Chefs with Issues is a platform for chefs and farmers we love, fired up for causes about which they're passionate. Allison Robicelli is the co-owner (with her husband Matt) of Robicelli's, an award-winning cupcake business in New York City, and author of the upcoming "Robicelli's: A Love Story, with Cupcakes." Follow her on Twitter @robicellis.
My husband and I lost our first business in the fall of 2009. There were a billion contributing factors: a collapsing economy, a rent hike, a horrific family tragedy and a crumbling marriage that needed to be saved. Talking about it four years later seems like a trivial footnote in our story - some sort of inciting plot device that occurred offstage, scarcely remembered by the time the curtains closed. They hustled, they persevered, they became Q-list food celebrities and they all lived happily ever after.
No matter how far into the story we get, like a broken bone that never quite heals, I can still feel those initial moments of fallout as if they were yesterday: the fear of truly having lost it all; the jarring realization that in an instant, everything we had built may be gone forever and we might not not be strong enough to rebuild. I recall looking at my children and wondering how we let this happen, if we could have prevented it and how we can protect them when we couldn’t even protect ourselves.
It was worse than terror; it was a life without hope. A life I thought of ending more than once.
While we survived, I have been unable to purge the memory of what I felt in those months. The feeling rose again and turned into empathy in the days after Superstorm Sandy, and again this week watching a tornado destroy Moore, Oklahoma.
As a chef, I’ve spent over ten years creating comfort from raw ingredients. All of us in the food business have different missions: to nourish the soul, to challenge the palate or just simply to feed. We are highbrow and lowbrow, the majority never getting to appear on television or grace the cover of a magazine.
But those superficial rewards were never the reason we’ve decided to devote our lives to an industry that requires long hours for often little pay. Regardless of our backgrounds or styles or philosophies, we have one single truth that unites all of us across the world: we are all in the business of making people happy.
We know how it feels not to make our bills. We know about idly sitting in a restaurant for hours on a Saturday night when the rain keeps everyone at home. We know the fear that comes as businesses close and jobs disappear and we know the hustle of picking up the next day and finding a new gig.
We know much of life is ephemeral, and do not understand stability. And most of all, we know how to keep moving forward, and how to keep giving of ourselves so that we can give to others.
For all the times I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to feed my family, I still feel incredibly blessed that in some way, I get to make people smile every single day. And beyond that, I am even luckier to have found a community of chefs and entrepreneurs who also have that empathy.
In the days after Superstorm Sandy, while the working class neighborhoods of New York City were being completely ignored by the Red Cross, FEMA and other disaster relief agencies, it was my friends in the food industry who stepped up and helped me create a relief dispatch center, Bay Ridge Cares, from my tiny basement apartment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. That project evolved into a fully volunteer-run kitchen that cooked and distributed over 35,000 in the weeks following the storm.
It was through this that I first became acquainted with Team Rubicon. Comprised of military veterans who use their skills and experiences overseas to navigate disasters, these are the people who you hope come for you in your hour of need. We sent them hot meals as they set up camps in our worst hit neighborhoods, living without basic luxuries like heat or electricity in the harsh New York winter, devoting every single resource they had to rebuilding our city.
In short, Team Rubicon is the embodiment of what makes America great. They are actual superheroes. I will never have enough words in my vocabulary to describe my admiration for them.
On Monday my company, Robicelli’s, and several others in the food community began an online fundraising team to finance Team Rubicon’s work down in Moore, where they will focus on debris clearing, damage assessments, expedient home repair, and volunteer management. Our collective customer bases have been making small donations – twenty dollars is average – and together we have raised over $6,000 in 24 hours. We are hoping that more food businesses will step join our fundraising team, rallying their customers to contribute, and helping us reach our goal of $15,000 to support Operation: Starting Gun.
We all may not be able to personally feed the people of Oklahoma, but that would never be something to prevent our industry from diving in headfirst looking for ways to help. Efforts of relief come naturally to us. We are people of action, of empathy, of sharing and giving of ourselves.
We don’t wait for memos or meetings. Tickets comes up, we fire. People need, we move. People hurt, we feed.
We don’t ask. We do. And what we do, we do for others.
Learn more about the New York Food Community’s fundraiser for Team Rubicon and visit CNN Impact Your World for more ways to help.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Allison Robicelli.
More on food, grieving and comfort: