"When a person is in need, politics goes out the window," says chef Edward Lee.

By Edward Lee
October 31, 2018
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Photo courtesy Edward Lee

Editor’s note: Communal Table, a forum for amplifying first-person voices in the food industry. Our goal is to work long term with leaders to create more humane and sustainable workplaces. We encourage restaurant and bar workers and owners to write in and share their experiences here: kat.kinsman@meredith.com. Have ideas about how to make the industry a safer, better, more sustainable place to work? Please share them, too. We’ll edit and post some entries to foodandwine.com.

Edward Lee is the chef/owner of 610 Magnolia, MilkWood and Whiskey Dry in Louisville, KY and the culinary director for Succotash in National Harbor, Maryland and Penn Quarter, DC. He has been nominated for a daytime Emmy for his role as host of the Emmy-winning series, Mind of Chef on PBS. Most recently, he has hosted and co-produced a feature documentary called Fermented. Lee is the author of Smoke & Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen and of Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting Pot Cuisine. Lee also runs the non-profit The LEE Initiative which promotes equality and diversity within the restaurant community.

When I first heard about the government shutdown, I, like so many others, thought it was just an annoyance that would soon fix itself. As it spiraled into the new year and it became clear that federal employees would miss a paycheck, I realized a crisis was brewing. I travel often and I know the faces of the TSA officers in my hometown airport of Louisville like I know my cooks. On January 11, I sent all 75 TSA officers at the airport a burger, fries, and a drink from Whiskey Dry as a gesture to say that we recognize how hard this is and that we thank you.

The response was overwhelming. I got so many messages from the TSA officers and others who began telling me their stories. I knew that a small gesture of lunch would not be enough. Inspired by the humanitarian efforts of Jose Andres who has shown the world how one person can make an enormous difference in the lives of people in need, I asked a few chefs in Louisville if they would help out. In one afternoon, we enlisted several restaurants willing to help. By the end of the week, we had over a dozen restaurants and markets offering free food to federal employees in need. Among all the restaurants, we gave away thousands of meals that week.

My fellow chefs and friends and I boxed hot meals, handed out chicken pot pies, and shook a lot of hands. I listened to the workers' stories. As the weeks went by, we knew the unthinkable would happen, and these dedicated employees would miss a second paycheck. It was heartbreaking to see the families who would come in for a hot meal. It was not just the 800,000 employees being affected by the shutdown, but the far greater number of all the families whose lives had come to a screeching halt.

I listened as they told me about families going down to one meal a day to make ends meet, about missing insurance and car payments, about missing birthdays and cancelling trips due to the uncertainty of the future. I saw the shame in the faces of the men and women who had to wait in line for a meal, knowing that they did nothing wrong. I even heard of some workers being reprimanded for accepting these free meals when they had no other options available.

I witnessed a roomful of people joined together as a community, blind to the ideology of politics or partisanship. I have been involved with charities for a number of years and I can say with certainty that when a person is in need, politics goes out the window. When we need a helping hand, we don’t care if the sleeve behind it is red or blue.

The shutdown ended, and the world (at least for now) seems to have some stability to it. As I look back at the last few weeks, I am astounded at how many people tried to turn the optics of this crisis into a political argument. I had my share of angry messages directed at me for simply trying to feed people in a time of need. If there is one thing that I learned from all this, it is that we need more compassion, less yelling.

Restaurants have a built-in ability for compassion. I witnessed every team member of 610 Magnolia, jump in and help on their days off, in the bitter cold, as they packed up food and delivered it to cars with all the respect and professionalism they would have given to any other customer. I was proud of that and for what my community of Louisville did to step up.

Restaurants are asked to be many things: ambassadors of the community, purveyors of local ingredients, standard bearers of excellence and fairness, all while serving great food with a smile. For the most part, we do pretty well at it. But there is one more thing we can do: We can lead the way with compassion. If you have spent any amount of time working in a restaurant, you have probably seen all types of customers: the entitled blowhard, the timid couple on a first date, the family that goes out once a year to celebrate, the local guy who is more lonely than hungry, and so on. We serve them all with the same care and attention we would our own families. When it comes to people in need, it is only natural that the restaurant communities around the nation would rise to the occasion. It is no surprise that compassion is in our very DNA.

To me, compassion goes beyond hospitality, beyond customer service. It starts with listening. It is being sensitive to the needs of a community, often one that does not or cannot dine in my restaurants. Compassion transcends politics or race or gender. It is doing what I can to preserve a sense of kindness in my community. Compassion doesn’t end when the shutdown is over. There will be something else. Always. Maybe a restaurant cannot solve the world’s problems. But so what? If we don’t try just because the task seems impossible, then we have already given up on our communities, on our kindness for one another.

In that last week before the end of a shutdown, I was terribly moved by a mother who couldn’t afford to get her son a gift for his 17th birthday. The free meal we offered was his only birthday celebration. He wanted an iPhone, like all 17 year olds do. I went out and got him the phone partly because I wanted him to know that there was still kindness in the face of all this madness. But also, I knew I was reassuring myself that kindness and compassion could still exist in the face of all this madness.

I have pledged to do my part in these uncertain times because I believe in the urgency of it. Right now. While we do everything else that a good restaurant does. While we still continue to argue about the merits of the next trending toast on Instagram, we can also do our part to preserve our communities.

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