KIM LAWTON, correspondent: The Christmas season is always a festive time in San Antonio, Texas, where the famous Riverwalk is blanketed with lights, and local restaurants offer special holiday treats. At the French-inspired Bakery Lorraine, which earlier this year was dubbed the city’s hottest bakery, pastry chef Jeremy Mandell and his team are whipping up Christmas sweets, including seasonal flavors of their highly-popular signature macaroons. Just a few months ago, Mandell was doing a very different kind of cooking. As a volunteer with the nonprofit group Mercy Chefs, he helped prepare thousands of meals every day for victims of this summer’s catastrophic flooding in Louisiana.
CHEF JEREMY MANDELL (Bakery Lorraine): It was very rewarding cooking for people who actually need it, and not just because they want, you know, want to eat at your restaurant. It was really just nice to be able to help somebody in need.
LAWTON: Mercy Chefs is a Christian charity supported by donations. Its stated mission is to provide professionally-prepared, restaurant-quality meals to victims and first responders during natural disasters and national emergencies. The group was founded ten years ago by Chef Gary LeBlanc. LeBlanc was working in the hotel industry in Virginia when Hurricane Katrina hit his hometown of New Orleans. He wanted to help, and volunteered as a cook for some of the relief groups working in the area. But he wasn’t pleased with how meals were being prepared.
CHEF GARY LEBLANC (Mercy Chefs): It bothered me, the lack of sanitation and food safety and time and temperature controls. There was no passion. There was no love. There was no professionalism with the food. Now there are times you just get food out, and I understand that. But I really thought there was a better way to do it.
LAWTON: When an emergency strikes, the group deploys mobile kitchens, a refrigerated trailer, and a team of professional chefs who partner with local volunteers. They have worked amid hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, wildfires, and other crises, such as the rioting in Baltimore in 2015 after the death of a black man in police custody. Although Mercy Chefs is a nondenominational Christian group, LeBlanc says their volunteer chefs come from diverse faith backgrounds.
LEBLANC: These are people that are master chefs in their own rights, recognized in the industry and recognized among their peers. These chefs come and volunteer their time with us. So anytime Mercy Chefs is out, there are professionally-trained chefs--full credentials--that are in the kitchen doing the best food possible.
LAWTON: LeBlanc bristles at those who question whether victims in a crisis really need a gourmet meal.
LEBLANC: To come to a disaster area--folks that have lost everything—and share a meal with them brings some semblance of hope. And you should do that over a good meal, the best meal you’re able to make.
LAWTON: The group stays ready so that it can react quickly when disaster strikes.
LEBLANC: A lot of times we’ll be the first people pulling into town to bring outside relief to a community that’s been affected.
LAWTON: This summer, Mercy Chefs was on site in Baton Rouge while flood waters were still rising. They set up in the parking lot of a local megachurch, Bethany Church, and congregation members stepped in to help prepare, pack, and deliver the meals. During the height of the disaster, Mercy Chefs made nearly 10,000 meals every day--breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
In San Antonio, Chef Mandell watched reports of the unfolding devastation caused by the flooding and felt compelled to do something. He was searching online for relief groups, and when he saw Mercy Chefs he knew that was the one.
MANDRELL: I would have done anything. I would have mucked out houses if they needed it. I just wanted to help. But to be able to do something I’m actually good at was really nice.
LAWTON: Mandell contacted his friend Pieter Sypesteyn, who is the chef-owner of San Antonio’s Cookhouse, a popular New Orleans-style restaurant. Sypesteyn is from Louisiana. The two headed to the flood zone. They drove for more than eight hours, and as soon as they arrived Mercy Chefs put them to work.
CHEF PIETER SYPESTEYN(Cookhouse): Changed my shirt, got on the truck, and started cooking. We weren’t the boss, which is actually kind of nice, to be able to just go and say what do you need? And they tell you, and it’s, like, "Yes, chef. I’m on it."
LAWTON: Sypesteyn says they were overwhelmed by the grateful responses they received for their efforts.
SYPESTEYN: To think that there’s 40,000 people displaced, what help is it going to be for me and Jeremy to go and help? When we got there, it was very apparent that two people going in to help made a big difference.
LAWTON: While disaster relief is Mercy Chef’s primary focus, the group tries to use its resources in other ways as well. One major area is urban outreach, where they provide nutritionally rich meals in low-income communities. This past Thanksgiving, a project in Dallas served 2,500 traditional turkey dinners with all the trimmings at a center for at-risk youth. Mercy Chefs also hosts an annual 17 Days of Christmas event.
LAWTON: Mercy Chefs has also worked overseas, including in Haiti. LeBlanc says they look at it all as ministry.
LEBLANC: I had a pastor friend one time in Haiti say that “hurting people don’t need to hear the gospel, they need to see the gospel,” and so we try to act that out all the time. Jesus, when he was on earth, didn’t do a lot of talking. Mostly he went around taking a moment to touch people.
LAWTON: Mercy Chef volunteers say they are pleased by the chance to give to others using their particular skills.
SYPESTEYN: When there’s an opportunity that comes up like that, where I’m able to use something that I love to do, that God’s given me a talent in doing, and just something that really brings joy to me and other people at the same time, it’s just an amazing feeling to be able to do that.
MANDRELL: I recommend that anyone come to do the same thing, you know, take a minute out and not think about yourself, and go out and do something to help your neighbor, or your community.
LAWTON: And they say that message of giving is important, not just during Christmas time, but all year long.
I’m Kim Lawton in San Antonio.