Resilience In Culinary During COVID-19

source: Audi of America

An interview with Chef Edward Lee

When COVID-19 all but shut down the country, restaurants shuddered and their chefs and workers were left without anywhere to turn. After experiencing the impacts of the closures first-hand, Chef Edward Lee brought together his team at The LEE Initiative to provide relief and support to the culinary community during a time of uncertainty.

Since the inception of the COVID relief program in March, the initiative has set up 19 pop-up kitchens across the country to provide restaurant workers with food and essential supplies – serving over 200,000 meals to date. As more cities began to shut down and the effects of the pandemic became more widespread, The LEE Initiative saw the need to begin meal deliveries. With the help of Silvercar by Audi, we have been able to support the initiative’s efforts with a fleet of vehicles across the country to help make the deliveries happen.

We recently connected with Chef Lee to learn more about the work the organization has been doing and hear what he has experienced on his road-trips visiting areas and people directly impacted by the pandemic.

Q: As an industry veteran, what sparked your passion to go beyond your role in the restaurant to have a greater impact and philanthropic effort across culinary and hospitality to establish The LEE Initiative?

A: In the career of every chef, there is a time to struggle and learn and keep your head down.  Then there comes a time to make a name for yourself and strive for success.  There came a point about two years ago when I felt truly grateful for the opportunities that I have had and the successes that I have enjoyed.  I felt like it was my duty to create an organization that would give back and help others along this arduous journey of becoming a chef.  Once I started the first step, I realized how important and gratifying this work is, and I continue to keep pushing myself to do more.

Q: How has the work you’ve already done through The LEE Initiative influenced the programs you have established during COVID-19?

A: Our mission for The LEE Initiative has always been about giving voice to those whose stories are not being heard; we worked for diversity, equity and making the restaurant industry a kinder and better place to have a career.  When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down America, it was clear that we had to do something for all the restaurant workers that found themselves suddenly out of work, without a paycheck and without a safety net.  They were terrified and confused, and we knew we could not turn our backs on them during this unspeakable crisis.

Q: What is the reception you’ve experienced so far through the Restaurant Workers Relief Program?

A: It has been an incredible time that showed me the best of humanity.  There are so many stories to tell.  About the people who would come for a meal one week and feel so grateful, that they would come back the following week to volunteer.  About the people who were scared and suffering but would still give us $5 and $10 donations because they believed in us so much.  About the people who told us that this initiative gave them so much hope, that they looked forward to seeing us every night.  Sometimes, it takes the worst of times to see the best in people, and I feel like I have seen examples of that everyday throughout this crisis.  It has invigorated my belief in what we are doing and it has changed how I view the rest of my career.

Q: How did the LEE Initiative determine the need to begin meal delivery?

A: We realized that there were many people who either could not or were afraid to come to the relief kitchens.  Some lived too far away from the relief kitchens and they did not want to take public transportation.  Some were caring for young children and could not leave the house.  We realized that there were entire neighborhoods we were missing, and so we knew we had to find a way to deliver meals to reach more people.

Q: Phase two of your project, the Restaurant Reboot Relief Program, just started. Can you tell us about what that is and how it is going so far?

A: As the country reopens and the need for restaurant worker relief diminishes, we identified another major group of people who were hurting badly financially – small farms that supply direct to restaurants.  Many people don’t realize that there are thousands of small farms that rely solely on independent restaurants for their revenue.  When restaurants shut down, their revenue stream completely halted overnight.  These are farms that we need to supply our restaurants.  Small farms and independent restaurants are like two sides of the same house.  One cannot exist without the other.  By saving one, we can also save the other.  Over the next year we are purchasing over $1Million of products from small farms across America, meat, produce, fish and dairy – and then donating those products to small independent restaurants across America.

Q: You recently took a road-trip from Louisville where you’ve been spending quarantine to visit other impacted areas.  Can you talk about what you’ve seen on the trip and how you’ve seen shifts in attitudes/morale?   Have you noticed a particular resilience across the industry?

A: I have been visiting small farms and seeing the hardships of people who are worried that they will lose everything.  I have seen restaurant owners uncertain if they will ever be able to re-open or ever be able to repay the insurmountable debt they find themselves in.  But more than anything, I see a fighting spirit.  I see people who refuse to be defeated.  It is for these people that I work so hard for.  It is these brave people who make up our beloved restaurant industry.

Q: Along the way, what creative approaches have you seen from restaurants in their different phases of reopening whether they are still limited to takeout or are now shifting into socially distanced openings?

A: All restaurant owners and chefs are accustomed to being creative.  It is in our DNA.  Some are doing take-out, others are turning their restaurant into grocery stores.  What remains the same is the fact that chefs will find a solution.  Some may not make it through this crisis.  But they will be back.  I believe this. The one thing we haven’t lost is our relationship and connection to our customers.  They want us to succeed.  It is for them that we do this.