Chefs stay busy by helping others during pandemic

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

With around half of all Michigan restaurants closed temporary because of the virus pandemic — and most that are open seeing a huge dip in sales — those in the food business are some of the hardest hit by the shelter-in-place order. 

It's chefs, restaurant owners, kitchen workers, bakers and others in the food industry, however, who are using their down time, culinary skills and other resources to help whose who can't stay home during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Chef Omar Anani, (l), owner of Saffron De Twah restaurant delivers meals to Josh Normandin, (r), supervisor business operations in the emergency room, for doctors, nurses and support staff.

This includes not only essential employees, first responders and hospital workers, but the area's homeless population. 

Earlier this month Alfoccino Restaurant chef and owner Sunny Palaj and his staff delivered 1,000 meals to employees at the Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield. 

"They’re out there, first hand risking their life trying to save lives every single day with stressful hours, what better thing than to give them a hot meal, a nourishing meal for them as they’re going through this stressful times and as a thanks to them," he said. 

Owner Sunny Palaj of Alfoccino Restaurant puts the finishing touches on meals for workers at Henry Ford  Hospital in West Bloomfield.

The chef of the 25-year-old Auburn Hills restaurant served hospital workers hundreds of pounds of house-made penne pasta and grilled chicken with his "famous palomino sauce."

Palaj is funding the meals through his personal resources and those of the restaurant. He's hoping the government will step in soon with monetary assistance for businesses like Alfoccino.

"Just so we can to keep people employed, keep the cycle going and keep the community fed with hot and good gourmet meals as they are used to," he said. "Hopefully we get some government assistance and we hope that this will be over sooner than later."

Several area chefs has taken to the phrase "feed the front lines." Chef Omar Anani closed his Moroccan restaurant Saffron De Twah weeks ago when precautions for preventing spread of COVID-19 were just starting. 

"We are doing as many drops as we can afford to do," said the chef, whose Gratiot avenue restaurant was listed as a semifinalist for this year's James Beard Foundation Awards for "Best New Restaurant." He's been changing the menu each day, but has made mujadara, lentils and rice, chicken, smoked  and more. 

He said they're paying for packing and labor out of their pocket, which is extremely tough for a restaurant that's not making revenue. The food is supplied through donations. "I've made six drops this week."

He's working with volunteers to coordinate drops with other restaurants to get meals to workers at hospitals in the area. 

"We are looking at adding a nursing home with funding problems as well as more city hospitals in the next week."

Another collection of chefs are gathering food and making meals for the city's homeless population and others who have food insecurities.

Chef Genevieve Vang Bangkok 96 cooks for Too Many Chefs in the Kitchen for Good at the Horatio Williams Foundation kitchen.

Chef Genevieve Vang of Bangkok 96 and chef Maxcel Hardy of Coop Caribbean Fusion – both located inside the temporary closed Detroit Shipping Company – plus Ron Bartell of Kuzzo’s Chicken and Waffles, Stephanie Byrd of the Block and Flood’s Bar and Grille, chef Phil Jones of Ma Haru and others are using their talents to feed those in need at a variety of nonprofits in Detroit. 

Calling their work “Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen for Good,” the group, along with David E. Rudolph of D. Ericson & Associates PR, is feeding folks at the Neighborhood Service Organization Tumaini Center in Midtown Detroit, the Coalition for Temporary Shelters, Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries and Alternatives for Girls. 

In the first three weeks of this effort, the team prepared more than 5,700 meals, says Rudolph. 

Other area restaurants and chefs who have publicized their food donations to those in need include Andiamo, which teamed up with Blake's Orchard and Cider Mill and Nino Salvaggio International Marketplace to deliver 1,000 meals during the past few weeks.

Stephanie Byrd, owner of The Block, Flood's Bar & Grille, with chef Maxcel Hardy at the Horatio Williams Foundation kitchen.

Wahlburgers, Republica in Berkley, Astoria Pastry Shop in Greektown, Yum Village in New Center, Le Culture Cafe in Detroit, Detroit BBQ Company in Ferndale, White Wolf Patissierie and Noble Fish in Clawson and Bar Verona in Commerce Township are among the many other business that have brought restaurant-quality food to those working the front lines. 

There's also an official "Feed the Front Lines" website where donations are taken to fund restaurant meals for Detroit police, fire, EMS and heath care workers. Restaurants in the city of Detroit can sign up to be part of the meal distribution system at 

Pizza powers help during pandemic 

Michigan-based pizza company Little Caesars made headlines earlier this month when its announcement that it would donate 1 million pizzas to health care workers and first responders nationwide. 

Domino's Pizza made a similar pledge, promising 10 million slices to not only front line workers, but school children and their families, grocery store workers and others, nationwide. 

On a more indie level, PizzaPapalis founder Joe Sheena was inspired by his son, an anesthesiologist in New Orleans, to do something for the exhausted health care workers. 

NeoPapalis and PizzaPapalis locations around Metro Detroit have been coordinating with area hospitals to feed front line workers.

He's calling on his fellow pizza makers across the country to make a pledge to give one free pizza to an essential worker for every four pizza orders placed at their business. Interested pizzerias can sign up at

Sheena, who also owns NeoPapalis in Ann Arbor, said he knows the "pizza community" in Detroit is really tight and thought something like this "could really be a movement." He's paying to promote this from his own pocket now, and has gotten donations from customers and a few anonymous benefactors, including some Detroit-based athletes. 

As of this week PizzaPapalis served more than 1,100 workers in April. Sheena and his team are making an effort to reach more out-of-the-way hospitals and coordinating delivery times and locations with the hospitals so the service is most effective.

Twitter: @melodybaetens