Cooking up a plate of hope
South Walton culinary teams help feed Hurricane Michael victims
By Michelle Farnham
Hurricane Michael ripped through our beautiful Emerald Coast last October, causing
more than $14 billion in damage – that’s billion with a B. With sustained winds up
to 155 mph, this category 4 storm flattened homes, knocked out power for hundreds
of thousands, and claimed the lives of more than 30. When the winds died down, a
flood of humanitarian aid swept in – everything from tarps to generators, hygiene
supplies to clothes, and Good Samaritans wielding chainsaws to help unbury a
stretch of coast previously known for its pines and enormous live oaks.
Perhaps one of the greatest “boots on the ground” efforts was keeping everyone fed.
Grocery stores and restaurants were demolished along with the homes, delivery
trucks would not enter the disaster zones, and with roadways impassable and
personal vehicles destroyed, many were left stranded without anything to eat
beyond their quickly depleted emergency supplies.
When the going got rough, several South Walton restaurants – and the good people
who fill their kitchens – answered the call for this most critical of needs. While the
Emerald Coast was still reeling from the storm, and with many staffers themselves
impacted, restaurants mobilized and headed east.
Eats on the streets
The culinary teams behind Spell Restaurant Group eateries – Edward’s, Grits and
Grind, La Cocina Mexican Grill and Bar, George’s at Alys Beach, Saltwater Grill, and
La Crema – prepared food for hundreds over several weeks. Spell co-owner Christy
Spell Terry said many of their staff delivered food and supplies to the areas of
Panama City, Lynn Haven, Springfield, Parker, Youngstown, Sneads, and Bayou
“We also saw a request from Hope Panhandle, Inc. for air mattresses, so we donated
15. We also set up donation places in all of our restaurants and raised hundreds of
dollars,” Spell Terry said.
While most of her employees suffered some kind of home damage, she said a few
have had to completely relocate after their houses were destroyed.
“We have to help each other, especially in times of need,” she said. “It's so hard
knowing where to start but we couldn't sit back and not do anything. We really felt
the love and a greater sense of family after the hurricane.”
Local restaurateur Jim Shirley was personally impacted by both Hurricanes Ivan
(2004) and Katrina (2005). He felt uniquely compelled to help his culinary
colleagues in the Port St. Joe area, to get them up and running, and able to feed the
masses. While his Seaside restaurants were closed for three days due to lack of
power, he and his team of 40 helped set up a mobile kitchen in Port St. Joe, feeding
approximately 20,000 people.
Chef Emeril Lagasse fired up the Emeril Lagasse Foundation Full Circle Kitchen staff,
making over 1,200 meals every day for hurricane victims, and took their act on the
“Hurricane Michael hit so close to home for us,” Lagasse admitted. “It felt really
important to be there and to be a part of the relief efforts. My team and I loaded up
our boat and brought food and supplies to people in need. We also teamed up with
Chef José Andrés and the great folks at World Food Kitchen to feed the many people
who were without food and water as well as the first responders who were working
day and night with no rest.”
Steven Sapp, with local restaurants Pescado, Southside Slice, and Shades Bar & Grill,
said more than 25 of their team members assisted in the effort. They delivered hot
food, ice, water and supplies two to three times a week – keeping both residents and
power crews fed, and served as a drop-off point for the community to leave
“Because of how close to home this struck, it did affect us and our friends and family.
It’s our responsibility to help those in need,” Sapp said, noting that five team members had their homes damaged. An additional fundraiser was in the works.
In it for the long haul
While the national media turned its attention to the upcoming elections, and it
seemed as if the country had forgotten our neighbors to the east, these mobile
kitchens kept the fire going – literally and figuratively.
Sister restaurants Back Beach Barbecue of Panama City Beach and Restaurant
Paradis of Rosemary Beach teamed up to serve nearly 1,400 smoked sandwich
meals, funded by staff and family members. Paradis Chef Mark Eichin said they
drove over four carloads full of supplies, and the fundraising efforts have continued
long after the initial push.
“We did an internal fundraiser with certain customers that are like family to us …
they wanted to be involved,” Eichin said. “We’ll be in this for the long haul; we’re not
just going to do the sprint. We’ll be helping out as long as we can.”
Chef Christopher Holbrook with Signature Catering of 30-A estimates his team fed
around 8,000 people, from 40-gallon pots of jambalaya to burgers to paella for 800.
With time, food, and financial contributions from Hurricane Oyster Bar, Culinary
Catering, KaraBoo Bake Shop, Black Bear Bread Co., and second home owner
Tamara Tricoli of Houston, they set up shop in parking lots, including “Ground Zero”
in Lynn Haven.
“Then we went over to the town of Parker which was the most desperate thing I've
ever seen,” Holbrook admitted. He’s no stranger to storms, having lived through
several disasters, including Opal. “I've seen a lot, just never hoped I'd ever see
anything like this in my life. One man told me – who had been on five tours – that
this is the worst thing he has seen since he left Bosnia after the Serbs’ genocide of
them in the ‘92-95 war.”
Holbrook’s relief efforts continued months after the storm, and included a
Christmas-style dinner, complete with toys for the children.
Jimmy Hasser and Adam Yellin, co-owners of Local Catch Bar & Grill of Santa Rosa
Beach, teamed up with the nonprofit Heartbeat of Backroads to organize an all-day
benefit and silent auction. Local favorites Forrest Williams Band and Luke Langford
Band found time in their busy schedules to play the event. The auction offered more
than 30 items, including gym memberships and beach house stays, and Local Catch
donated all the restaurant’s sales from that day.
“We were able to cut them a check for $10,000,” Hasser proudly reported. “It was
much more successful than we thought; it was awesome! We had some people
winning the 3- and 4-night (beach house) stays, and turned around and gave them
to someone from Panama City who needed them.”
Local Catch also organized a truck to be filled with donations by people who
couldn’t attend the benefit.
“We were pretty surprised that as many people from the community showed up as
they did,” Hasser said, as he summed up the Emerald Coast’s unceasing willingness
to help. “It says a lot about the people around here … it was the right thing to do.”
This article originally appeared in the spring 2019 issue of the Food & Wine Guide for South Walton. Photos provided courtesy of South Walton area restaurants.