Little Rock chef Scott McGehee was in the Bahamas last month, helping feed victims of Hurricane Dorian, when he met a woman and her 2-year-old daughter.
"I gave her a hot meal and some oranges and cold water, and she hugged me for like three minutes," McGehee says. "Later, someone told me that she lost her 4-year-old and 6-year-old in the storm."
Dorian, the strongest storm on record to hit the Bahamas, struck in September and left behind more than 50 people dead, over 1,000 people missing and extensive damage to homes and infrastructure.
Hardest hit were the Abaco Islands in the northern Bahamas, and that's where McGehee was volunteering with World Central Kitchen, an aid group founded by Spanish-American chef Jose Andres that provides hot meals in areas affected by natural disasters.
McGehee, the executive chef and partner of Yellow Rocket Concepts restaurant group, which owns Zaza, Local Lime, Big Orange, Heights Taco and Tamale Co. and Lost Forty Brewing eateries, spent nine days with 15-20 other chefs preparing 6,000-7,000 hot meals daily. World Central Kitchen also hired locals to help in the kitchen and distribute the food.
"We were not only cooking hot, delicious meals, but safe meals, which is a big part of the equation," the 49-year-old says. "There were only a few hours a day that we had running water, and we didn't have electricity most of the time. It was a really eye-opening experience."
Still, he downplays his role, saying he was simply a "tiny piece of the puzzle."
Their kitchen was set up in shipping containers, and they cooked mostly in giant paella pans. Food was shipped from Nassau.
"We tried to mix it up and cater to the palate of the people on the islands," he says. "We made lots of curries, but we also did good ol' Italian Bolognese. A lot of starches, fresh vegetables, fresh fruit ... we relied heavily on canned goods. WCK has a nutritionist that makes sure we're cooking well-balanced meals."
McGehee was not the only Arkansan there. Kyle Pounders, owner of the Little Rock-based Excaliburger food truck, was the person who persuaded him to get involved and is still cooking in the Bahamas.
"He's been there for like seven weeks," McGehee says. "He is a real Arkansas hero that should be celebrated. He is sweating blood and tears helping people, hugging people, feeding people 14 hours a day, seven days a week."
McGehee says he is planning to return around Thanksgiving.
"I got really close to a lot of the Bahamians and native Abaco people. I missed my Little Rock family, but it was hard to leave my Abaco family. I want to get back down there while there is still significant need and put in a couple of more weeks."
SundayMonday on 11/03/2019