As the largest fire in California’s history continues its ruinous march, a nonprofit launched by celebrity chef José Andrés has set up camp in Lake County to cook fresh, daily meals for law enforcement, firefighters and residents displaced by the inferno.
The effort, which launched Monday at Middletown High School, is part of World Central Kitchen’s #ChefsForCalifornia campaign, which brings volunteer chefs and community members to disaster- impacted areas to cook for evacuees and personnel on the front lines. It’s a labor of love for volunteer Ann-Marie Pleskaczewski, a chef and Hidden Valley Lake resident who has lived nearly two decades in a county hard hit by fires.
Pleskaczewski, an instructor at Woodland Community College’s Lake County campus, said she lost her Susanville home to an arson fire 22 years ago and was forced to flee from the Valley fire that raged across Lake County in 2015.
“I feel like it’s my calling in life to be of service. For me, it’s healing,” Pleskaczewski, 50, said Tuesday during a break from cooking a meal of pulled pork, black beans and chipotle tomato sauce for those displaced by the Mendocino Complex fires. “It’s part of what gives my life meaning.”
Helmed by Ventura-based restaurateur Tim Kilcoyne, the Middletown kitchen is churning out about 2,200 meals a day that are picked up by the Red Cross and delivered to four shelters and the organization’s temporary headquarters at the Calpine Geothermal Visitor Center in Middletown.
While previous numbers of volunteers were only great enough to feed evacuees, on Wednesday night World Central Kitchen volunteers delivered about 200 meals to first responders, Kilcoyne said.
On Wednesday morning, thousands of Clear Lake residents were allowed to go home, though food relief efforts will continue as long as residents are displaced and need food, he said.
Kilcoyne, 40, was called to his current role with World Central Kitchen during December’s Thomas fire, which burned 281,893 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
World Central Kitchen was founded in 2010 by Andrés, an internationally acclaimed chef who was this year named “Humanitarian of the Year” by the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit culinary arts organization. Based in Washington, D.C., Andrés’ nonprofit is involved in many global projects, including cooking for Puerto Ricans impacted by Hurricane Maria, building school kitchens in Haiti, and food safety and sanitation training.
When Kilcoyne was evacuated from his west Ventura home last year, Andrés and his team reached out to him and other chefs to activate a kitchen in the county to feed those impacted by the fire. In 10 days, they cooked 40,000 meals, Kilcoyne said. The kitchen reactivated during the mudslides in Montecito the following month, and Kilcoyne later opened kitchens during this year’s volcano eruptions in Guatemala and Hawaii. He’s been traveling since May 13 to those disaster sites and Redding’s Carr fire before landing at Middletown High School, which is also an evacuation center.
“I have a family back home and a restaurant back home, and it’s tough being away from all that,” he said. “But then, you sit and look at what you’re doing and you see the faces of the people you’re handing food to. Even though you’re away from home, every single location I’ve been to, it feels like when I’m leaving there, I’m leaving home. With disaster, people really seem to come together.”