Urgency meets empathy as immigrants create thousands of meals a day

THE WASHINGTON POST – At 5.30am in the kind of bleak industrial crevice of Queens where mob bodies are probably buried, Daniel Dorado recently waited in a line of mostly undocumented restaurant workers before the opening of Restaurant Depot, a wholesaler like Costco on steroids available only to the industry.

His goal was 2,000 meal containers, and, boom, he was in and out in 12 minutes.

The containers would soon be packed with sumptuous entrees. citrus garlic salmon with Cuban black beans and coconut herb rice, or moussaka-stuffed zucchini with dirty rice and beans, or mojo chicken with chimichurri and roasted potatoes with grilled shishito peppers.

“But really there’s only one meal we serve,” said Dorado, as he loaded up his SUV. “We make Donald Trump eat his words.”

Dorado, an American-born son of a Mexican immigrant, has been running what is probably New York’s largest restaurant-quality active cooking operation during the pandemic lockdown, serving 6,000 meals a day. Last year he and two former colleagues from Ilili, a Lebanese-Mediterranean restaurant in the Flatiron District, formed the Migrant Kitchen NYC, ostensibly a catering company, which orchestrated an alliance with four other kitchens.

Daniel Dorado (R) and Nasser Jaber lead Migrant Kitchen. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
ABOVE & BELOW: Migrant Kitchen cooks ‘food with dignity,’ according to World Central Kitchen’s Sam Bloch; and the meal preparation at Migrant Kitchen

Leading the operation are Dorado, who has been a chef for 20 years, the team’s heart; Nasser Jaber, a Palestinian immigrant who was an Ilili waiter, the team’s social media-manic mouth; and Kelly McCaffery, an event manager from the Astoria neighbourhood in Queens who was Ilili’s catering director, the team’s brain.

As much attention as beleaguered restaurants have gotten in the pandemic’s lockdown, far less attention has been paid to catering companies, which can produce food on a massive scale but not within the limits of a la carte orders available through delivery apps.

Enter Migrant Kitchen. They pay wages of USD20 to USD25 an hour in their kitchen, Jaber said, and with the four other kitchens pooled 40 largely undocumented workers from Make The Road, a civil rights group – plus workers and volunteers who handle packing and delivery.

Migrant Kitchen’s GoFundMe campaign has raised more than USD100,000 so far.

And, Dorado said, celebrity chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen also agreed to pay Migrant Kitchen USD7 per meal (less than the USD10 average it pays restaurants) for up to 1,200 meals a day, increasing its reach greatly.

What started out on March 13 with 100 meals to hospitals and shelters quickly grew to 6,000 meals a day to 13 hospitals, four food pantries, three homeless shelters, three senior centres, public housing complexes in the Bronx and Queens, a Queens mosque and dozens of COVID-19-infected families. The needs change dramatically day to day, too often because of hospitalisations or deaths.

In case of allergies, no meals contain nuts. And a few days before Ramadhan began on April 23, they switched all meals to halal-certified. “We don’t just want to give people food,” Dorado said.

“We want them to know we took their needs into consideration. We don’t want anyone getting food that they don’t want to eat. It’s for them, not for us.” For families, Migrant Kitchen also makes grocery bags of staples like eggs and milk, and tucks in chicken tenders or pizza for children. Even diapers.

Migrant Kitchen’s attention to empathy and generosity operates even at the courier level. Its DoorDash deliveries are filed so that the couriers get USD35 per trip.

The broader squad added kitchens from Lemons & Olives, run by Marko Mannheim, a Serbian immigrant; Hand Crafted and Bartleby & Sage, run by Lisselly Brito and Ramon Lara, respectively, both Dominicans; and Not Today Maybe Tomorrow, run by Bradley Smithart, an Oregon transplant. The last week of April, World Central Kitchen’s citywide operations made 452,478 meals with 36 kitchens, including one food truck, for an average output of 12,569 meals, some of them cold sandwiches with fruit or vegetables.

Migrant Kitchen’s alliance of five kitchens produced 31,200 cooked meals, Dorado said, a dizzying growth from the 5,015 it served the first week of April.

“We are big fans of what the Migrant Kitchen team is doing, and I’m glad we can work with them,” said World Central Kitchen’s (WCK) CEO Nate Mook.

Sam Bloch, WCK’s director of field operations, laid out Migrant Kitchen’s strength. “It’s beautiful, right? How many win-wins can you have? Where the food is coming from, who’s making it, how it’s supporting that individual person, how it’s supporting that [kitchen], and all that built on top of the fact that someone who really needs that plate of food is receiving it.”

This month, the alliance disbanded when the other four kitchens each began working directly with WCK, while Migrant Kitchen began working more closely with the city’s GetFoodNYC programme, delivering hundreds of nine-meal batches to feed recipients for three days at a time, twice a week. “Groups like the Migrant Kitchen that are focussing on serving our neighbourhoods are critical partners in this work – work that won’t stop as long as there are people in need,” said Kathryn Garcia, the city’s covid-19 food czar, who noted that two million residents citywide face food insecurity in the crisis.

In the worldwide capital of cosmopolitanism – where a person can eat from more than 140 nations’ cuisines without leaving the city limits – Migrant Kitchen has knitted the knowing intimacy of Anthony Bourdain with the splashy scale of Andrés. The international, intersectional result is a harvest a century in the making. Ellis Islanders’ wildest dreams come true.

They are piercing reminders of EB White’s essential 1948 essay, Here Is New York, which divided the city into three residents. natives, commuters and settlers. A settler “was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something,” White wrote. “Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.” Not that Migrant Kitchen has settled for anything.

One Migrant Kitchen packer, Dalal Abi Ghosn, a Lebanese lawyer from Brazil who arrived in New York in 2018, explained her motivation as she helped put together a batch of 500 meals. “I can work from home, so that’s what I’m doing. New York is my home.”

As the greatest hits of Puerto Rican pop salsa singer Héctor Lavoe blasted in the Midtown Manhattan kitchen, head chef Ryan Graham explained the mission. “A lot of big-batch cooking . . . doesn’t monitor seasoning, the flavour, the texture, the veg, the meat, the starch, the digestion, the nutrition.”

By contrast, he noted, he was slow-cooking a sauce that included 20 spices for nine hours. One of his cooks also recommended that a dish’s tomato paste be caramelised. (Bloch called the approach “food with dignity.”)

Of Migrant Kitchen’s international flair, Graham shrugged matter-of-factly. “American cooking is the compilation of all cultures, all authenticities.”