The organization’s chef relief team knocks out hunger 6 days a week at Nats Park in D.C.
June 8, 2020 | Bonnie S. Benwick, Heated by Medium x Mark Bittman
Photos by Deb Lindsey
Covid-19 hit America’s food system with the force of hurricanes, earthquakes, and a government shutdown combined — which happen to be disasters José Andrés and his nonprofit World Central Kitchen have dealt with since 2017 — seven years after the supercharged chef-humanitarian founded WCK to end hunger worldwide.
The WCK goal is to provide a nourishing free meal to anyone humbled by such destruction. And as the need increases all around WCK HQ in Washington, D.C., the urgency and can-do attitude extend from Andrés’ staff and volunteers, from cooks to clean-up crew.
In the more than 84 days since WCK’s Covid-19 hands-on response began in this country (and 80 days in Spain), Andrés’ organization has served more than 15 million meals. Astonishing, yet it hardly hints at what it takes to make that happen. Here’s another eye-opener: The chefs, contract crew, and volunteers at Nationals Park, home of the 2019 World Series Champion Washington Nationals, have produced more than 500,000 meals, or about 5 percent of the WCK total.
The chefs, contract crew, and volunteers at Nationals Park have produced more than 500,000 meals, or about 5 percent of that WCK total.
How have they managed? With fewer bodies than you might expect. With guts and goodwill. With the largess of the Lerner family, who donated the stadium’s use. (It’s the only U.S. sports facility playing host this way, and is WCK’s largest relief kitchen currently cooking.) They’ve done it by keeping standards high, constantly improving the process, and by activating a certain “spidey sense” that solves problems like how to supply the facility with enough hand sanitizer.
A lot happens during the course of a six-day workweek at the ballpark, where the WCK effort employs an average of 40 folks a day who haul in and convert hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce, proteins, and packaging into hot meals and cold/reheatable ones. The experience has uplifted them — and it has even redirected a few toward more altruistic careers.
While we hope there is never again a need for food relief on this scale, it helps to know a team like this can answer the call. This day-by-day breakdown explains, in part, how they did it during the last week of May.
Day 1: Comfort Food and Common Goals
6,783 meals (2,808 hot / 3,975 cold-pack)
Wearing masks and keeping social distance, three volunteers and a few World Central Kitchen independent contractors wearing black WCK T-shirts wait at check-in on Monday just before 9 a.m. outside First Street SE at the field level entrance. Once their temperatures are taken and their names have been found on a list, they are screened through a metal detector and then walk the long, curving concrete hallway to designated elevators.
Hand-lettered signs direct them to the main-level PNC Diamond Club, where during the regular season baseball fans love the AC and home plate views; now, its tables, countertops, and chairs accommodate relief-team supplies and stashes of personal protective equipment. Folks wearing caps, masks, and food-safe gloves are busy before the pre-shift briefing, building cardboard boxes that will house filled to-go containers and slapping large WCK stickers on container lids. From the kitchen, workers roll tall, temperature-controlled hot boxes, heavy with foil-covered pans of the day’s hot meal, toward assembly lines fashioned from folding tables in Nats’ red.
Kitchen staff listens to Mollie Moore, 34, a WCK relief team chef whose demeanor is clearly no-nonsense. Her chicken pot pie is the day’s featured hot dish. (Each working day, a different hot meal is featured.) She developed the 300-portion recipe at Andres’ Think Food Lab in downtown D.C. The PNC kitchen’s massive tilt skillet and a cook trained to operate it have the first batch underway.
The waft is familiar, with sage, butter, and garlic. There are also 12 quarts of chopped onions, a cup of salt-pepper blend, and 22.5 quarts of a chicken jus/cornstarch slurry, creating the gravy to which 70 pounds of chicken tenderloins, 85 pounds of mixed vegetables, and multiple handfuls of chopped parsley will be added. The skillet will be filled and emptied eight more times by shift’s end. Intermittent tasting confirms the alchemy of scratch cooking. Two more tilt skillets are steaming ahead in a larger kitchen upstairs.
Feedback about WCK food filters through the operation’s distribution chain, and this pot pie, along with Wednesday’s reheatable meatloaf, have received high marks.
“We are looking to create a meal that provides comfort,” says WCK contractor-chef Kristen Desmond, 51, who recently returned to D.C. after owning a grab-n-go cafe in Santa Barbara, California. Here, she manages the cold-food and reheatable-meals kitchen in the stadium’s Budweiser Brew House. “We care that it looks nice, that it’s delicious and balanced.” Other chefs echo the same sentiment throughout the week.
As the unassuming head of this Nats Park operation, Matt Adler, 38 — a D.C.-area restaurant and operations consultant — directs the daily workers to gather for the briefing. Reminding workers to keep social distance, he points to a “This Is What 6 Ft. Looks Like” banner. He is upbeat, brief, and resolute about the day’s goals. Perhaps due to the Memorial Day holiday, food needs are less than half of a regular weekday.
Even more energized team leader Andy Wooldridge, 32 — a sommelier who had just started training at the upcoming Dauphine’s in downtown D.C. — issues directives: Personal items go upstairs! Wash hands! Change gloves with new tasks! Use separate receptacles for disposing personal protective gear! Maintain distances! Heed the flow of movement! Be efficient! “I always love building positive energy,” he said later. Mission accomplished.
WCK team leader and D.C. patent attorney Amanda Baker, 35, calls out assignments — who’s on assembly-line proteins, who’s lidding, who’s dispatched to the Brew House. (“I’m sending the rock stars over there,” she says.) A Spotify shuffle of popular tunes kicks in, workers hit their marks, and production hums at the rate of about 1,500 mpph — meals packed per hour.
Day 2: Efficiencies and Thank-You Beers
11,119 meals (6,872 hot / 4,247 cold-pack meals)
Things are going full-speed by 9:40 a.m. on Tuesday, as tilt-skillet paddles steer through creamy tomato pasta primavera, Tuesday’s hot meal. As a result of chefs Matt and Mollie fine-tuning the recipe, dried pasta gets cooked in the sauce and the total time per batch is trimmed considerably.
The WCK team has learned by now that efficiencies are key, wherever you can create them. The assembly line moves quicker when hot food is dished out of 4-inch deep hotel pans instead of 2-inch. Team leaders Andy Wooldridge and Tim Linaberry, 34, who was furloughed a few days into training as a general manager for the new Mercy Me cafe in D.C.’s West End, discovered that depending on a foodstuff’s heft, using right-sized ladles reduces repetitive motion strain and increases output on the assembly lines.
Kitchen contractor Meghann Long, 35, former front-of-house staff at 2 Amys, had arrived at 7:30 a.m. and will leave “when everything’s done,” which is typically late afternoon. Huge pots of salted water preheat on the stove to shorten the tilt-skillet pasta prep. Working the 40-gallon trough is so exhausting that she and another cook prefer to job-share on alternate days. At Nats Park, chefs and cooks are trained on the unit for a week, “which makes you realize how much you are being supported by all the different parts of this operation,” Meghann says.
More contract workers are on PNC meal assembly than volunteers. This is intentional, Tim says. He has lifted scheduling duties from Matt’s shoulders, for which the chef is “amen!” thankful. (Tim also wrote up the standard procedures sent via email to volunteers.) More contractors have been hired here as restaurant furloughs increased.
Lunch for the crew consists of the day’s hot dish or a grain bowl from the Brew House operation, carried outside to tables on the PNC Diamond Club patio. The meal’s free and so is the socially distant entertainment — watching groundskeepers manicure the baseball field, and seeing what everyone looks like with their masks off.
Jim Berman is at his own table; the 47-year-old WCK contractor/procurement specialist is executive chef at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, and commutes four days every week from that city. Between bites, he checks emails and constant team updates via WhatsApp. He has spent the morning surveying inventory. This includes what’s in the three kitchens as well as the loading dock’s two walk-in freezers and two walk-in refrigerators that are big enough to maneuver a forklift in. Jim orders the microwaveable to-go containers, tape guns, and pallet wrap, too — “things I’ve never purchased before,” he says.
He has spent the morning surveying inventory. This includes what’s in the three kitchens as well as the loading dock’s two walk-in freezers and two walk-in refrigerators that are big enough to maneuver a forklift in.
In the morning, he noted an order of broccoli that was shorted by 30 cases. The difference can be delivered later, but we don’t “eat off the back of the truck,” he says, meaning this WCK operation cannot wait on the day’s load-in to start cooking. It gets done the day before. He lets the chefs know that 5,600 pounds of peeled, wedged beets have come in, grown in France and sent via a terminal in Dublin, Ireland. Another fun fact: The beef (3,500 pounds this week) is now being purchased from E3 Meat Co., of Fort Scott, Kansas, co-owned by former Nats first baseman Adam LaRoche.
By Saturday, Jim will have 142,000 to-go containers in stock. That’s enough for a couple of weeks of meal distribution from Nats Park alone. Maintaining their supply will become increasingly challenging with area restaurants ramping up takeout business. He also reports costs to HQ; the Nats Park operation has hit its target of less than $3 per packed meal every week (including the cost of the container itself).
At 2:24 p.m., Matt gathers everyone by the PNC kitchen. Here are 15 cases of beer and 12 cases of wine, donated by Prestige Ledroit liquor distributors as a thank-you for the WCK crew. Big cheer! A socially distanced scrum grabs its share and returns to cleaning chores, buoyed by the prospect of gratis sipping at home.
Day 3: Grand Scale and Safety Measures
7,933 meals (4,336 hot / 3,597 cold-pack)
My load-in’s running a little late today,” says Matt Tognarelli, 45. The contract load-in manager and former marketing director shrugs at the loading dock at around 10 a.m. on Wednesday as he pulls the handle of a motorized pallet jack to park a flat of 20-pound dried pasta cartons. The task takes him 14 seconds, and he repeats it five more times without a hitch. His moves have been honed since he began WCK warehouse work in mid-March, downtown. Forklifts and other heavy-duty equipment come courtesy of the Nats, along with a few subcontractor operators. To keep the WCK relief team’s “Matts” straight, he’s known around these parts as “Tog.” In addition to offloading commercial delivery trucks at the First Street SE dock through the morning, Tog sends the day’s cold-pack food out to the distribution crew. He coordinates the movement of WCK goods to the kitchens; the distance is a quarter-mile at a designated speed of no more than 8 mph. He receives order info via email from chef corps manager Greg Malsbary, and checks in with chefs Matt and Mollie. It’s crucial for Tog to transport in-house a day in advance, so the early-morning kitchen shifts have what they need. (Today’s hot meal is beef fajitas with broccoli and peppers.)
In addition to offloading commercial delivery trucks at the First Street SE dock through the morning, Tog sends the day’s cold-pack food out to the distribution crew. He coordinates the movement of WCK goods to the kitchens; the distance is a quarter-mile at a designated speed of no more than 8 mph. He receives order info via email from chef corps manager Greg Malsbary, and checks in with chefs Matt and Mollie. It’s crucial for Tog to transport in-house a day in advance, so the early-morning kitchen shifts have what they need. (Today’s hot meal is beef fajitas with broccoli and peppers.)
Adler appreciates Tog’s steady hand and easygoing manner. A shipment of cocktail onions that should have been pearl onions doesn’t faze the guy, nor does responsibility for moving all that’s in stock. “You hate that people need all this. But you feel like you’re doing good,” Tog says.
To date, he’s the only WCK worker onsite that has had to self-quarantine due to Covid-19. About six weeks ago, he stayed at home, apart from his wife, for two weeks. Tog had dealt with a non-WCK worker at the dock who later reported symptoms and positive test results. He followed this news with another shrug of the shoulders. Tog was wearing an N95 mask at the time and subsequently tested negative for coronavirus. Team leader Andy filled in for Tog, and learned how demanding the job is. “I might love him more” than Matt does, he says.
To date, Tog is the only WCK worker onsite that has had to self-quarantine due to Covid-19.
Once loading is done, Tog shifts his attention back to the WCK distribution crew outside, stacking empty foam Cambros and moving them upstairs for cleaning. He takes the time to rearrange boxes of reheatable meals in 35-degree cold storage to make room for the day’s numbers. He sorts out broken pallets and stacks the excess ones for recycling to Sysco and elsewhere.
Like Tog, Stephanie Davis began as a WCK volunteer, but she never pulled a shift in the ballpark operation. Still, she has a lot to do with keeping everyone here Covid-free. The 30-year-old recently graduated from Georgetown University School of Medicine and is about to start her residency at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore.
With a trained eye for health and safety, Stephanie was the first to recommend daily temperature checks, a shortlist of English/Spanish questions (for possible symptoms and exposure), and upgrades for sanitizing surfaces. She created — and laminated, she is proud to admit — all the “This Is What 6 Ft. Looks Like” social-distance banners. And she helped institute the system of one-way directional foot traffic to reduce close contact points, all of which are highlighted daily in the morning briefing.
Day 4: So Long, Grain Bowls. Hello, Carla!
11,962 meals (6,844 hot / 5,118 cold-pack)
At the meal distribution site just beyond the loading dock entrance on First Street SE, Thursday morning’s working list shows 20 pickups scheduled between 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. But the very capable WCK operations manager, Elyssa Kaplan, 30, or members of her small team and sometimes even José Andrés himself will hop in a WCK truck afterward to deliver more meals to the homeless at sites in and around D.C. She, too, is in touch with the core leaders inside the stadium via WhatsApp. “There’s such positivity that comes from” chefs Matt and Mollie, Elyssa says. It’s clear that she pays it forward each time she welcomes the folks who come to collect and later hand out WCK food.
Her crew has come to know the volunteers and first responders (including from all seven of D.C.’s police districts) who drive up on the wide sidewalk, and they are aware of exactly how many cartons of meals to load into each transport. Like others in this stadium operation, they have debugged their duties so successfully that the vibe is relaxed on a 12,000-meal day. Rain, off and on. But no delay.
Because Elyssa goes wherever WCK relief efforts are needed and is not based in D.C., she’s living at an Airbnb in town. Volunteers Ines Andres, 18, and Kim Testa, 40; and WCK contract workers Jessica Yamini, 30, Alex Olivas, 43, and Greg Kopit, 36, are local. Between pickups they gather under the same kind of collapsible canopy used at farmers markets, except this one sports a large WCK banner strategically positioned to provide shade. Talk drifts from swimwear and exercise routines to the pets paraded by on walks to the friendly one-upmanship of grateful cops — every now and then flowers, doughnuts, sometimes lunch — even the occasional birthday serenade. Hard work and kindness are recognized and appreciated here.
Three minutes before her scheduled 11 a.m. slot, Prince George’s County Council citizen services director Carla Y. Cash, 55, pulls in to lead her seven-strong caravan of cars and a church van. She has organized these drivers to deliver more than 1,800 meals per day to churches, senior homes, and fire stations in D.C., Northern Virginia, and suburban Maryland. Right away she hands over a bag with an ice cream cake for volunteer Ines, the Georgetown University student who will turn 19 on Saturday. “When we pull up, they are always so pleasant and eager,” Carla says. “The smile and joy of what they do encourages me.”
Cartons containing up to 400 meals can fit into Carla’s Chevy SUV. (Thursday is veggie stir-fry day.) When she finds out that meatloaf is the cold/reheatable of the day, she makes sure those are the ones she’ll deliver. It’s the meal received with the biggest smiles. Hearty cold salads like quinoa-sweet potato and hummus with pickled vegetables are met with less enthusiasm — by seniors, in particular. So, grain bowls will be phased out by week’s end, to the mild dismay of WCK director of nutrition Allison Sosna. There’s no point making food that won’t get eaten, it’s agreed. But Allison has been able to reduce sugar by a few grams per meal (opting for Bethesda-based Dress It Up dressings) and to broaden vegetable variety.
By 11:25 a.m., Carla’s load-in is complete. The WCK crew tidies the area, gathering dollies and smooshing spent pallet wrap into balls they will later shoot into the sidewalk trash can. It’s downtime fun. Carla remembers starting at 800 meals a week. Her order via WCK HQ has now hit 12,000, has a waiting list, and “could use 11,000 more,” she says. The need grows.
Matt appears on one of his rounds, grins at Elyssa, and says, “Things are going too well today! I don’t like it when there are no problems.”
Matt appears on one of his rounds, grins at Elyssa and says, “Things are going too well today! I don’t like it when there are no problems.”
A bit later in the afternoon, though, she lets out a small cry of anguish after reading a WhatsApp message: Two full Cambros of hot meals have gone back upstairs by mistake. In the rush of loading a big order with extra hands helping, it can happen. But the meals are no longer at optimal temperature and must be tossed out. In her end of the day briefing, Elyssa renews the team’s vow to make sure all Cambros are empty before they are ferried back upstairs.
The mood lightens when a Ben & Jerry’s van parks out front, with three WCK pickups left on the list. It drops off mega-cooler/ice chests filled with 500 single-cup scoops of ice cream — a thank-you donation that seems to giddify everybody. (“I’m strong now!” says Jessica after one cool and creamy bite.) Chefs whose shifts are over pick a favorite flavor, chatting the way restaurant employees do after service. The tent, its tables, and WCK banner come down by 3:25 p.m.
This meal distribution is technically a “disaster” effort; when does that technically end for D.C., which has begun to reopen? Elyssa shakes her head. When this program ends, it will be talked about more, she says. “We haven’t been in a situation quite like this before.”
Day 5: Nobody Takes Credit; Everyone Deserves It
6,165 meals (3,360 hot / 2,805 cold-pack)
A collective whoop fills the pre-shift briefing close to 9:30 a.m. after chef Matt announces the total number of WCK meals produced at Nats Park thus far: 423,000. He will log as much as 25,000 steps yet again today as he repeats his managerial circuit through the kitchens, loading dock, and distribution site outside the stadium. (Friday is chili day.)
Team leader Andy shares a stat of his own: Up to 1.5 labor-hours can be saved during cold-pack assembly when a marinara or salsa ladle is held instead of put down between applications. He and team leader Tim have done the math! They happen to share a longtime alliance that epitomizes the term “bromance.” Although they are unfamiliar with the annals of industrial time-and-motion study, they’re doing right by the practice — for a cause they believe in.
When Andy’s pre-briefing spiel goes on a bit too long, team leader Vanessa Cominsky, 35, the beverage manager for St. Anselm in Northeast D.C., calls him on it — just loud enough for him and a few volunteers to hear. She’s already checked in workers for the day and will end the briefing with task assignments. Her killer skill is keeping track of when and where batches of packed/palleted hot meals need to head down to distribution.
Matt is soon on the move. He weighs a just-packed meal on a food scale; it’s 2 ounces heavier than its 1-pound target. He returns it to the assembly line with a simple correction request. He uses a digital food thermometer to monitor the temperature of a filled pan in a hot box. He walks with a spring in his step, helping all hands to do their best, happy to delegate. Are you good? he asks as frequently as he washes his hands and pulls on fresh gloves.
At the Brew House, Matt checks more food temps and confers with WCK contractor, Heather Hoch, 30, a D.C. area sous-chef who started in March as a #ChefsForAmerica volunteer, about how to use up leftover tzatziki sauce and hummus. The kitchen needs more legal pads; he’ll make it happen.
Matt stops to share a friendly catch-up with WCK contractor Floyd Palmer, 60, a respected utility player with tenure at Barmini and 701 restaurants downtown. He logs long hours here as a dishwasher and recycling engineer. “Every day is a learning day,” Floyd says. “I switch hats and do whatever’s needed.” To him, José Andrés is a teacher as much as he is a chef, and he speaks of him with obvious respect.
“Every day is a learning day,” Floyd says. “I switch hats and do whatever’s needed.” To him, José Andrés is a teacher as much as he is a chef, and he speaks of him with obvious respect.
Next, Matt hangs with the distribution team until their next pickup and pitches in once it begins. Then it’s back to PNC by 11:35 a.m.; he sits down to check emails. He and Chef Mollie discuss the chili. Batches from the two kitchens differ; consistency and best quality are a must. Mollie talks to the tilt-skillet chefs without him, to get them on the same page. “I’m not looking to bust anybody’s . . . ,” he says. “If the guys want to make adjustments, let’s talk about it.” When Matt was a sous-chef in his mid-20s, his manner was less admirable. “So I took a hard look at how I was managing people and asked myself, did it help? I don’t think I’ve raised my voice in the kitchen since then.”
Mollie nods; she’s worked with him for years and has never heard him yell. This, plus his work for WCK in Tokyo in February and quick ramp-up of production in the Think Food Lab downtown, confirm why he was asked to run the Nats Park operation. Matt says this is the best work he’s ever done as a chef. Things are running well enough for him to take Saturday off — making it the first two free consecutive days he’s enjoyed since mid-March.
Day 6: Giving Back, Changing Lives
4,954 meals (3,084 hot / 1,870 cold-pack)
World Central Kitchen contractor chef Amin Mina, 36, former executive sous at DBGB, downtown, is stirring one of the two tilt skillets operating on Saturday in the Club Level kitchen at close to 10 a.m. The last day of the workweek has the fewest meals to produce, so the recipe is often a chefs’ collaboration that features ingredients on hand that can’t be stretched say, to a total of 10,000.
The riff on chicken Alfredo includes local asparagus, fresh baby spinach, and roasted grape tomatoes, to be topped with shredded parmesan on the assembly line. But Amin is a little bothered. The pasta is cooked in the sauce liquids plus hot water to save time, a la the Tuesday technique. But this cooked sauce is thin; chef tastings plus a consult with boss Mollie and subsequent tweaks in batches Nos. 3 and 4 do the trick (less cream, more cornstarch slurry). Soon, the paddle encounters a bit more resistance, as the sauce has thickened enough to coat the penne. “This is all very special,” Amin says. “What I am doing is not just for a paycheck.”
“This is all very special,” Amin says. “What I am doing is not just for a paycheck.”
The day’s meals are packed before 75 boxes of &pizza arrive — another much-appreciated thank-you donation. “Numbers guy” Jim is the last team member to leave shortly after 3 p.m., having calculated the average per-meal cost for the week. Once again, it’s in the ballpark: less than $3, even factoring in the container price. They’re in the zone.
Over weeks, the marathon pace could be draining, Jim says. But there is no negativity here. It is unlike any work experience he’s had. His comment relates to something team leader Tim voiced earlier in the week: “This is a giant machine, working toward a common goal, and I have learned all kinds of ways to be useful” — driving a forklift among them. “Capabilities are limitless here, at this point.” Given the chance, Tim says, he’ll do everything he can to build a career with World Central Kitchen. Or the next best thing to it.
Post script: As of this writing, 1,995 restaurants nationwide including 43 in the D.C. area have partnered with WCK, which means they receive $10 for each meal they cook and pack in their kitchens. The extra income is making a real difference for them. To donate to World Central Kitchen, click here. In addition to their regular Saturday totals, on June 6th the team from Nats Park parked WCK trucks downtown to hand out 10,000 bottles of water and 4,500 free sandwiches and salads to protesters.