Chefs Doing What They Know: Cooking for Pittsburgh



There is no way that I could have thought my ordinary Saturday would include standing in my ordinary kitchen in eastern Maryland learning of 11 killed and 6 wounded ordinary people.

In my hometown of Pittsburgh. In my neighborhood. In my synagogue. On the anniversary of my bar mitzvah. My phone was acting as a TV as KDKA streamed scenes from Tree of Life; windows were blown out; police in full armor running up Wilkins Ave; “Names of victims not yet released…”

It is no shocker that I have tattoos of the Pittsburgh skyline and of the Pirates’ logo—with a crossed fork and knife rather than the baseball bats; I am a cook, after all.

I am forever a kid from the Steel City.

When the call came from my sister that there were shots fired in my family’s synagogue, everything changed in an instant.

Thinking back to just after the 9/11 terrorist events, a news anchor was on a local Philadelphia station explaining why he was leaving the air. “You see,” he said, “my city needs me. I am a from New York, and I have to go back,” is how I remember that.

While my phone was drilling the unfolding scene into me over and over and over, I only could feel anxious to go to my hometown, too. To do something. To go home.



Cooks Stepping Up Are Not an Anomaly

The philanthropy of cooks and chefs is enumerated in the only way we know how—through food. José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen is a profound statement and is an example of a chef feeding people when they are in need of the most repair.

Andrés’s mobile kitchen army mobilizes to bring food relief for areas fraught by natural disasters. In Puerto Rico with Maria, in Florida with Michael, in California with Camp and Woolsey, when disasters did their worst, the kitchen army did their collective best.

The multitude of kitchen volunteers took to temporary kitchens to feed the hungry when they couldn’t do it for themselves.

Why? It’s what we chefs do.

Like the quintessential Italian grandma, we feed you because we care. It makes us feel good, too. We can’t patch roofs or rewire neighborhoods. But we can mend broken spirits with the comfort of first-rate soup and a great, big, warm belly hug.

We Do What We Know

Countless benefits rooted with cooking benefactors dot calendars and the landscape. We cook to raise money for March of Dimes, support local fire departments, flip pancake breakfasts to assist with medical expenses and to rebuild a burned out community center.

Cooking for others is an expression of genuine love. There is emotion in being connected to a cause bigger than ourselves. In our jeans, dishwasher shirts, and grungy beards, we rally.

Chefs Stand Against Hate

Chicken liver on schmaltz-grilled bread topped with caramelized onions |   Jim Berman

Chicken liver on schmaltz-grilled bread topped with caramelized onions | Jim Berman

An event was organized by Derek Stevens of Union Standard and Curtis Gamble of Station to benefit the rebuilding of Tree of Life and to aid the survivors from the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

Chefs Stand Against Hate was set for December 2 at Pittsburgh’s Union Standard, right in the heart of the city. About twenty chefs were to converge for an evening of donated food and service, in a culinary event aimed to rise above hatred and dropping a ladder of hope back into the space where only a hole remains.

A quick message from Stevens and I was on the team.

Bearing witness to chefs infinitely more talented than me is humbling at best, disorienting at worst. And, rewarding as hell to shake their hands at the end of an evening that raised somewhere around $25,000.

As some broken pilgrim, I riffed on my grandmother’s chicken liver recipe, quenelled on schmaltz-grilled bread, and caramelized onions.

Chef Vincent Perri |   Jim Berman

Chef Vincent Perri | Jim Berman

Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream |   Jim Berman

Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream | Jim Berman

Chef Jesse Barlass |   Jim Berman

Chef Jesse Barlass | Jim Berman

Chef Phill Milton |  Jim Berman

Chef Phill Milton | Jim Berman

I saw foie gras butter with sour cherry jam on a biscuit from Chef Phill Milton of Home; Supper’s Chef Vincent Perri got all kosher/comfort with gin-cured lox on an onion bagel with creme fraiche, pickled onion, confit tomato, egg mimosa, and hackleback roe; and Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream’s roasted squash varietal, pear butter, and cider caramel, among the array of dishes that reeked of skill, sincerity and good mojo.

We have heard it over and over from every far reach: when times are at their worst, people are at their best.

We have some incredible propensity to stand straight up in the rain of horrific tragedies. Fires. Transportation accidents. Natural disasters. And unnatural disasters, like this asinine act of a madman.

As a group, kitchen derelicts of all descriptions are pretty good at making the best of what’s around, through disasters we forge humility and relief. We rally coworkers, ask for donations and put on a remarkable show of nurturing bellies and spirits.

Rose, Joyce, Richard, Cecil, David, Sylvan, Bernice, Daniel, Melvin, Jerry, Irving: we were cooking for you.