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On the heels of Mardi Gras 2020, New Orleans became one of the United States’ first COVID-19 hotspots.

By mid-March, the city entered into an unprecedented lockdown that shuttered most businesses including New Orleans’ beloved independent restaurant industry. While the restrictions and closings were necessary for containing the emerging virus, it also meant these restaurants were financially collapsing and laying off professional servers, cooks, chefs and dishwashers by the thousands. With most people locked down at home and frightened to even make groceries at their corner store, the elderly and others at high risk for contracting the virus were in danger of becoming desperate and going hungry.

First responders, many who had spouses and family members employed in the city’s hospitality and restaurant industry, were immediately stressed and stretched to the breaking point.

The idea behind Chefs Brigade was initially conceived in the dark days following Hurricane Katrina, but tapping the massive production capabilities of hundreds of professional kitchens and staff was impossible because of the catastrophic flooding, destruction, displaced populace and the limited technologies available in 2005.

The pandemic changed everything.

The idea was resurrected and seemed well suited for restaurant kitchens producing socially distanced meals for first responders and residents – all now enabled by the existence of crowdfunding and other new technologies.

 

Restauranteur Joe Riccobono explains early on how Chef’s Brigade began with feeding first responders – April 2020

A small volunteer team, many who had never met in-person before, took leaps of faith and came together to assemble local restaurants into a united coalition of independent restaurants, purveyors and chefs working together under a culinary brigade system. Together, they were capable of producing thousands of nutritious, safe and culturally appropriate meals for our neighbors, front line responders and healthcare workers throughout Orleans Parish on a daily basis.

Crowdfunding, primarily from New Orleans based foundations and residents, allowed limited funding to these financially collapsing independent restaurants. It provided them with a low financial current to keep core individuals employed, while lifting morale by enabling them to do what they do best in times of need – feed people

As an organization, Chefs Brigade wouldn’t directly feed people. It served as the managing force and logistical operation providing an efficient, cost effective meal pipeline between independent restaurants and first responders and residents desperate for meals, and the morale-boosting solace that comes from culturally appropriate meals during times of high stress.

In partnership with the New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation, acting as Chefs Brigade’s fiscal agent and contributing the first seed funding, the 1st Brigade of seven restaurants produced their initial meals on March 26, 2020 and were assigned to feed the men and women of the New Orleans Police Department’s Third District.

The 2nd Brigade was formed four days later. It was populated entirely by women chefs and female restaurateurs who were assigned the dangerous objective of feeding the brave paramedics of the New Orleans EMS – men and women who were constantly shuttling patients sick and contagious with COVID-19 to area hospitals.

Within a week of building out the 2nd Brigade, Chefs Brigade’s ranks swelled to 40 highly motivated restaurants split into five brigades feeding nearly half of the New Orleans Police Department, the EMS, the Louisiana State Police and the nurses, doctors and residents of the Lambeth House.

However, this was simply a demonstration project – a proof of concept for the idea.

 

Chefs Brigade’s team understood that the surface — of what the brigade concept was capable of producing and accomplishing — had only been scratched..

With funding nearly depleted after six weeks of continuous meal production, Chefs Brigade designed a super-brigade capable of feeding the entire Ochsner Hospital System and their six satellite campus locations throughout New Orleans and in neighboring Jefferson Parish.

While this never came to fruition, this design was quickly resurrected in June of 2020 when the City of New Orleans and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced a request for proposals (RFP) for an unprecedented meal assistance program. The RFP stated that the winning proposal must be capable of producing up to 60,000 daily meals based on federal guidelines, utilize independent restaurants as much as possible, and home-deliver these meals throughout Orleans Parish to residents quarantined at home.

 

Revolution Foods approached Chefs Brigade and within less than a week, the two entities built out a new coalition bringing the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute and d’Livery NOLA onto the team. Together, this coalition won the FEMA and City of New Orleans contract, with Revolution Foods acting as the general contractor.

Chefs Brigade rapidly expanded to include 90 independent New Orleans restaurants, ranging from old line restaurants of the French Quarter to independent food stalls and food truck chefs. The COVID-19 Meal Assistance Program was originally contracted to last for one month, but was renewed on a month-to-month basis until it concluded after a total of 51 weeks of continuous operation on June 30, 2021.

 

3.7 million meals later, the rest is history

But, we’re not done yet.

 

Chefs Brigade and our restaurant partners have learned and experienced together that we can harness the power of the New Orleans restaurant industry to move mountains – and we’ve now proven it 3.7 million times.

Chefs Brigade and our restaurant partners have learned and experienced together that we can harness the power of the New Orleans restaurant industry to move mountains - and we’ve now proven it 3.7 million times.

With the conclusion of the meal program, here’s what’s next for Chefs Brigade and our growing list of restaurant, corporate, government and organizational partners:.

Hurricane and disaster response throughout the Northern Gulf Coast, and then beyond.

Building alliances with the Louisiana seafood industry, government and coastal restoration organizations to tackle the unfolding disaster on Louisiana’s coast. Current and future losses and disruptions throughout the Louisiana seafood industry are an existential danger to the New Orleans and Louisiana restaurant industries – and the time for action is now.

Designing a culinary education endowment to assist talented, disadvantaged New Orleanians to attend professional cooking schools. With an initial grant from Chefs Brigade, and developing sources of recurring funding, our goal for this endowment is to reach $1,000,000 within five years.

Within days of its resurrection, a nascent Chefs Brigade enabled independent restaurants to feed first responders, and then massively scaled up to assist in the organized and near flawless production of millions of meals during an unparalleled pandemic, enabled by funding from FEMA and the City of New Orleans.

Now, Chefs Brigade is evolving into an entrepreneurial organization with the ability to educate, advocate, protect and restore the environment, assist in disasters and organize restaurants and their heroic, brilliant chefs and staff into a powerful force for good – and change.