The widest tornado on record and subsequent $2 billion in destruction was the catalyst for a series of pop-up restaurants in Oklahoma City, masterminded by OK Chefs Relief. The group, formed to help neighbors displaced by the May 20th tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, was the collaboration of community-minded chefs headed by Jonathon Stranger, co-owner of the city’s popular Ludivine restaurant.
“We met the day of the tornado and decided right then and there to start raising money,” says Stranger, a native Oklahoman. “We wanted our food to be a distraction from all the heartache, and we wanted to do some good.”
Mobilizing quickly, OK Chefs Relief was able to get food, wine, and beer donated from local farmers, ranchers and brewers, as well as a place to do all the prep work: the Francis Tuttle Culinary Institute. “One woman donated a whole cow,” says Stranger.
More than 100 volunteers helped at the series of events, the first taking place on two days over Memorial Day weekend at the Myriad Botanical Gardens.
By early July, the group had raised more than $112,000 with all the funds going to the Oklahoma Chapter of the American Red Cross and the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.
The first pop-up restaurants, which served lunch and dinner, suggested patrons donate $35 with 100 percent of proceeds going directly to tornado victims. Reservations were not taken so often people faced long wait times.
The dishes—described as spontaneous cuisine—changed throughout the day as items were served and substituted with new product.
In addition to local culinary experts, which included Stranger, Kurt Fleischfresser, Chris Becker, Russ Johnson, Josh Valentine, and Marc Dunham, celebrity chefs Rick Bayless and Danny Bowien, both former Oklahomans, also volunteered their time and talents.
For the Bayless events, which took place in late June, the menus from three of his Chicago restaurants were duplicated during different dayparts. From his newest concept, fast-casual Xoco, signature street food was offered during lunch for a minimum donation of $10.
Later in the day, Bayless hosted The Tasting Room where 40 guests—at a per person price of $500—were treated to Topolobampo-style service that included a five-course dinner and a signed copy of Bayless’ Frontera: Margaritas, Guacamoles, and Snacks. The Bayless’ Frontera Grill concept was also part of the festivities and replicated at the Will Rogers Theatre for some 245 people at a suggested donation of $60 apiece.
“All three events went better than any of us could have expected,” says Stranger. “Literally thousands of people came together for a great cause to enjoy the cuisine of Chef Rick Bayless. It has been a great experience, and humbling on so many levels. It is something none of us will ever forget.”
The restaurant industry, which donates about $3 billion annually, also boasts that nine out of 10 restaurateurs make charitable contributions annually.
“A hallmark of the restaurant industry and its operators has been its extreme engagement in philanthropy and charitable donations,” says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the research and knowledge group for the National Restaurant Association. “The industry is more engaged than other businesses in supporting local communities.”
Clearly that engagement is front and center in Oklahoma City. “Attendees told us how wonderful it has been for OK Chefs Relief to provide an opportunity for people to donate to such a great cause and [at the same time] sample cuisine from some of the best chefs in the country,” says Stranger.
Along with tantalizing menu items, events included live music, art demonstrations, and a silent auction.