How California's Restaurants are Fighting Fire with Food
Usually in the news for the wines they produce, Napa and Sonoma have made headlines in recent months for the wildfires blazing through them, destroying homes, businesses, and lives.
The fires raged, fueled by strong winds, destroying many restaurants and livelihoods in their wake. However, the community rallied together to support those in need, and restaurants played a big part.
An hour after Terri Stark was woken up on Monday morning, the restaurant she owned with her husband, Mark—Willi’s Wine Bar in Santa Rosa—had been completely destroyed.
The couple, which operates their other five restaurants under Stark Reality Restaurants, started out with Willi’s in 2002.
“Willi’s was our first so it’s bittersweet. It was the foundation that the rest of them were built on,” Terri Stark says. “It was a great, funky 1886 roadhouse, so the setting was truly unique and one that new construction will not be able to replicate.” However, there is some small comfort in the fact that they own several restaurants. “That helps me get through the day,” she says.
Others weren’t as lucky, such as Cricklewood Restaurant and Sweet T’s Restaurant & Bar, both in Santa Rosa. The Starks may count themselves as among the unlucky, but they’ve not gone into mourning. Instead, along with many other restaurants, they’ve been pitching in.
By Thursday of the week of the fires, they had all but one restaurant open and began providing complimentary meals for first responders and evacuees.
“It was really important to do that,” Stark says. “We encouraged everyone who could to come to work. It was appreciated that they had a place to go and be together.
"And for the people who came in to dine it was a little slice of normalcy in the scariness that was going on.”
For four days, four of her restaurants provided meals and Stark’s Steak & Seafood was up and running for the final two.
Stark didn’t count the number of meals served, but knows she probably spent $10,000 per restaurant meals for four days.
Providing nourishment and a break
The food was à la carte, but other restaurants helped out differently. Dustin Valette, owner of Valette in Healdsburg, was involved in helping out with food from day one, cooking in bulk, making 150 meals, and stepping that up to 300 or 400 by the Wednesday.
Since his father flies the helicopters that help fight the fires, Valette knew how badly those first responders needed not only food, but also a break.
“The firefighters work long shifts, 24 or 36 hours, then they have to cook so they don’t get a break,” he says. “We wanted to have that person out there doing their job, fighting fires, so we synchronized with the local fire departments and told them to get the fire fighters out there and we’d feed them.”
On Monday morning, Valette and his staff started preparing meals with the food he had in such as Kobe beef and lobster. Then he started ordering especially for the emergency and even tried to provide variety—a salad, a starch, a fish, a meat, and a vegetable every day, though wanted the meals to be carb and protein heavy, which is important for those fighting fires. Dishes included heirloom tomato braised chicken over creamy polenta; and pork loin over caramelized onions and roasted peppers. “We wanted it to be delicious, wanted to give that sense of normality,” Valette says.
And there was only trouble getting supplies on the first full day (Tuesday), so Valette says he leaned on local resources, but many people donated food, too.
The restaurant delivered the food to those in need or to central locations for evacuees, and then volunteers came to pick up the meals as they got rolling along.
Valette provided meals Monday through the Thursday of the next week, so 11 days, at a cost of around $60,000, but it was worth it.
“Everyone was so happy to get hot food,” Valette says. “When you are cold and hungry and you’ve expended all this energy, a cold peanut butter sandwich is not the thing.
"When you get something hot it changes your outlook. This fed their soul.”
Lending a hand
Kyle Connaughton, who owns SingleThread in Healdsburg with his wife, Katina, was surrounded by fires on three sides. So he decided to close the restaurant and start pitching in with food.
“We started producing 200 meals a day with what we had at the restaurant and things coming from our farm. We just started cooking food knowing shelters would be popping up and people without homes would need to eat,” he says. The restaurant did this for two weeks, and at its peak was serving 600 meals per day.
Now, Connaughton is looking ahead to fundraising. Together with Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Yountville and Christopher Kostow from The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, he’s helping out via Napa & Sonoma Relief, a charity that donates 100 percent of all funds raised.
The big event coming up will be a dinner held on December 2 at The Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena. The three restaurants are donating food and cooking for 400 people, along with CIA chef-instructor Stephen Durfee, who’ll provide dessert. A silent auction will raise additional money.
But the event has a greater reach. Napa & Sonoma Relief is encouraging other restaurants across the country to support the dinner by donating a portion of their proceeds from that evening.
The relief group also held a charity auction at the end of last month and this month the three restaurants are hosing a dinner at Charter Oak in St. Helena.
While there’s very little good news to share about these fires, there is one positive that’s come out of it, Connaughton says. “The silver lining is it has really brought Napa and Sonoma counties and our community together. I’ve never seen people come together so quickly to help other people and with no benefits to them. We had people making meals for whoever needed them—they didn’t even know who they were going to.”