After cooking for a while at Gramercy Tavern, then managing their in-house charcuterie program, life-long Brooklynite Scott Bridi decided to strike out on his own. Two years ago he launched Brooklyn Cured, his own line of sausages, pâtés, and rillettes inspired by the old-school New York traditions of the Italian-American pork store, the Lower East Side deli, the German beer garden and French charcuterie.
In the aftermath of Sandy, Scott, like many, went to Red Hook to assist with the cleanup. He spent his first day helping to gut a resident’s flooded basement; by the end of the next he found himself in the kitchen at the Red Hook Initiative, putting his restaurant experience to good use conducting the endless flow of Brooklynites streaming in to donate trays of hot food, and the efforts of tireless volunteers to prep and serve that food as efficiently as possible to the many neighborhood residents still without power or heat. We met up with Scott for a look inside the kitchen at the Red Hook Initiative.
So Scott, tell us about your experience of the storm and how you ended up here.
As the storm was approaching, I was pretty cynical about it. I’m a born and bred Brooklynite. There’s been hype about big storms plenty of times in the past, especially with Irene last year, and nothing has ever really panned out, here in the city anyway. So I wasn’t too worried. I bought a little extra water and I had enough food for a couple of days.
So the storm hit on Monday night. I live in the South Slope, which is on one of the highest points in New York City. My neighborhood was basically unaffected. Tuesday morning was when I started to get a sense of the scope of what had happened.
When I woke up, I got on the computer and one of the first things I did was check Twitter. Right away I saw reports that Red Hook was in bad shape. There were tweets that the Red Hook Winery and Mile End’s kitchen, both of which are on the pier, were wiped out. I know those businesses. I know the people behind them. Red Hook is a neighborhood I know very well. It’s only a ten minute bus ride from my neighborhood. The fact that businesses that I know, that are a part of the same community of small food businesses that I’m a part of, were destroyed, made it all very suddenly and unexpectedly very personal and immediate to me.
And that was just the first news. Having grown up and lived almost my whole life in New York, I have friends and relatives in almost every neighborhood that was affected by the storm. I have friends in Breezy Point, in Marine Park, in Red Hook, I have relatives in Nassau County. So the next thing I did was go through that list, contacting everyone to check on them one after another, and there was no good news. I’m talking to all these people who are very close to me, and every one of them has been affected by flooding or power outages or both. It was just shocking. No one expected anything like this.
Going through that list of contacts and hearing what everyone was going through and just starting to grasp how widespread the devastation was made it all hit home even more powerfully. Over the course of one night, to go from normal life to waking up and going this the process of comprehending the scope of what had happened? Knowing so many people and businesses that were devastated just a few miles away from where I live? And all this happening while I’m at home in the South Slope almost completely unaffected, with power, food, water? I didn’t feel lucky – it just made me feel sick.
Then I got the news that our main production kitchen in Sunset Park was without power and was inaccessible. So within the context of this much greater disaster, I had to focus in on taking care of assessing the logistics of running my own business. Under normal circumstances, you’d call it a shitshow. We had no power and no way to access our production space, and we had no clue as to when the power would be coming back. We had a few thousand dollars worth of product in the walk-ins there and we couldn’t get to it.
In the larger context of the disaster, it was nothing, and I understood that. But having made my career in the food business, I’ve become kind of programmed to come through for customers at all costs. When you’re working in a good restaurant, there’s no option other than coming through on time with a perfectly executed dish. With something like Brooklyn Cured, you survive by always coming through, always delivering the highest quality product on time to your customers. You’re trained to never accept any option other than coming through, no matter what you have to do to make that happen. So I just found myself automatically in that mode, doing everything I could to figure out how we were going to be able to come through for our customers without knowing when we were going to be able to get back into our space.
I had my employees on call because I wanted to be ready to get back into the kitchen as soon as the power came on, but it never did. We were finally able to get into the space on Friday. There was still no power, but the walk-ins had held really nicely at twenty degrees. We were lucky that they held so well. We were able to take everything we had in there out, to fill orders as best we could, but we still came up short. The guys at Zito’s Sandwich Shop and Brooklyn Farmacy? I couldn’t get them as much pastrami as they normally get. We ran out of pastrami.
Even though I was very aware of the far greater problems going on all around us, it was hard for me to let go and accept that. You feel like these people who are still able to operate their businesses are counting on you to deliver the product that they feature on their menus, and that their customers are counting on it being there too. So that was the one thing I was a little upset about, and maybe in hindsight, too much so in the context of everything else going on. Of course those guys understood why we were short. There was nothing we could do. And in the grand scheme of things it just wasn’t a big deal. But it was hard for me not to think of it as a big deal.
But I got over it. After we made our deliveries on Friday and we knew we just weren’t going to be able to get back to work until the power came back on at the kitchen, I just thought, “Screw this. We need to find out what we can do to help some people.” We share our kitchen space with Allison and Matt Robicelli and with a bunch of other small food businesses. During the week Allison had mobilized this incredible effort to make thousands of sandwiches and to deliver them directly to people on Staten Island who needed them, who weren’t getting any kind of outside help and who were in really bad shape and just needed food. The Brooklyn Kitchen in Williamsburg was taking all kinds of donations and transporting them directly to the Rockaways to people who needed them. I just kind of suddenly realized that I needed to get actively involved in the relief effort. That I needed to, right away.
So on Saturday morning I came down to Red Hook. I had seen a lot of stuff on Twitter about the Red Hook Initiative, a group that I don’t think many people had heard of before the storm. It sounded like they were doing a pretty good job of organizing volunteers and donations, and doing a pretty efficient job of getting help to where it was needed most in the neighborhood. I decided to head to the office where they were coordinating volunteers.
Just walking through the neighborhood on my way over there, you could really see the devastation. People all over the neighborhood were dragging everything that had been flooded out to huge piles on the streets, from their homes, from their businesses…Demolition was going on everywhere – people were tearing out walls, floors, insulation, ceilings – anything that had been flooded, and hauling it out and throwing it all onto these enormous piles of debris on the sidewalks and in the streets.
When I got to the Red Hook Initiative’s volunteer office, there were a lot of people lined up to help out. I saw my friend Tamar Adler in line. We ended up being sent to someone’s house with about ten other people to help tear out the ceiling of a basement that had flooded. The drywall and the insulation were waterlogged and had to come out. In any flooded space you have to strip everything down to the foundations and frames so they can dry out, to prevent them from rotting and to try to keep the mold out. Once they’ve dried out, then you can start to rebuild.
When we finished that job I went over to Home/made, a really popular neighborhood restaurant on Van Brunt. When I first started Brooklyn Cured in 2010, we were at the New Amsterdam Market at the Seaport, and I met those guys there and we became friends. They had just recovered from a fire earlier this year, and now they’d been completely flooded. I spent a little time just helping them with things like spreading out their linens so they could dry out before being washed.
It’s very strange finding yourself in a situation where you’re surrounded by people for whom everything you need to live, and everything that has real meaning to you, has been severely damaged or destroyed. When it’s so close to your own home and it’s happened on such a huge scale to so many people and you haven’t been personally inconvenienced at all, it’s a very strange feeling. It’s disturbing. You just want to help.
How did you end up here in the kitchen?
The Red Hook Initiative had put out a call for hot food, and Tamar and I could see for ourselves there was a real need for it in the neighborhood. We both cook. Our careers have both been in food. We felt like it would be a good use of our skills to just make some hot food and serve it to people. Tamar made a lovely chickpea and kale soup with some of our Brooklyn Cured kielbasa and on Sunday we went back to Red Hook to serve it.
We saw RHI had tweeted that they needed hot food at Coffey Park, so that’s where we went. The National Guard was there, handing out supplies. Someone else had set up a table and was serving pasta. We set up next to them, got a butane burner going, and just started serving soup to people.
And that’s where the whole Twitter thing really started to hit home. I was posting on Twitter to let people in the neighborhood know we were there with some hot food, and to let people outside the neighborhood know that there was a need for more hot food, and all of these people started picking those tweets up and retweeting them like crazy. I had never seen anything remotely like it. Until a week ago, I had just used Twitter as a tool to let people know about things like which markets we’ll be at, or what new sausage we’re working on. It’s a valuable tool to a small business without a marketing budget. But I had never seen a response anything like what happened when I started tweeting about needs on the ground in Red Hook. It went crazy, and that has continued ever since.
After all the soup was gone, I decided to check out the Red Hook Initiative’s office where they were managing food donations and running what was basically a soup kitchen for the neighborhood, where pretty much no one had power yet. I never imagined that they still wouldn’t have power a week later. But I just wanted to check it out. I stopped by and as I walked in they were in the process of trying to find someone with experience in the restaurant business to help facilitate things in the kitchen. There was a guy there who had been doing that, and he needed to leave to be somewhere else. I was like, “Ok, this is probably something I can handle.”
He gave me a quick rundown of how things were working. A lot of people were coming in with hot food to donate. A lot of people. It seemed like a non-stop flow of people just showing up with trays of hot food. They needed someone to manage it all – to set up processes to make sure everything coming in was labeled right away and put in the right place, to make sure everything was being prepped and served efficiently and safely. Most people don’t have that kind of experience. I just happened to show up at the right moment to step in and help with the food part of it.
So I just kind of fell into it and I’ve been coming back ever since, helping in that role as much as I can.
How is it all working? It seems like Twitter has played an important role in the minute-to-minute logistics. Tell us how that’s all been happening.
With this kind of effort, when you’re trying to feed hundreds and hundreds of people two hot meals every day, your needs are constantly changing, minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day. One minute you might have way too much of something and the next day you won’t have enough. Things like Twitter have given us a really effective way to broadcast those needs out to a pretty large audience of people who are listening, and who want to help in whatever way they can to take care of these thousands of their neighbors who need help. It’s given people a way to help really effectively and directly in a way that has immediate results.
The Red Hook Initiative has been really on top of it. They’re updating their website and tweeting throughout the day about what specific things are needed and what’s not needed at any given time – and not just with food – with everything from clothing and blankets to cleaning supplies and medicine and volunteer needs. They’ve done a really good job at keeping the hot food flowing in, from people all over Brooklyn who just make it or buy it and drive it in and drop it off.
For me personally in my role of helping things function smoothly in the kitchen, Twitter been particularly useful because I know a lot of people in the food community. When you’re working at facilitating in a kitchen like this, you immediately see all kinds of needs that the average person who is looking to help wouldn’t think of. We need things like to-go containers so we can deliver food to elderly and disabled people who can’t get down five flights of stairs and back up. We need Sternos, paper towels, latex gloves, paper plates. And it’s all complicated by the fact that you have limited storage and can go from having a surplus of something one day to almost running out the next. I’m able to get the word out about those needs to people in the food business who actually have those things available to them, or who know how to get them and where to get them, and who are willing to actually go out and get them and bring them here.
It’s been a powerful thing to see the response. When I tweet that we need something, it shows up here within a matter of hours. When we need more hot food, we tweet it and it starts streaming in, sometimes from restaurants, and often from people who just go out and buy or make a tray of something and bring it here in their own cars. A few nights ago we had excess food at the end of the night. I tweeted Occupy Sandy, “We have excess food, where should we bring it?” They tweeted back. “Hot food needed at the Gowanus Houses.” So we brought it there and we were able to feed someone else with food that we would not have had room to store overnight.
So this network of communication is up and rolling. Most of it is happening on Twitter. And it’s all working kind of incredibly efficiently. The communication can be a little noisy. It’s not perfect. Everything is constantly changing, and that’s all been a challenge, but at the same time it’s been working far more efficiently that I ever would have thought. It’s been a revelation to see how many people are listening and responding, who are ready to act when the word goes out that something is needed.
There are thousands and thousands of people out there without power or heat, living in flooded houses. There are many hundreds of people volunteering in places like this, doing a surprisingly good job of coordinating donations and volunteers who want to go out in the field to these devastated neighborhoods to help. And there are tens of thousands of people in Brooklyn and all over, really, who have taken it upon themselves to make food or buy food and all kinds of other supplies and load them into their cars and drive them to places where they can have a direct, immediate impact to help people who need it.
There’s clearly a very powerful willingness and desire to help out there. Organizations like the Red Hook Initiative and Occupy Sandy and tools like Twitter have combined to allow the effort to feed people and take care of people to function really efficiently and effectively. I have definitely never seen anything like it. It’s pretty incredible.
Brooklyn Cured‘s products are available at A. L. Coluccio, Brooklyn Victory Garden, Choice Greene, Depanneur, Eastern District, The Greene Grape, Greene Hill Food Coop, Heritage Meat Shop, Sahadi’s and Stinky Bklyn. They’re on the menu at 61 Local, Berry Park, Brooklyn Farmacy, Cowboy Pizza, Der Kommissar, Extra Fancy, Morris Grilled Cheese, Pulino’s, Riverpark, Tandem, Terrace Cafe at Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Zito’s Sandwich Shoppe
For the latest on needs for the Hurricane Sandy relief efforts in Red Hook, see the Red Hook Initiative website.