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One Chef’s Pandemic Pivot: Feeding Those in Need

In early 2020, Phillip Esteban was on the verge of living every chef's dream: opening a restaurant in his hometown. Then COVID-19 hit, and he was forced to enact a new business plan—one that revolved around giving back.

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In National City, a community south of San Diego whose wide roads are dotted with car dealerships, industrial warehouses, and Victorian-era homes, a new food hall was taking shape on the city’s main street. Phillip Esteban was set to debut a restaurant devoted to Filipino cuisine where he would showcase his spin on the classic dishes he grew up eating, such as kinilaw (raw fish marinated in vinegar and coconut milk), and pancit (noodles). He’d spent the past 16 years working in kitchens, including Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York City, and later for Consortium Holdings, a company that owns a dozen restaurants and bars in San Diego. He was beyond ready.

“I thought everything was perfect,” Esteban says. Local media outlets were profiling him to great acclaim, and he was projecting a May grand opening. But in March, everything came to a grinding halt. In California, restaurants were ordered to close their dining rooms and serve only takeout meals.

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Esteban had already hired his kitchen staff, but now he could afford to keep only five of them on board, while furloughing several others. How was he going to keep the remaining staff employed and generate enough money to hire everyone back? He met with his team. “We asked ourselves, if we’re going to come out of this, how do we do this long-term and sustainably, and help other people while we do?” he says. The answer came by leaning in to what he was ultimately trained to do as a chef: feed people.

That meeting sparked the enactment of a different business plan, one revolved around giving back—providing tens of thousands of meals to frontline workers and people in need.

Different silog bowls on a table
Filipino silog bowls often contain fried egg, rice, and vegetables. Photo: Courtesy of Nathan Concepcion

One meal at a time

With access to a commercial kitchen, Esteban and his team rolled up their sleeves and got cooking. They ran with a concept the chef had been thinking about launching commercially for a while—Filipino silog bowls: a traditional breakfast of fried rice, often with grilled vegetables, topped with an egg. Silog is comforting any time of day and easy to transport, Esteban says, so they made the bowls in bulk, adding gourmet twists such as sous-vide eggs.

The new catering company, Craft Meals, began advertising on Instagram that for every bowl purchased, one would be donated to a frontline worker. When faced with the logistics of delivery, Esteban and business partner chef Marcus Twilegar enlisted themselves as drivers. “The first month, Marcus and I were cooking the meals, packaging them up, and then delivering them to hospitals until 11 at night,” Esteban says. In April, he connected with Tim Kilcoyne, the director of chef operations at World Central Kitchen, a global nonprofit started by chef and Nobel Peace Prize nominee José Andrés. This led to funding from World Central Kitchen, allowing Craft Meals to expand its reach to the local food bank and to homeless shelters, and donate an additional 250 meals a day on top of the 700 weekly meals it was already delivering. By summer 2020, Esteban and the Craft Meals team had donated 40,000 meals, and by January 2021, that number had soared to more than 100,000.

Esteban didn’t stop there. Because restaurant closures had also hurt the ecosystems that farmers and food purveyors relied upon, he started a pilot program to help San Diego’s fishing industry. In July, he and San Diego Fishermen’s Working Group received grants for Fish to Families, which sources fresh, sustainably caught fish for healthy meals for those in need. Through the collective, in the first six months Fish to Families prepared 15,000 meals and utilized 10,000 pounds of fish to feed local families and laid-off industry workers, and they have garnered enough funding from the San Diego Foundation to operate through the end of 2021.

Food for the soul

Reflecting on the past year, Esteban says giving back comes naturally: His nonprofit work evolved organically through connecting with his community—the Filipino value of bayanihan. “It’s the concept of helping one another to get to the top of the mountain. You have to build terraces together. That’s been my MO forever,” he says. “It’s always about nurturing the next generation.”

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