As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the country and force businesses to shut down, among the hardest hit are immigrant workers—many of whom worked in the restaurant or other service industries. Now, they are left with no jobs and no unemployment benefits, struggling to put food on their plates and send money home to their families, while fearing getting sick without any support from the government.
In an effort to help them, dozens of famous chefs—including Alison Roman, Nancy Silverton, Tom Colicchio, Eric Ripert, Suzanne Goin, and Dominique Ansel—are auctioning off 30-minute virtual discussions where they will share recipes and cooking tips via a new initiative called Ask Chefs Anything. New York City’s ended last week, Los Angeles’s auction is going on now through May 11, and Philadelphia’s takes place May 13 to 17, with more cities to follow.
“Honestly, in our business there is nothing more important to us then our staff, and so many people who work in this industry have immigrated to this country,” says chef and owner of Border Grill and Socalo, Susan Feniger, who is participating in the Los Angeles auction with her partner Mary Sue Milliken. Milliken adds, “We’re thrilled to do anything we can to support the migrant communities that are the backbone of our food system but are invisible and voiceless. This pandemic has exposed how deeply flawed our food system is and that we all need to pay better attention to artificially cheap food produced on the backs of underpaid workers with little or no employment benefits.”
The brainchild of Gaeleen Quinn and Anna Polonsky, two women with decades of experience in the hospitality industry, Ask Chefs Anything is an online auction taking place in multiple cities, with all proceeds going to help the vulnerable immigrant workforce. The funds raised will purchase groceries at a heavily discounted rate from Chefs Warehouse to supply 10-pound boxes of groceries to disadvantaged immigrant households via a local nonprofit. Quinn, who is from Colombia, created the annual Bogota Wine and Food Festival (which supports Escuela Taller de Bogota, where underprivileged young adults that were part of the Colombian civil war can learn cooking skills and find jobs) and runs Q&A, a hospitality consulting agency. Polonsky, who is originally from Paris, co-founded the MP Shift, a creative agency that is responsible for the concept, graphics, and interior design of some of the most stylish restaurants, like Ferris and Mimi Cheng’s in New York City, and Comice in Paris. In 2019, she left to start Polonsky and Friends to help restaurants work toward inclusivity, sustainability, craftsmanship, and wellness.
When Quinn heard that some of her chef friends had to lay off their entire staff as the pandemic worsened, she worried about the most vulnerable population in the industry: immigrant workers. “Since I had worked in the industry, I realized that the most impacted community in the restaurant world would be immigrants,” she says. “I started thinking of ways to support them.” Polonsky adds that raising awareness was also a primary motivator. “Not only are we concretely supporting communities but we’re also generating awareness around the topic of immigrant workers in restaurants,” she points out.
Chef Missy Robbins, who said participating was a no-brainer for her, is looking forward to her session with the winner of her 30-minute slot. “It’s been interesting to see people reach out for cooking help over the last few months,” she says. “I can only imagine there will be a lot of questions about pasta!”
Feniger agrees. “When I said nothing is more important than our staff, right close by are our amazing customers, the people who support all we do,” she says. “I love connecting with people, hearing their questions, their stories, and maybe recipes from their immigrant relatives and what they cooked coming over here.”
The first auction, to benefit New York City workers, came together in about a week and a half. “As soon as you start doing something meaningful, it motivates you,” says Polonsky. “People see purposeful work and they want to help.” The New York City auction ended May 3, with proceeds going to the Mercy Center in the South Bronx. The auction raised more than $32,000, which translates to 30,000 meals. It featured more than 35 chefs, including Robbins of Lilia and Misi; Christina Tosi of Milk Bar; Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen; Daniela Soto-Innes of Cosme; and Erica Ripert of Le Bernardin.
Cookbook author and New York Times recipe writer Alison Roman garnered the highest winning bid of $4,000. “It feels good to be able to raise money without selling a product,” says Roman. Of bringing in the highest bid, she says, “LOL it feels….great, but honestly very wild and did not see that coming. Don’t worry though, my parents are keeping me humble. To quote my dad: ‘You are priceless, but I would not pay that much to hang out with you for 30 minutes.’ I will probably go over 30 minutes because they paid so much for it!”
After seeing such success with the New York auction, Polonsky and Quinn heard from other chefs and tastemakers who wanted to participate, so they set their sights on other cities. Now they plan to expand to ten cities.
In L.A., participating chefs include TV chef Curtis Stone of Maude; Evan Funke of Felix Trattoria; Mei Lin of Nightshade; Nyesha Arrington of Native; Vanessa Lavorato of Bong Appetit; and ice cream maker Tyler Malek of Salt & Straw. All funds raised will provide groceries for vulnerable immigrant households connected to the NDLON’s Immigrant Worker Safety Net Fund in Pasadena.
In Philadelphia, funds will support SEAMACC and participating chefs include Top Chef All-Star Jennifer Carroll of Spice Finch; Michael Ferreri of Res Ipsa Café; Marc Vetri of Vetri, Amis, and Pizzeria Vetri; Great Jones cookware co-founder Sierra Tishgart; and food writer Francis Lam.
Carroll says she immediately said yes to joining. “I’ve seen the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on this community, and there is little to no help or relief for them, especially from our government,” she explains. “I can only hope to help change the way our society sees and treats immigrants as they are the backbone of the restaurant community.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue