As a Puerto Rican, chef Jesse Vega of Candela Latin Kitchen knew he had to do something to help his fellow borinqueños recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria. Sending money didn't seem like enough — and he wasn't sure which organization would put any donation he might make to the best use. Fortunately, a good friend and fellow chef, Sammy Diaz, whom Vega had met while working in restaurants in New York City, was planning something a little more hands-on. Diaz called Vega in October and asked him to be part of Chefs de Borinquen, a group of Puerto Rican chefs working across the U.S., which was planning on taking food and supplies to heavily impacted areas of the island that still need assistance.
After raising money through a GoFundMe campaign, the group departed on November 11, arriving in Puerto Rico on November 12 with plans to cook hot meals in San Lorenzo, Juana Diaz and Humacao, through which the eye of the hurricane had passed. On the night they arrived, Vega and his colleagues slept on the floor of a restaurant that a friend, Berenice Berrocal, has been trying to open. "She's been ready to open, but like everywhere else, there's no electricity," Vega explains.
The next morning the chefs set out for their first destination. In Juana Diaz, they delivered food both in town and in the surrounding rural area, where relief efforts have been few and far between. "Some of the people said we were the first to show up," the chef notes.
In San Lorenzo, they set up an outdoor kitchen at a Boys & Girls Club and served hot food all day to kids and their families. And on the third day, they grilled outside on a beach. Vega says that when the police showed up, he was worried they'd be shut down for lack of permits, but instead they were thanked for helping out.
The meals were simple: mostly rice and beans along with marinated and grilled chicken, pasta and other staples that were procured in grocery stores in the larger cities where some power has been restored or generators keep refrigeration running. But they had to keep things simple because of their limited budget and because of the conditions in the smaller towns. "We didn't know what kind of kitchens we'd find," the chef explains; mostly they were cooking on portable propane grills. He notes that while most of his Puerto Rican colleagues cook in upscale restaurants and don't serve Puerto Rican food for a living, they all knew exactly what to make and how to make it; this was food they'd grown up eating, cooked by their mothers and grandmothers.
At each of the stops, Vega observed other organizations pitching in in other ways, whether helping to rebuild damaged structures, provide medical supplies or distribute clean drinking water.
Chefs de Borinquen managed to provide 3,000 meals in the three days the team was there, in partnership with Friends of Puerto Rico. But Vega says that the trip provided only a fraction of what Puerto Rico needs for long-term recovery. "It's nice, and we can go home and pat ourselves on the back — but they're still there," he points out.
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That's why Chefs de Borinquen is planning a second trip, one that will have more of a long-term impact. Vega says the group is aiming to return in February or March to work with Friends of Puerto Rico to provide solutions "for the agricultural community, farming and solar power," as examples. "My grandfather was a farmer [in Puerto Rico]," he adds, "so I want to do something that's going to last."
That's going to take time, though, Vega admits after seeing the devastation firsthand. "The entire first month must have been just clearing debris," he says. "There was just so much debris on the sides of the roads."
And two months after the storm, electricity was still spotty. "Even at the airport on the way out, you'd try to check in and the power would go out," he recalls.
Candela has been raising money since the days following September 16, when Maria first hit Puerto Rico. The restaurant has put aside $1 from each dish of mofongo (a Puerto Rican specialty made with fried and mashed plantains) and will continue to do so through the end of the year. So far, Candela has raised $5,000, and owner Isiah Salazar says he will match the final amount.