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Having overseen events catering for as many as 2,500 people in one day, Elizabeth Mullen has learned to roll with the punches. But nothing could have prepared her for the boar’s blood.

Mullen, the executive chef for Chowgirls Killer Catering, is one of the organizers behind Minnesota Central Kitchen, a new program that puts furloughed restaurant chefs to work making hot meals for those facing hunger as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Inspired by the work of humanitarian and chef José Andrés, Minnesota Central Kitchen is leveraging the talent and resources of restaurants to provide hunger relief in the midst of a crisis. The program kicked off the same week last month that Gov. Tim Walz ordered Minnesota restaurants to close for on-premise dining.

It’s a collaboration of Chowgirls, the Bachelor Farmer and Alma restaurants, regional food-shelf supplier Second Harvest Heartland, Loaves and Fishes meal distribution sites and the food hub Good Acre.

Minnesota Central Kitchen was launched to employ chefs, rescue food before it becomes waste and feed the hungry.

A key component at the time was to utilize fully stocked pantries from restaurant kitchens that were no longer operating. It was up to Mullen’s staff to make something out of whatever ingredients were coming in from some of the Twin Cities’ finest restaurants. But boar’s blood?

“We were like, ‘What are we going to do with that?’ It was kind of like, ‘Ehhh,’ ” she said, wrinkling her nose.

Most of the restaurants’ unusual ingredients have since been depleted as the project has grown. The core team started out making 2,000 meals per week. Three weeks later, the program is on track to producing 15 times that amount.

These chef-made meals are sorely needed as unemployment surges and food insecurity follows.

“It has been an immediate, exponential increase,” said Allison O’Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland. “We distributed more food than ever before, last week,” at a time, she noted, referrals to SNAP, the food stamp program, are climbing statewide.

“It’s really sobering, and I am so proud of this team and the hunger relief network as a whole.” O’Toole said. “We are thinking of new ways to do our work, and how some of these changes might take hold longer-term. We’re serving and helping our community in new ways because of this crisis.”

Loaves and Fishes, which normally hosts free public sit-down meals, has seen its numbers of guests triple since Minnesota began social distancing. It is now offering the meals packaged for takeout, and executive director Cathy Maes surmises that the anonymity of a curbside pickup is leading more people to its 37 locations. (No sign-ups are necessary. Find your meal sites and hours at loavesandfishesmn.org.)

Feeding increasing numbers of people would have put a strain on the volunteer kitchen staff, many of whom are high-risk older adults who have had to stop offering their help.

“This partnership with Chowgirls and Second Harvest Heartland has made all the difference in the world for us,” Maes said. “Without that volunteer cadre, I’m sure we would be losing staff from burnout, so it is keeping us alive. And it is keeping folks working, so it’s a win-win.”

Chef Jonathan Gans from the Bachelor Farmer was another driver of the project, rallying other chefs to come aboard as it became clear Minnesota was about to shut down dining rooms. The conversations were humbling.

“Talk about inspiring people,” Gans said. “Their whole business just shut down.”

Chef Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma is also involved in an advisory role.

Almost overnight, the initiative took off. Fortunately, Minnesota Central Kitchen had a guide in Andrés.

The celebrity chef launched his World Central Kitchen after a destructive earthquake crumbled Haiti’s food system in 2010. In the decade since, his organization has responded to natural and man-made disasters, for example, feeding Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria and children in shelters on the Mexico-U. S. border.

The Chowgirls team had watched and admired Andrés’ work for years. But they couldn’t imagine there would be a need locally for that kind of effort.

“I would say, ‘That would never happen here. We don’t have hurricanes here. We don’t have tsunamis,’ ” said Maari Cedar James, Chowgirls’ president.

As the global pandemic reached Minnesota, it dawned on them that this was the time.

“It was a shock for us to realize this is our destiny,” Cedar James said. “We know how to do this. These are our skills. We’ve been practicing. It’s not a wedding anymore.”

When business came to a “screeching halt” as Minnesotans worked to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Mullen said she realized “we had this big beautiful kitchen we knew there was a higher purpose for.”

Chowgirls’ 2,000-square-foot northeast Minneapolis kitchen became the first hub for the program. On a typically busy Saturday, up to 20 people could be working there to cater 17 parties at a time. Now, occupancy is down to eight chefs from Chowgirls and various restaurants, to make sure people can keep adequately apart from one another.

They were the test case that proved the program was scalable. More kitchens are quickly signing on, as Andrés had found elsewhere with World Central Kitchen.

UnitedHealth Group added its cafeteria at Optum headquarters in Eden Prairie to the program, employing its cooks and contributing 21,000 additional meals per week to Minnesota Central Kitchen. Between this and another partnership with the YMCA and Loaves and Fishes in the Twin Cities, the company is covering more than $2.1 million in costs for kitchen staff and food prep. It is looking to expand the effort to its offices in other states.

“Chefs love to cook and this is a way to help them support their craft each day,” said Brett Edelson, CEO of UnitedHealthcare of Minnesota.

Appetite for Change’s kitchen has also come aboard. Cargill Foundation just signed on to use its corporate kitchen for the program, another $1 million gift. And the proceeds from the sales of “Northern Hospitality” T-shirts from Askov Finlayson have brought in $76,000. (Donations can be made directly to 2harvest.org/donate.)

All sites are paying their workers a minimum of $15/hour, keeping 120 food service workers employed.

After the cars had rolled through an informal drive-through lane at Hope Presbyterian Church in Richfield, Albert Lewis walked up to pick up a meal. A volunteer in a reflective yellow and orange vest practically swung a tied-up plastic bag toward Lewis. Inside was a takeout container filled with a chicken-and-mushroom stew.

Lewis reached out and grabbed hold of the bag, staying as far from the volunteer as he could.

“Social distancing,” he said with a laugh, and then turned to walk back home.

Sharyn Jackson • @SharynJackson

Contacts

Loaves and Fishes meal sites and locations throughout the metro: loavesandfishesmn.org

Food service professionals interested in lending time and talent to Minnesota Central Kitchen: volunteer@chowgirls.net

Commercial kitchens with food to donate, via MealConnect: 2harvest.org

Nonfood donations, such as cleaning supplies: donation@chowgirls.net

Restaurants and businesses interested in becoming a kitchen partner site: Emily Paul, executive director of Minnesota Central Kitchen, epaul@2harvest.org.

Financial donations: 2harvest.org/donate.