Like many towns in Texas, the community of Victoria was devastated by Hurricane Harvey. With houses demolished and no electricity or water, fortunately there was one shining beacon that offered solace, hope, and a warm gourmet meal. Chef James Canter, owner of Guerilla Gourmet restaurant (also a food truck and catering company) in Victoria, saw a need and filled it, or fed it, as the case may be, without concern for himself or the cost of such an endeavor.
“It’s funny because I’ve traveled all over the place cooking, from Alaska to Canada, and have met so many amazing people. I’ve always wondered what that was all for. Now, I feel like everything I did in my life led me to this; it gave my whole 20s and 30s a purpose. I was meant to be pushed into this place so I could do what I did. When everything hit the fan, I was able to tap into all of my resources through social media, and all of the people I met along the way started helping, encouraging, and bringing in crews,” said Chef Canter.
The day before the hurricane hit, everything shut down, and Victoria was like a ghost town. “The only thing left open that night was a Taco Bell. I waited in a line fifteen cars deep, and right when I pulled up, they told me they were closed,” Chef Canter remembered.
Guerilla Gourmet is located in a sturdy historic building built in the 1940s that is connected to the underground power grid, so Chef Canter and his family (wife, kids, two dogs, and two cats) decided to set up a temporary home in the restaurant. The building also houses the local newspaper, The Victoria Advocate.
With a Willie Nelson tune playing in the background, James cooked while the hurricane raged outside. “I got everyone settled and made my wife’s childhood comfort food – smoked kimchi and chicken stew. The reporters, who had been up there eating bologna sandwiches, smelled the food and started coming down, so I put more on. By this time the hurricane had hit category four, and was about to make landfall, so I made the reporters some burgers and named them Category 4 Burgers,” said Chef Canter, who’s known for his sense of humor, even in the midst of the worst kind of chaos.
Outside the restaurant, trees crashed down and blue lights flashed as transformers blew, yet the chef cooked throughout the night. “I just kept cooking through the whole thing because I was super nervous. It really helped me and my family get our minds off of everything,” Canter explained.
The following day, after the destruction, people started coming into the restaurant – first responders, police, EMT’s, Advocate staff, and the like. The night before, when some customers from a neighboring town came in to eat, Canter told them, “Just pay what you can.” He continued to offer this throughout the whole aftermath, and still has pay what you can items on the menu.
Again, as the only place open, Chef Canter was quickly overwhelmed by the number of people needing to eat. He knew it was time to call in the cavalry, San Antonio’s Chef Cooperatives, a nonprofit group of chefs that donate their time and cooking skills to raise money for local farmers, ranchers, and vintners. “I wasn’t able to take my hands off the reigns until they came in,” Chef Canter recalled with relief.
Several more chefs rushed in to help. Chef Tatu Herrera of Tatu’s Food Debauchery was one of the first to arrive. “When we went in to meet James inside, he was tired. He was [working] non-stop. That’s when you realize he doesn’t care about himself, he cares about others,” said Chef Herrera. “For me, it was a moving experience for sure. It felt like a brotherhood; we were stronger as a team when we left than when we had arrived.”
“The meals they were making were fantastic,” Juan Reyna commented. “I think the way they all came together was very inspirational . . . [and] in a time of need, all those chefs stepped up and came out to help. They helped everybody grow as people.” Reyna, a Victoria resident, is now an official employee of Guerilla Gourmet.
Before long, the line stretched out along the block. “We were serving about 3,000 people a day when the Cooperatives chefs came in. Those guys were amazing. They put out some of the best food I think Victoria has ever seen,” said Chef Canter proudly.
Chef Cooperatives President, Stephen Paprocki, had planned to head south to help for just one day, but ended up staying the week. “If you’d have seen it you’d understand. People were desperate. They needed us to be there. We didn’t even think about our jobs. We couldn’t leave,” he explained.
At one point, with the help of the food truck and mobile cooking stations, they essentially had five kitchens working simultaneously. “I was cooking eggs on the food truck in a paella pan and at the same time frying wings for lunch while it was raining outside. I was sweeping out water from the truck, but it was all sanitary. It the craziest experience,” Chef Paprocki said with his usual enthusiasm.
Even now, Paprocki is amazed at how they got through it. “We were cooking around the clock, and we’d get down to no food, and then all of a sudden, product that we needed would come in. If I ran out of propane, some guy showed up 20 minutes later asking, ‘Do you need propane?’ We were just the hands helping these people, but someone was definitely guiding us,” said Paprocki thoughtfully.
Indeed, an endless stream of donations in the form of food, usable goods, money, and helping hands came in from friends and businesses like Unifresh Produce, Mesquite Field Farm, Peeler Farms, The Chop Shop Produce, The Bread Box, Groomer’s Seafood, and too many more to list.
Additional Chef Cooperatives members Toby Soto, Chris Cook, Jeff White, Christina Everett Werley, and Iverson Brownell all cooked their hearts out in Victoria. Additional volunteer chefs included Tyler Horstmann, Victoria Benavides de Ulloa, Halston Connela, and renowned restauranteur Johnny Hernandez and his team.
The day Chef Hernandez and his crew showed up, the chefs had been cooking for 24 hours straight and had crashed for a few hours of sleep. Hernandez, showed up at the door at 6 a.m. in perfectly pressed whites and, evidently, impeccable hair. “There’s an angel outside with beautiful hair,” Chef Paprocki heard one of the chefs say. Granted, they were more than a little sleep deprived.
Chef Canter agreed. All the chefs had slept in the back room of the restaurant. “We were all jumping out of bed, trying to put our pants on, falling over, bumping into each other like a bunch of buffoons, and they’re as angelic as all get out. Our first instinct was, ‘we’re late and the chef’s here,” laughed Canter. “By that time we had been pummeled and we needed a break. They came in and kicked butt. I can’t say enough great things about him and the crew. He’s been a mentor of mine for years.”
Chef Hernandez, well known for his successful San Antonio restaurant, La Gloria, indeed showed up fresh and ready to help the team get everything organized. As a man who manages multiple restaurants, including ones out of state and country, it came as a pleasant surprise that he joined in the efforts. “There’s nothing more meaningful than when you’re able to share your craft and do what you love in a time when it’s critically important, when people can’t feed themselves. That’s what we were doing there. We were being true hospitality professionals,” said Chef Hernandez warmly.
“We heard stories – people who lost their houses, their jobs, or were waylaid on the way to the hospital with a broken arm or leg — and this was the only place they could go, and they were really happy just to get a meal. It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen, and all we could do is cook for them,” recalled Paprocki.
Across the board, the chefs expressed that they were working harder than they have ever worked in their entire lives, but they also experienced a level of comradery with each other and gratitude from the community that they will never forget. Hurricane Harvey left destruction and wounds in its wake, but it also brought many unexpected gifts.
This experience certainly changed Juan Reyna’s life. He posted on Facebook during his volunteer efforts, “After today, I think I found a new passion. I would like to become a chef.” Good thing, because the world will need more like these.