Chef Jason Collis, owner of Plated Events by Chef Jason in Santa Paula, and Chef Tim Kilcoyne, partner with his wife Lisa McCune Kilcoyne of Scratch Sandwich Counter in The Annex at The Collection in Oxnard, have been playing pivotal roles recently in international relief efforts. After the two joined Chef José Andrés, who operates World Central Kitchen, to help after the Thomas Fire, they were both called upon to provide their expertise to survivors after the recent volcanic eruptions in Hawaii and Guatemala.

For the two culinary professionals, they are both walking a tight rope of keeping up with the demands of the work, the emotional toll of the disasters at hand and maintaining their family life back in Ventura County. This week, they share their journeys of being on hand during the worst of times for others.

Tell us about how and when you and José Andrés began working together.

JASON COLLIS: My relationship with Chef Jose Andres and World Central Kitchen (WCK) started in December when the Thomas Fire hit Ventura County. Longtime friend Susanne Lammot, a board member of the Boys and Girls Club and local physician, connected me with Nate Mook, the executive director of WCK, through her nephew, who is friends with Nate. Susanne’s nephew mentioned WCK wanted to help with the fire and needed to connect with a local chef to get the effort started. Susanne private messaged me on Facebook at 10 p.m. that night, and the next day we meet with Nate at the Crowne Plaza for a meeting and activated the Relief Kitchen at the San Buenaventura Mission that day. When I saw the magnitude of the project I called Chef Tim Kilcoyne to ask him to assist me with leading the effort. Father Tom [Elewaut] gracefully, without any hesitation, donated the O’Brien Hall to set up the relief kitchen. From there our relation began.

TIM KILCOYNE: World Central Kitchen reached out to Jason Collis (who had a mutual friend with the director of WCK) to ask about starting a kitchen to feed people in need. Jason reached out to me to see about the two of us working together to get it all going. Within just a couple of days we had a kitchen, purveyors, volunteers and got to cooking.

The World Central Kitchen is providing relief efforts in Guatemala and Hawaii. How did you become involved?  

COLLIS: I received a call from Nate Mook, the executive director, asking me if I would be interested in assisting with relief effort in Guatemala. I said yes and then he said, I can get you on a plane tomorrow morning. I was catering an event in Los Angeles and passed over the event to our head chef and sous chef and went home and packed up and was on a plane to Guatemala the next morning at 2:30 a.m.

KILCOYNE: WCK and I talked a few days after the volcanic eruption in Hawaii and felt there was a need to start a kitchen to provide relief for everyone that had lost their homes. I flew out the next day and worked to get a kitchen open and started cooking. Two days after the volcanic eruption in Guatemala, WCK said they needed me there to help with relief. Currently my involvement is one of their leads on the ground that helps get the operation up and running.

What was it like when you first arrived in Guatemala? Was the volcano still erupting?

COLLIS: The volcano’s original eruption was the week prior. When I arrived a smaller eruption occurred. The funny thing was, once I landed I received a call to rent a truck and drive to the central kitchen, which was located in Antigua. If you have ever been to Guatemala you’ll know, driving in Guatemala City and the rest of the country isn’t a cup of tea. Just imagine NASCAR with no lanes or rules! To top it off, the truck was stick and I haven’t driven stick shift for over 20 years. Let’s just say, the first couple hours were fun! Once I hit the kitchen I started to work to understand the ordering, process of the kitchen space we were renting, and get to know the volunteers. Menu development needed to be established and ordering procedures. That night I went out on deliveries to shelters and nearby villages to see the need directly. It was very disturbing to see how many were displaced and how many have lost family members.

KILCOYNE: It has been interesting seeing the two volcanos in different areas and how they act and effects on the communities. In both areas I didn’t have much time upon first arrival to get out and look around much. I just jumped right into things to get it going.

In Hawaii the big issues were the fissures that kept popping up causing destruction.  Every day more people were being evacuated or losing their homes.

What are your duties? What is an average day like?

COLLIS: Once I arrived, systems were being set up; but with the complications of logistics, access to products, a system was not accomplished. Antigua is an hour away from Guatemala City where all the vendors of produce, meat and goods are located. Only 40 miles away it can take up to four to five hours, depending on traffic, to drive to Antigua. I was first put in charge of setting up inventory system and ordering system and reworking the menu towards local flavors with the direction of Chef José Andrés. It took a week to set up a system that works in an environment where roads close due to protests, chicken buses flipping over and stalling while blocking the road. I learned quickly, “I’ll be there in an hour” means five hours later if you’re lucky, or most likely tomorrow. To top it off, all the vendors wanted to be paid in cash. This created a nightmare of cash flow with limits of exchanging currency. We set up relationships with local business people who helped us use their accounts so we can wire money directly to them and have credit terms.

With that said, it took about a week to get systems in place; and in the meantime we were opening additional kitchens. We currently have three emergency kitchens, with Antigua being the main hub for prep and orders, six food trucks, 30 shelters that we are supporting and have served over 130,000 to date and are averaging over 10,000 meals a day! My average day starts at 5:30 a.m. to open the kitchen and get the kitchen crew going. Then I meet with volunteers to get them going on their daily prep making 2,000 ham and cheese sandwiches, slicing fruit and organizing. I then check in with the delivery coordinator to go over delivery times, numbers and locations. I also meet with our warehouse volunteer to go over shipments, deliveries, inventory and what needs to be transported to other kitchens. I then check back into the kitchen to make sure we are ready for our first delivery, which is at 8 a.m. I oversee the packaging of the food and loading of the transportation vehicles. Once the first order is out I work on inventory to get our orders checked in and place new orders as needed. Our second delivery occurs at 10 a.m. and another at 12 p.m. [noon] During 12-3p.m. I am paying vendors, checking orders in and putting out fires as they arise (like gas running out on Sunday and no one delivers on Sundays). At 4 p.m. our dinner deliveries start. After dinner goes out I meet with kitchen to finish prep and plan out the next day’s duties. We then have a team meeting with all head volunteers to go over the next day’s deliveries and needs. We end our day at 7 p.m. now. First two weeks we were leaving at 10-12 a.m. [midnight] because systems were being put in place.

KILCOYNE: My job is to help facilitate the opening of the relief kitchens as well as helping to find locations in need.  Each day is spent figuring out menus, volunteers, helping to deliver food to shelters and always working to see if there is any other locations that we can help feed.

How are locals handling the aftermath of the volcano?

COLLIS: Total devastation. People who had nothing to start with, now really have nothing. Most farmers have no farms to tend, no home and no village to come back to, most likely never. Before, they had a roof and a place to sleep; now they are sleeping in schools and tents. One man had been working day and night for two weeks, digging, trying to find his family’s remains. We offered him a sandwich as his only source of energy; that sandwich was made by the hands of volunteers. The rescue workers are stopping and declaring the villages as the graves of the hundreds to thousands who have died and have not been recovered. No answers three weeks later have been made of how to relocate 4,000-5,000 who have nowhere to go and nowhere to work.

KILCOYNE: In both locations the locals have really reminded me of Ventura. Emotions are high, however everyone is smiling …. That might just be the effect of us bringing them a meal. But if it is, we are doing our job.

What are you experiencing emotionally in your work right now?

COLLIS: My personal emotions during this relief effort are a roller coaster. I have times of pure joy seeing the smiles on the faces of the children once we deliver hot food and fresh fruit to them. Gratitude when I see a family cut their vacation short to help volunteer with us. Sadness when I see a family grieving from the loss of a family member. Despair when I see the look on the faces of the elders pains me as they are wondering what the next steps will be with no answers. Then I have times of anger when I see insufficiency of government and some nonprofits who use the tragedy as propaganda and a way to raise funds that aren’t being used for those affected by the tragedy. Then worry about what the future will be for the displaced. From what I have seen, some villages will never be available to be inhabited again; where do these people go in a country with lack of work and social services? How will these families have the ability to afford housing? And if they can afford housing, where do they call home, because home isn’t there and can’t be rebuilt.

KILCOYNE: Things have been really difficult. I have been away from my family for practically 50 days. I have been away from my restaurant and team. Some of the things I have seen over the last few months have been really hard to see. Part of the emotions is obviously from talking to people and hearing their stories of what they have lost and taking me back to the stories I heard during the fires. It really does weigh you down thinking about it all but then you see the community coming together to volunteer and it turns everything around.

Any idea when the work will be completed?

COLLIS: The work here will be a long-term plan to feed all of those displaced. As of right now we do not have a set end date as the shelters are still open and people are still in need of food. Our long-term plan will be to provide kitchen equipment and resources to those families displaced so they have a long-term solution for fresh hot food. I will be here till July 1st and returning on July 5th. I don’t know how long I’ll be here but I will stay until we enter the long-term phase and all shelters are closed.

KILCOYNE: Currently we don’t have an end date in mind. As long as there is a need WCK will have a presence and provide. When I first went out the only thing I had as a return-to-California date was June 24th for my son’s first birthday.

What are you learning about the different cultures?

COLLIS: Guatemalan culture is one of specific tastes and traditional dishes. I learned they are very picky on their flavors and how the food is served. I was able to brush up on regional cultural dishes as I was well-versed with Alte Verde regional cuisine but not the national dishes of the Fuego region. The culture as well does not have a fear of time as we do as Americans. They call it Guatemalan time, which can be an hour later or a day later. Sense of urgency doesn’t exist. It’s a life of less stress and non-worry of time. But when you are organizing a disaster relief those traits become an obstacle you need to overcome with respect and dignity. Pride and culture are strong, and respecting the cultural is very important. Rumors run wild, and because of a lack of leadership these rumors become reality to some.

KILCOYNE: Again, it has actually been pretty amazing to see California, Hawaii and then Guatemala; all the communities really came together and supported each other. Each location, we are receiving tons of food donations as well as volunteers showing up to cook.

How can someone from Ventura County help?

COLLIS: Right now there is a high need for cash donation. Because of all that is going on in the world and with immigration in the U.S. this disaster hasn’t had global media traction and the amount of donations given are the lowest of any relief effort, including the Thomas Fire. But the expenses for a relief effort on non-American soil are actually more expensive so the need for cash donations are very important to create a sustainable long-term feeding solution for thousands displaced. Go to World Central Kitchen.

KILCOYNE: The best way to help out with the organization is to visit and donate. Or just help spread the word about the organization if you are not able to donate.