Community BBQ after Hurricane Irma in Coconut Grove
West Grove residents glistening from the late-afternoon swelter, many still without power, with only a bellyful of canned hurricane provisions, lined up in shorts and flip flops when they heard about the impromptu neighborhood cookout.
Francheska Gray was here for the lobster.
“We’ve been eating Vienna sausages right from the can,” she said. Her four children under 10 raced around her at Elizabeth Virrick Park, which was quickly cleared of fallen oak and hickory branches to stage the grilling.
“The corner store is out of supplies. You can’t get ice anywhere. So this is really nice,” she added. “Oh, and they’re on top of their stuff, too. The octopus is really good.”
Clearly, this was no ordinary cookout.
Overnight, Miami commissioner Ken Russell, a Coconut Grove resident, heard about a South Beach fine-dining restaurant that was soon going to have to throw out about $50,000 worth of the highest quality meats and seafood because of the ongoing power outage from Hurricane Irma.
Instead, he connected the owner of the Mediterranean-inspired Villa Azur to a pair of Coconut Grove neighbors who regularly barbecue in the neighborhood and mounted a Michelin-star-style cookout. About 400 neighbors, most of whom live in the nearby Kingsway Apartments on Charles Terrace that many simply refer to as “the projects,” lined up at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“This is the neediest part of my district. It always gets the short end of the stick. So every chance we get, we’re going to help this community,” said Russell, who lives a mile away and arrived an hour into the cooking, missing out on the lobster but not the marinated lamb shanks.
The corner store is out of supplies. You can’t get ice anywhere. So this is really nice. And they’re on top of their stuff, too. The octopus is really good.
Francheska Gray, enjoying the impromptu cookout in the West Grove
Russell had spent the previous day driving around his district, handing out bags of ice from the back of a truck to the edge of the 7 p.m. curfew, when he got a call from the landlord at Villa Azur, Ron Bloomberg. He’d been checking in on the restaurant when the owner, Jean-Philippe Bernard, told him his inventory was a day away from thawing out and spoiling.
“I said, ‘I’m going to see if we can salvage this,” Bloomberg recalled as he manned one of the grills at Virrick Park, turning over tender, seared medallions of filet miñon and Chilean sea bass.
Russell stopped at The Corner bar in downtown Miami after a long day, wondering how he was going to make it happen in less than a day.
“Honestly, I needed a drink,” said Russell, who weathered the storm in Coconut Grove while his wife and children evacuated to Brazil, where his in-laws live.
The bar was one of the only places open downtown (after curfew) — and it happened to be run by a Grove resident, Chris MacLeod, who heard the story and volunteered himself and his friend’s portable grill to cook.
“I know a lot of people without power who are unable to cook so it seemed like something positive to do for the community,” said MacLeod, who was still without power, but cooking at the park while watching his toddler daughter.
Bloomberg stacked the trunk of his pearl Mercedes GL 450 at noon with the coveted cargo: chateaubriand, porterhouse steaks, rib eyes, briskets, lamb shanks, sea bass, sushi-grade tuna, scallops, lobster and octopus.
“It doesn’t get any higher end than this,” Bloomberg said.
At the park, the grill masters were ready.
Kenny Smiley and Lando Wright, who live in the Kingsway Apartments, regularly grill for the neighborhood on the weekends as a side hustle.
Russell’s staff emailed them asking if they’d be willing to donate their time, and their grills to cook for their neighbors. It was a no-brainer: Both had spent Monday night, after Smiley’s shift at UPS, grilling chicken thighs, hot dogs and sausages for free, handing out sodas to the kids (and adult beverages to the grown ups), while Rihanna and Kodak Black tunes filled the air.
Tuesday, in 87-degree heat with 72 percent humidity, Smiley and Lando lorded over a pair of smoker grills, one golden with patina, as the neighbors recognized them, lining up with paper Publix plates.
“Hey Kenny!” one woman shouted and leaned in for an air kiss, as he moved marinated lamb shanks around his grill.
“Everybody’s out of power. A lot of people don’t have anything to eat. Their refrigerators have cut out. They don’t have the tools to feed themselves,” Smiley said. “This was really a great opportunity to get some hot food into their stomachs. A lot of people here have been relying on canned food.”
But not this day. This day, they feasted.
Wright carefully turned hunks of brisket on his grill. The meat’s gristle popped and charred against his tongs, and he sprinkled it with water to release a fragrant, woody puff of white smoke.
“Juicy, huh? See, when I go to turn it, it just falls apart? Beautiful,” Wright said. “This is five-star food right here.”
He placed a still-sizzling piece of meat on a woman’s plate, next to a tentacle of octopus and a chunk of grilled sea bass.
“That’s a $200 plate of food walking right there,” he added.
Jihad Rashid directed traffic, pointing an elderly man with a World War II veteran’s cap back to the grill — “Let’s get you another piece of fish,” Rashid told him — before finding him a seat at one of the park’s benches.
“I couldn’t think of a better place to bring this food than here, to the West Grove,” Rashid said.
By 5:30, the last of the lamb shanks smoked on the grill, and the lines dwindled to a dozen people. Some sat on benches and licked their fingers. Others wrapped their plates in foil and walked to their nearby homes, dodging limbs still blocking many of their streets.