When Miami’s Ingrid Hoffmann saw a fellow Houston chef post on Facebook that he was preparing to cook for the masses even before Hurricane Harvey hit, she made two phone calls.
The “Simply Delicioso” Food Network star asked — told, really — two of her closest South Florida friends that she needed two huge donations: a massive amount of food to send to Houston barbecue pitmaster Ronnie Killen and a plane to get it there.
“I need one of your planes and I need it for free,” Hoffmann told Susan Lewis of Prescribe Wellness, whose company has access to private cargo planes.
“We’ll throw in the gas, too,” Lewis told her.
Her next call was to the head of Doral-based El Latino Foods, Maria Elena Ibañez, whose products are sold everywhere from Publix to AmazonFresh.
“I need you to fill an airplane full of food. For free,” she said.
Ibañez’s response: “Does it need to be frozen or fresh?”
And that’s how three South Florida women coordinated to fly 1,800 pounds of food in a Piper Navajo to the Houston suburb of Pearland. There, Killen and 38 of his employees have been barbecuing the restaurant’s famed brisket, sausage and ribs to feed more than 3,500 meals a day to first responders and those displaced by the hurricane.
The plane, which the chef announced would leave Saturday morning, won’t return empty. Hoffmann is to co-pilot a cargo hold full of rescued Houston-area pets for which West Palm Beach’s Big Dog Ranch Rescue and several Miami affiliates will find new homes.
“I made outlandish requests,” Hoffmann said, “but you see this generosity and think, ‘This is how America should be.’”
Several South Florida restaurants and chefs have sprung into action. José Andrés, who has come out strongly in support of immigration issues and runs two restaurants in Miami-Dade, posted on Twitter that he was flying to Houston to cook 1,000 meals a day. Miami’s Pincho Factory is donating the proceeds from any TexMex items ordered this week to the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.
For Killen, whose Killen Barbecue is consistently rated one of the best in the country, Hoffmann’s donation couldn’t come at a more crucial time.
“Once the hurricane hit, you couldn’t get any food, in or out,” Killen said in a phone interview with the Miami Herald. “We had all kinds of trouble getting stuff here.”
By a musical twist of fate, he had plenty of barbecue ready to serve when the hurricane hit.
When Coldplay canceled its Aug. 25 concert at NRG Stadium (and came to Miami instead, popping at the Wynwood Yard), Killen, who sells barbecue at the events, was left with literally a ton of food on his hands: 1,800 pounds of brisket, 800 pork butts and hundreds of roasted turkey breasts.
So on Tuesday, he opened Killen’s Barbecue and Killen’s Burgers, two of his five restaurants in his longtime home of Pearland, Texas, and started serving food.
“The fact the concert was canceled was a blessing in disguise,” Killen said.
But the food went fast, as he cooked for locals, a nearby shelter and displaced families in harder-hit Dickinson. He started a GoFundMe page with the goal of raising $200,000 to help feed as many as 30,000 meals to evacuees. He put in $50,000 to get it started. The fund had surpassed $75,000 by Friday afternoon.
“Everybody’s got to eat, so we started doing it right away,” Killen said.
He especially appreciates Hoffmann’s donation, since she knows what it’s like to lose everything to a hurricane. Twenty-five years ago to the day, Hurricane Andrew flattened her Coconut Grove home and forced her two neighboring businesses, her restaurant Rocco and clothing store La Capricieuse, to close for months.
“Your life is turned upside down,” said Hoffmann, who, years later, was still discovering important paperwork, such as her birth certificate, that was lost in the storm. “People don’t understand the severity and how years later, you’re still trying to rebuild your life.”
A hot meal, she said, is a good first step.