For 14 years, Mercy Chefs has served food after disasters around the world. Now they’re doing it at home.
by Matthew Korfhage
Wherever disaster strikes, you’ll find Gary LeBlanc. And usually, he brings a ladle.
In 2018, as Floridians fled from the Category 5 winds of Hurricane Michael, LeBlanc and his team headed toward trouble, aiming to help the only way they can. His Portsmouth-based charitable group, Mercy Chefs, was on the ground in Panama City immediately after the hurricane hit, serving as many as 18,000 scratch-made meals a day to people whose entire lives had been carried away by wind and rain.
“I had a full team: two kitchens, groceries, refrigerated trucks, the whole bit already,” LeBlanc says. “We were able to come right in from Pensacola in the wake of the storm. Literally, we’re driving through the edges of the storm to get in.”
The soft-spoken New Orleans native – with a longtime chef’s generous figure and a gently puckish smile — was inspired to create Mercy Chefs in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina. He was running a Hilton in Chesapeake when he saw images of the Ninth Ward underwater and decided to head home to help. There he witnessed firsthand the wretched meals often served to victims of natural disasters. “For 14 nights, I watched them open cans of green beans on the table,” he remembers.
He couldn’t solve every problem, but LeBlanc knew how to cook. And he wondered if it would be possible to train a team of volunteers to better prepare meals for trauma victims. LeBlanc took that simple concept and over the course of 15 years grew it into an international organization – one that partners with local charities to offer food from an ever-expanding cadre of mobile kitchens. It has served more than two million meals, including in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2018.
And last year, LeBlanc and the team turned its attention to another needy area – home. In 2019, Mercy Chefs opened a community kitchen at its headquarters in Portsmouth. The idea came about six years ago, while LeBlanc was spending a rare stolen moment watching baseball with his son in Washington. At home, his wife, Ann, stopped off for dinner at Moseberth’s Fried Chicken.
“She parked in a church parking lot right across the street from Moseberth’s and there’s a big sign that said, ‘Vacation Bible School: Dinner Nightly.’ And then it hit her: ‘What do these kids do who rely on free and reduced meals during the school year? Sometimes that’s the only hot food they get. So, what did they do during the summer?’”
By the time LaBlanc returned to Portsmouth, his wife had it all lined up. She told him, “It’s good that you go all over the world, but you have kitchens, you have talented volunteers. You have skills, talents and abilities that every day could be used here in our backyard.’”
It took years and a pilot program before Mercy Chefs could get its Portsmouth kitchen up and running, but in August, the four-person commissary started kicking out 1,200 meals a week from a shack behind the old house that now serves as the charity’s base of operations. “They’ve kind of thrown me out of the kitchen,” LeBlanc laughs. “I’m a little messy. They’re tired of cleaning up after me!”
Chef Kristin Macan, the community kitchen’s director, doesn’t disagree, but gently demurs: “There are other things that only Gary can do.”
The Mercy Chefs kitchen pairs with a small group of charities all over Hampton Roads. They send school lunches to Park Place School— a private school for at-risk kids, which has no cafeteria — as well as after-school programs and women’s shelters.
The organizations cover the cost of the meal; Mercy Chefs makes the food — mac and cheese, fried chicken, lentils, flatbread pizzas — taking care to adhere to school guidelines for nutrition.
A particular source of pride, says Macan, is the For Kids Only after-school tutoring program, where Mercy Chefs runs demonstrations and serves nutritious food to students who might never have had access to something as simple as corn on the cob. “The kids are homeless. And their parents are trying to get work and get out of homelessness — and so those kids aren’t going home to a meal,” she says.
Meanwhile, Mercy Chefs is partnering with the local food bank to run a pilot program offering classes to help families in need make healthy, scratch-made food. Their “Dinner in a SNAP” program helps families of four learn to prepare dinners for $1.40 a serving, which is the average amount given to Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program participants.
Mostly, says LeBlanc, it’s about finding the places where they can do the most good.
“We don’t do the sport camp. We don’t do the battered women’s shelter,” says LeBlanc. “We don’t do any of those wonderful things offered by the programs we work with. But none of those groups have the ability or acumen or knowledge to do food. And, so, we step in.”