Supporting our culinary community and beyond in every way they can
By Elizabeth Scinta
Photos provided by The LEE Initiative
With help from Maker’s Mark, the LEE Initiative created the Restaurant Workers Relief Program to help restaurant workers who need assistance during this time. The LEE Initiative was co-founded by Lindsey Ofcacek and Edward Lee in 2017 to help female chefs elevate their career and receive the support they needed, according to Ofcacek. The Women Chefs Program has a mentee class of five chefs that participate in an eight-month developmental program led by mentors. “We started this program a few years ago and it’s a program for diversity and equality. It’s to create paths to leadership for women in the industry,” Lee said.
Every new mentee class goes to Maker’s Mark to make a bourbon barrel together, which happened on March 15 this year. On March 16, Ofcacek and Lee were informed that all of the restaurants in Kentucky would be closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and on March 17, the Women’s Chef Program was put on hold while The LEE Initiative decided to pivot its mission to help those currently in need with its Restaurant Workers Relief Program. “We had all this food that we could continue to use, and we didn’t want to lay off our staff. We started a relief kitchen and made 300 meals. We had no idea how needed that would be. We were out of food within the first hour,” said Ofcacek.
What originally started as one relief kitchen in Louisville out of 610 Magnolia, has now spread to 19 other cities thanks to the funding the LEE Initiative received from Maker’s Mark. “Our partners with Maker’s Mark said that this was going to be needed all over the country, so they gave us the funding we needed to branch out to 19 other cities,” said Ofcacek. Across 20 cities, the Restaurant Workers Relief Program has served over 300,000 meals to restaurant workers. “We are an organization that directly helps people. We are always dedicated to the direct relief of people who are in need, but with the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, the numbers are different and the scope is different. We have a bigger reach than we ever thought we did before,” Lee said.
Any restaurant worker that has been laid off or had a reduction in hours or pay can come to one of the relief kitchens and receive a to-go meal and any essential supplies. Meals are limited to one per person and can be picked up seven days a week from the local restaurant between 10 a.m. and noon or 5 and 7 p.m. based on the location. “The chefs [at 610 Magnolia] put a lot of care and effort into making the meals. The chefs have fun with it, and they put as much effort as they would for a carry-out meal, however, these are a little more family-friendly,” said Ofcacek. The operation would not have been possible without the help of the hundreds of volunteers they had, according to Lee. “It’s been incredible to not feel helpless during such a big crisis. Sometimes it’s just helpful to get out of the house and know that someone else cares for you,” said Ofcacek.
The relief kitchens will continue to operate until they run out of funding. If the need arises again for the relief kitchens to reopen, they will; this happened when bars were shut down again in Louisville. “If things shut down again, we open more relief kitchens, if not we help farmers. We’re also helping individual restaurants by providing them with grants to stay open,” said Lee. The LEE Initiative has implemented phase two of the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, shifting its focus to sustainable farms in what they’re calling the “Restaurant Reboot Relief Program.” Lee and Ofcacek noticed that the supply chain between farms and restaurants had been significantly hurt during the closures. The LEE Initiative pledged $1 million to purchase food from sustainable farms and directly give the food to restaurants. This helps create credit with the restaurants for their food, helps the farms stay open and will help build long-term relationships between the restaurants and farms, according to Ofcacek. The restaurant reboot relief program began in June 2020 and will continue for at least a year, depending on donations received from the public and their partners, such as Maker’s Mark. Although the LEE Initiative has switched courses a bit, relief kitchens have not left their minds. “We hope that relief kitchens aren’t needed anymore, but if restaurants close down again, we will absolutely be there to reopen the relief kitchens. We’re trying to remain flexible and see how we can help,” said Ofcacek.
The LEE Initiative also opened up the McAtee Community Kitchen in June 2020 and will operate out of the former Milkwood restaurant kitchen. Chef Nikkia Rhodes, a member of the first class of the LEE Initiative mentees, runs the McAtee Community Kitchen in partnership with Children Shouldn’t Hunger, Actors Theatre, Ashbourne Farms, Dare to Care and OneWest. “McAtee Community Kitchen is slightly different than the Restaurant Relief Program. The Community Kitchen is for feeding everyone we can in the West End,” Lee said. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the chefs out of Milkwood make 100 meals packaged for families of four. These meals and “shelf-stable groceries” can be picked up between 4 and 6 p.m. at Trouble Bar, OneWest and the California Community Center.
McAtee Community Kitchen will also empower young Black leaders in the culinary world by providing a summer program to bring the community together. The kitchen will honor Louisville Chef David McAtee of YaYa BBQ, which like him, will continue to help the West End community. The LEE Initiative is doing everything they can to continue to help out the culinary community in times of need. When problems arise, Lee and Ofcacek do their best to find a way to help. “We’re really reacting to the current situation, which is changing weekly, so we just never know what is going to be needed,” said Lee. With the help of the community and their many partners, the LEE Initiative can be a voice for the people, help create equality and help those in need. “As we move forward and see how things go, we want to remain flexible in how we are helping people. If anyone has any suggestions on how to help the restaurant industry, we’re an open door, so please feel free to reach out.”