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Updated: Apr 24

By JD Fratzke, Corporate Chef

It’s been four years since Governor Walz held a press conference to announce that the State of Minnesota would be shutting down all bar and restaurant hospitality operations due to the raging Covid-19 pandemic. That afternoon in March of 2020 was the one year anniversary of my hiring date as culinary director at a multi-unit operation in a rural community south of the Twin Cities.

A week later, I was taken off payroll ‘indefinitely’. My employers, like everyone else in Minnesota’s hospitality community, had no idea what was really coming or how long it would last.

My phone got a serious workout over the following weeks. I spoke to more of my friends directly and more often than I had in the previous five years. As desolate as our present situation and foreseeable future seemed to appear, our conversations consistently revealed a resolve we built in the knowledge that we were there for one another. We were going to help one another and support one another in whatever ways we were able. Even though we were being told that not doing what we did best - providing our communities with nourishment and comfort - was the best way for us to help, we saw too many Minnesotans uncertain of how their next meal was going to be provided, a lot of whom we’d been working next to for most of our careers.

Hospitality people aren’t prone to abiding inaction. We don’t walk away – we FIND a way.

Friends, Chefs and Restaurateurs with their own operations, had cooler shelves and dry storage still stocked with food. We quickly agreed that since we were forbidden to involve commerce in our operations, we would just give the food away – no cash, just kindness. We masked up, gloved up, did our best to social distance, fired up our stoves, and got to work.

Justin Sutherland, Brandon Randolph and Leo Judeh led the way in the first few weeks, parking their food trucks in Mears Park in Saint Paul to hand out, free of charge, whatever one pot meal or protein on a bun we had managed to cobble together in the Public Kitchen that morning.

Jametta Raspberry then set up shop in the same kitchen, managing a volunteer crew assembling hundreds of meals a day for front line workers.

Brian and Sarah Ingram – who do nothing on a modest scale – scraped, cajoled, finagled and requisitioned every scrap of surplus stock they could gather from broadliners like Performance Foodservice, Sysco and US Foods. They then constructed a tent in the parking lot of their operation on Selby Avenue and created a free grocery market. Initially meant for out-of-work hospitality workers, we let anyone in. By the third week the lines were stretching around the block.

Being out of work, I participated wherever I was asked and able.

Craftmade Aprons built partnerships with local distilleries who had been making hand sanitizer by the gallons. The two of them began initiatives that assembled restaurant aid packages with masks and laser thermometers that I was asked to distribute to operations all over the state as restrictions were lifted and our hospitality family members began to tentatively return to work.

It was a long, hot, uncertain summer – rife with trauma and resentment – but we kept communicating and we stayed together. It began to collectively dawn on us that we were returning to the roots of why we all chose our places in the hospitality vocation in the first place:

  • We rediscovered the value of nourishment and fellowship.

One afternoon, Brian Ingram called to let me know he’d been contacted by Saint Paul Public Schools. Despite the activation of distance learning, their Middle School Home Economics Program wanted to find a way to continue their curriculum. The Program Director wanted to know if it was feasible to come up with prep kits and a recipe for one meal a week that the students could prepare in their home kitchens with online instructions from their teacher. I told Brian I thought that was a great idea and I asked how I could help.

“Could you come up with a twelve recipe curriculum for the winter quarter, get each one in writing and submit it to the Public School’s Foodservice Director by the end of the week?”

I said, “Of course,” and got to work. I channeled my inner fourteen-year-old, consulted with my daughter – a high school sophomore – to fill in the gaps and came up with a menu of hearty breakfasts and scratch lunches to teach a few basic, lifelong cooking skills. Reaching out to Chef friends for recipe contributions, I also asked them to record a short video explaining the recipe and why they chose to share it with the students as a supplement to the teacher’s weekly lesson.

Using Brian’s Selby Avenue kitchen as our commissary, I would arrive every Tuesday morning at 7 a.m. to pick up the individual ingredient kits (one for each student), load them in my Rav4, and drive over to the school – just off Payne Avenue in Saint Paul’s East Side – to unload them in the cafeteria where they would be picked up by the students and their families later in the day.

Unlike restaurant work, where I could roam the dining room after the rush and check in on the guests at their tables, I never really found out how the kits were being received. A couple of emails from the Foodservice Director offered some positive feedback, letting us know that the students were responding really well to the experience, but overall it was an act of faith.

During the first weeks of the pandemic, when schools had been shut down, my friend Brandon Randolph and I had driven the Fare Well Food Truck he owned in partnership with a Middle Eastern bistro on Grand Avenue to the parking lot of a High School in Saint Paul. The plan was to fill bag lunches with chips, a sausage roll and a pint of spicy chicken stew over rice and load them up on tables for students to take home in lieu of the free lunch they were missing. It didn’t take long for the line of cars loaded with families to clean us out. During the process of replenishing the tables as fast as we were able, I noticed distinct looks of resignation in the eyes of the students above the masks they wore. It occurred to me that as much as the meals we were getting to them would fill the void of nourishment and nutrition they were missing, we could never replace the presence of their friends in the lunchroom – the same kinds of conversations and togetherness I recalled looking forward to during meal periods in my time as a public school student in Winona, MN.

Being a kid – a teenager – is difficult enough. Half of life’s frustrations in those years are born from feelings of powerlessness. To have the physical presence and support of one’s friends torn away because of a pandemic can only have sent them further adrift in a sea of isolation.

It broke my heart.

It also offered me an insight I hadn’t entertained before – the reason why meal and nutrition programs in public schools are far more important than just the calories and food groups they offer.   

A delicious and familiar meal shared with good company in a safe environment is one of the best ways to allow someone to truly be themselves. The conversations kids have in lunchrooms allow them the ability to air out their thoughts and wonders, to flesh out their feelings, so to speak. No one deserves that more than a child – of any age.

In the few short months that I have been with Daly and DeRoma, I have met dozens of folks charged with providing those experiences several times a day, five days a week, in school districts all over the upper Midwest. Every one of them that I’ve had occasion to speak with have mentioned the health and happiness of their students as the main motivation for keeping the equipment in their operations up to date. The K-12 directors and kitchen managers with whom we work also go to great lengths to partner with Daly and DeRoma in offering access to information and training for all of their team members.

A new generation can’t rise to achieve, to desire a better world for all of us, if they don’t feel nourished, respected and cared for. K-12 food programs are one of the most fundamental ways to do that.

As we all consider the meals we’ve shared with our families over the Spring Break Season, it’s nice to know that as our children return to school, that hard work, dedication and care is going into the meals that will take them into the future.

Thank you, K-12 culinary teams and educators. You’re building a better world for all of us.

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