1 Nov 2012

New York cleans up the storm damage – one chef at a time

New Yorkers are doing it for themselves. As the flood waters recede from the city’s streets, local communities are cleaning up the damage. One of Brooklyn’s best-known chefs is leading the way.

flood damage in Brooklyn (getty)

New York is a resilient place: but when the force of Superstorm Sandy plunged the city into darkness and sent torrents of flood water cascading through its streets, life suddenly ground to a halt.

In the grey light of dawn, the day after the deluge, communities woke up to the sheer scale of damage the storm had left in its wake. Some of New York’s most iconic restaurants were half-destroyed: their kitchens flooded, food going off in broken fridges, business ruined.

The Michelin-starred River Cafe, tucked under the Brooklyn Bridge, was inundated: with damage running into hundreds of thousands of dollars, it could take months to re-open.

Other restaurants are facing the real prospect of financial disaster as the real impact of their losses, and lost business, sinks in.

Further into Brooklyn, the vibrant Red Hook district was one of the more badly-hit areas: in one housing project, more than five thousand people were left without food and power, while scores of local businesses were put out of action.

Perhaps it’s a New York thing, but restaurateurs and cafe owners were straight on Twitter, offering help to each other and expressing support. In Red Hook, one of the city’s best-known chefs sprang into action, pitching in with local efforts to clear up the damage.

Brooklyn gets back to business

Matt Lewis, the co-founder of Baked, is best known for his iconic desserts: Oprah declared his brownies were her favourite thing. His own Red Hook cafe was badly damaged, after water completely flooded the basement, ruining everything. Power was cut for two days.

But undaunted, he managed to get together a 50 strong group of local small businesses to work with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) in co-ordinating the recovery. I managed to speak to him as he dashed around the area, appealing for volunteers.

“It’s been great”, he said. “There’s been an amazing turnout over the last few days, people have been asking how they can help with everything from removing debris to helping others get back on their feet.”

The damage, he said, had been “all over the map” in Redhook, but a local initiative run entirely by community volunteers has been doing an incredible job. They have organised hundreds of people across the area to donate food and other essential supplies, even cooking lunches and dinners for those still left without power.

With limited supplies now starting to be restored, local food businesses have been determined to reopen: not just to catch up on vital lost business, but to provide some welcome relief to local people whose lives have been thrown off course.

The Mile End Deli, which has won plaudits from customers and critics for its innovative comfort food, was also badly-hit by the storm, when their central bakery and smokehouse was completely destroyed. Getting back on their feet was exhausting, and emotional.

General manger Katherine Beto told me that although the commercial kitchen had been pretty devastated, they had managed to re-open with a limited menu. “We will definitely be able to recover, for sure: a lot of friends have been jumping in and helping as best they can”, she said.

“It has been pretty amazing, everyone has helped in some way. The community has been incredible, and the Redhook businesses all got together and discussed where to go next.”

Gallery – America on the edge: Hurricane Sandy in pictures

Over at Baked, Matt Lewis and his team managed to get the bakery open early on Thursday morning, with the offer of free coffee to anyone who volunteered to help other businesses and residents get going. They even pledged part of their sales to the Red Hook relief efforts.

“Some folk lost a lot more than we did”, he said. “They lost a million dollars worth of equipment, not just thousands: no-one could have imagined anything like this.”

Hurricane cocktails

With typical New York spirit, one restaurant launched a special menu of Hurricane cocktails. The famous Soho based Balthazar, where it takes months to get a reservation, took to the streets. “We’re about to buy a couple of grills and start cooking food and giving it away”, said chef Shane McBride.

But countless stocks of food simply went to waste, contaminated by flood water. Food magazines appealed to locals for support, not just with cleaning up the mess, but as customers: “It’s brutal out there, as many restaurants struggle to re-open”, wrote New York Magazine, urging people to get spending.

Matt Lewis, welcoming regulars back into his re-opened cafe, has already found cause for hope out of what happened: the way the community so quickly came together to help itself.

“One good side effect has been that we have reconnected, in a really positive way”.

It’s a long road to recovery: but in the wake of the superstorm, the lights of New York are well and truly back on.

Felicity Spector writes about US affairs for Channel 4 News

Storm notice in Brooklyn (getty)