While a battle with breast cancer knocked out chef and sommelier Meredith Miller Elliott’s taste buds, the disease couldn’t touch her appetite for helping others.
That’s why when the 44-year-old Petaluma resident caught wind of the deadly firestorm sweeping through Sonoma and Napa counties, the culinary mastermind immediately took to the kitchen. What started as a small-scale project in her home turned into a massive operation that at its height churned out more than 3,000 meals in a day for hungry first responders.
Elliott was on the phone with a friend in Napa the evening of Oct. 8 as fires began to flare up around the county. After urging her friend to evacuate, she jumped into action as the severity of the disaster came into clearer focus.
“I was like OK, I’ve got to do something,” said Elliott, a Midwest native who spent most of her life in Chicago and Michigan. “The only thing I know how to do is feed people and cooking is easy for me.”
She started with plans to make several hundred Cubano sandwiches, hand-smoking 40 pounds of meat and buying bread from Petaluma’s Della Fattoria bakery. After networking with Sonoma County disaster response officials, she dropped off enough sandwiches for 250 people at the Santa Rosa emergency operations center.
Her project quickly snowballed, and soon she found her home filled with volunteers cooking gourmet meals for first responders at a helicopter attack base at the Petaluma Municipal Airport, the emergency operations center and a firefighter camp at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
She moved to a larger kitchen space where she coordinated donations and whipped up elaborate meals, ranging from Asian rice noodle pasta for gluten-free diners to Chicago-style beef sandwiches to soups with a Middle Eastern and South African flair.
The experience was a culmination of her extensive background in the culinary and wine industry. She graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts and spent time working and dining across Europe, including a stint as a protégé of famed Italian winemaker Elisabetta Foradori. She’s worked in various capacities across the industry, creating her own catering business, event planning and working on a kids’ cookbook.
During the 19-day October cooking frenzy, Elliott only slept about three hours a night. The constant movement and meal planning drained her energy, but hand-delivering the food tapped into a new source of strength that helped her push through.
“I made time to hug every person and get to know everyone’s name, I didn’t want to talk about the fire, I asked where they were from. I was trying to make connections … I wanted to make them feel like it wasn’t just food being dropped off, but that this is something done from my heart,” said Elliott, who shared meals and conversations with first responders who had been working around the clock to fight the blazes that killed 24 and devoured nearly 7,000 structures and more than 110,000 acres of land in Sonoma County. “I made connections with as many people as I could and sometimes I felt selfish because it was so wonderful for me – it made me strong.”
The warmth and personal touch was equally appreciated by local firefighters, said Petaluma Fire Department’s Battalion Chief Mike Medeiros. A meal provides a respite from an unforgiving firefighting shift, and an opportunity to interact with the public outside of often-tense emergency situations, he said.