How a Fundraiser for Puerto Rico’s Food Service Workers Came Together in One Week

Puerto Rico has never felt far away to me. Before I could walk, there were empanadillas in my hands, plantains frying on the stove and pasteles at Christmas. My grandmother from the west coast of the island taught me to play dominoes in her backyard during the summer. But it wasn’t until 2015, when I first went down on to write about a chef (and now my friend), Paxx, that I fell in love with it on my own terms—and I fell in love with it through chefs, cooks, baristas and bartenders.

When Hurricane Irma skirted the island, I breathed sighs of relief, but then came Maria and a major, ongoing humanitarian crisis. My friend Maria Grubb, executive chef of Santurce’s Gallo Negro, added me to a Facebook group of hospitality workers and others to try to come up with ways to raise money to support and rebuild this industry specifically. Imagine a Puerto Rico where the chefs and bartenders have left? We don’t want to.

I tweeted about my inclusion in the group, in case anyone had ideas, and woke up the Friday following the storm to a retweet from Lin-Manuel Miranda—creator of Hamilton and In the Heights. Before I had to mute the endless stream of likes and retweets, one came in from Taylor Erkkinen, a name I recognized because I’d interviewed her before. She was offering The Brooklyn Kitchen for a fundraiser. Before I knew what I could do in the space, I agreed to take it over for Saturday, September 30. I had a week to assemble something.

And so Eat It, Maria was born. We’d bring Maria Grubb up from Florida to do the cooking with help from her friends Sung Kim and the team at Put a Egg On It; bartenders Rafa García Febles and Roberto Rosa would donate their time and tips; and my own boyfriend, Sareen, would DJ (though I didn’t actually ask). Illustrator Kevin Alvir drew portraits.

The food, though? The drinks? I emailed in favors from anyone I could think of, and Union Market came through with a cash donation that allowed us to get all the cups and napkins and cooking essentials. Don Q gave us rum; Maestro Dobel donated tequila. Q Drinks provided their brilliant club soda and ginger beer. Ethan Frisch of Burlap & Barrel handed a very-frazzled me a box of spices in a Jackson Heights bakery. I drove up to Tarrytown to meet Mini Dhingra of Samosa Shack, who donated cherry peppers and cherry tomatoes grown by farmer Mobius Fields, who also gave us callaloo. This very magazine made a donation and gave much-needed social media support.

Without the help of the Union Square Greenmarket, though, there wouldn’t have been an event. Grow NYC‘s Gabriella Stern and Pao Lebron sent out a call to farmers for donations, and they came through with pounds of heirloom tomatoes, peppers, gorgeous ginger and even micro cilantro. Sycamore Farms cited their own Puerto Rican staff as inspiration. Our little event became a farm-to-tray function, built upon an immediate community effort to make sure food service workers on the island could survive long enough for some normalcy to return.

The event, which sold out of its 150 tickets in under 72 hours, wasn’t without its snafus: We ran out of ice, necessitating a couple of trips around the corner to the bodega, and when the lime juice was gone, I went back to the bodega to buy every single one they had to be juiced by hand. But the food (including bacalao deviled eggs, callaloo empanadas and gazpacho) and cocktails (rum old-fashioneds, daiquiris, El Diablos and punch) were perfect. An amazing array of raffles raised us almost as much money as the tickets, and thanks to additional donations, Serve PR raised over $10,000.

More important, though, was the proof that the food world takes care of its people—and that New Yorkers recognize Puerto Rico as essential to our own city. As conditions on most of the island remain horrific, let’s keep proving it.