. “It somehow became my signature dish, and I’m not quite sure why, but as long as everybody loves it, it can be mine.”
Creating 500 extra meals was no sweat for Moore. “No one is really fazed by big changes anymore,” she says. After a lap through the three ballpark kitchens she oversees, everyone was on board. Moving back and forth from one side of the field to the other, Moore can record up to 20,000 steps per day.
WCK grew out of Chef José Andrés’ involvement at DC Central Kitchen and his quick response to help feed Haitians after the nation’s 2010 earthquake. A decade later, his organization has built a reputation for feeding communities in crisis domestically and abroad, whether they’re facing a natural disaster or civil unrest.
The organization is actively responding to COVID-19 in 309 cities in 34 U.S. states and territories, as well as 36 towns and cities in Spain. More than 40 million people nationwide have applied for unemployment benefits, and some don’t know where their next hot meal is coming from. The D.C. region’s undocumented workers have been hit the hardest. In most cities, WCK depends on local restaurants to do the cooking, but D.C. is different. Moore and her team are making the lion’s share of the meals themselves.
The staff and volunteers on Monday prepped, cooked, and individually packaged 3,650 hot meals that would feed underserved populations, including those experiencing homelessness in the region. WCK also prepped 3,200 cold meals that are designed to be reheated once they reach their destination. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, for example, about 2,500 reheatable meals go to Langley Park, an area of Prince George’s County that has seen some of the highest rates of coronavirus cases in Maryland, especiallyamong Latinx residents.
In the 10 weeks since WCK partnered with the Nationals, the organization has produced about 440,000 meals. “Some chefs won’t do that number in their career, let alone three months,” Moore says. She would know. Before joining the organization as a full-time employee at the start of the pandemic, the 34-year-old worked in upscale kitchens.
Moore, who was born in Kentucky and grew up in Massachusetts and New Jersey, began working in restaurants at 17. She was first attracted to the social aspects of serving and bartending. “I always came back to it,” she says. “Once you come back to something so many times, you think, ‘Maybe I’m meant to do this.’”
Her career in the kitchen began in Michigan, where her family moved during her final years in college. Grand Rapids is home to Secchia Institute for Culinary Education, one of the top culinary schools in the country. Moore enrolled and completed externships at Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland and Keoki’s Paradise in Hawaii.
When it came time to launch their careers, Moore and her future husband, Sean, weighed their options. “We didn’t have the aspiration to go to New York and go big time,” Moore says. “A lot of people out of culinary school go to San Francisco or New York.” Moore proposed D.C. Her father’s side of the family hails from here. She grew up eating at bygone restaurants likeKinkead’s and remembers Ris Lacoste’s cooking at 1789 Restaurant.
Moore and her husband moved here in 2013. She worked as a line cook under Lacoste at RIS before moving on to a sous chef job at Fireflyinside the Hotel Madera. Eventually, she joined Schlow Restaurant Group, working her way up from sous chef at Alta Strada to chef de cuisine at The Riggsby. Then she landed her first executive chef job at Tico.
During her tenure with restaurateur Michael Schlow, Moore decided to take time off. That notion lasted a week. “Matt Adler calls me and goes, ‘I know you’re supposed to be taking a hiatus, but I could really use your help.’” It was January 2019, and President DonaldTrump had just shut down the federal government, leaving thousands of people furloughed and hungry. WCK launched #ChefsForFeds out of ThinkFoodLab at 701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.
Adler and Moore first met working together at Alta Strada. The chef, who is now consulting with Neighborhood Restaurant Group, coaxed her into volunteering. “What started out as me helping for a few days turned into a job between jobs,” she says. “I worked throughout the whole federal shutdown. There were people who didn’t have jobs, who didn’t know when their next paycheck was coming. I realized everyone should have access to good, healthy, hot food.”
When D.C. went back to work, Moore re-turned to Schlow Restaurant Group. That didn’t stop WCK Director of Chef Operations Tim Kilcoyne from calling her any time a hurricane or earthquake prompted an organizational response. “I had to say no, because I was still working in restaurants,” Moore says. “I couldn’t always drop everything and go and save the world with food. It started to wear on me. I was saying ‘no’ more than I was saying ‘yes.’”
When Moore turned down WCK’s offer to join Adler in Tokyo to help feed passengers quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February, she called it “the final regret.” She told Kilcoyneif he hired her, she’d never say no to a relief operation again.
“She’s exactly the type of person, the type of chef we look for,” Kilcoyne says. “It’s hard to see what people are going through and, oftentimes, what people have lost. At the end of the day, you have a job to do. It’s getting people fed. She makes sure no one stands in the way of that.”
In March, when WCK hired Moore, she reunited with Adler. They collaborated on recipes and commenced serving meals for those impacted by COVID-19 and the accompanying economic crisis. The ThinkFoodLab was too small to get the mammoth job done. Fortunately, the Nationals were willing to play ball. Now Adler and Moore run the ballpark operation in tandem. “She’s an excellent cook,” Adler says. “She’s focused and she’s not afraid to admit when she’s made a mistake. She corrects the course and knocks it out of the park.”
Moore arrives at the park around 7 a.m. daily. She spends much of her day frantically flipping between WhatsApp, Slack, and text messages to give directives and ensure she’s crunching numbers properly. There’s much to coordinate, from receiving ingredients and ensuring rigorous sanitation and safety measures are in place to adhering to a strict distribution schedule.
Much of Moore’s workday is consumed by one goal. The WCK meals that leave the ballpark must be at least 180 degrees Fahrenheit so they’re still hot when they arrive. Should a challenge surface, she leads with a short, simple motto: “Make it happen.”
The cooks Moore oversees in the kitchen come from restaurants like Spoken English and Red Apron Butcher. They’re paid WCK contractors who lend credibility and experience. These chefs take few shortcuts. Working with as much fresh produce as possible means WCK cooks peel onions and shred carrots in huge quantities. Despite having a wide variety of equipment at their disposal, they predominantly rely on rectangular tilt skillets that can hold hundreds of pounds of food.
The first pans typically make their way to the PNC Diamond Club, behind home plate, by 9:30 a.m. There, an assembly line of volunteers, be they attorneys or retired teachers, start scooping food into plastic containers. Packers weigh every 20th meal to ensure it comes out to one pound of food. “For a lot of people, this may be the only thing they eat all day,” Moore says, noting some people stretch one meal into two.
For the longest time, Moore says, she and her husband wanted to open their own restaurant. “That was the jam,” she says. “Then we saw our friends who did that. I’ve worked closely with many restaurateurs now.” They had second thoughts even before COVID-19 devastated the restaurant industry. Now, she’ll continue nourishing people another way. “I see myself with WCK for quite some time—into the long haul,” she says. “I don’t see myself doing anything else.”