30,000 MEALS A DAY

Italian Guy Catering Responds to Camp Fire with Kitchen Space and Elbow Grease

co-author: Candace Byrne

During and after the Camp Fire, Paul Lema and his son Erik learned all about feeding as many as 30,000 people every day for over four months.

When Paul Lema, the original “Italian Guy” behind Italian Guy Catering in Chico, learned from Mom’s Restauant owner Steve Vickery that World Central Kitchen (WCK) needed to commandeer a commercial kitchen as the Camp Fire raged, Lema had a simple response: “We gotta do it. If we don’t, who will?” Those words convinced his son and partner Erik. With the help of WCK staff and innumerable volunteers, they transformed their catering kitchen and the bigger space they call “the warehouse,” where the company hosts catering events, into WCK’s main staging area to prepare and distribute food in response to the Camp Fire.

The nonprofit WCK, nominated for a Nobel Prize for its humanitarian work, is the Goliath who, as one part of its mission, sources, prepares, and serves food to people in natural disasters throughout the world. By the next day after the fire’s Thursday start, the organization had connected with Italian Guy Catering and received the Lemas’ all-in. By Sunday, WCK staff, volunteers, and the Lemas themselves had occupied Italian Guys Catering and served their first meals to evacuees, first responders, and support personnel from the Red Cross and other organizations.

According to the WCK Facebook page, for a month after the Camp Fire, the operation served multiple meals to 10,000 people at as many as eighteen local sites per day. During that month, Erik and Paul Lema shadowed, watched, learned, and worked alongside WCK. Chefs and volunteers mobilized huge quantities of food, then prepared and distributed hot meals and bagged lunches made from it. Semis from Sysco Foods brought food and supplies daily and parked curbside on Bellarmine Court outside Italian Guys Catering. Aware of the emergency food response, not one neighboring business complained, not about the trucks nor about the hubbub.

Hot meals rolled out of the kitchen in aluminum foil pans, each sized to serve forty people, all at the health department’s required 165 degrees. Every pan contained a layer of carbohydrate, of vegetables, and of protein, nutritionally balanced food that could be efficiently scooped and served.

Italian Guy Catering still provides lunches and dinners for personnel working Phase 2 of the state’s debris removal process.

As the Camp Fire raged, and World Central Kitchen needed to commandeer a commercial kitchen in order to prepare and distribute food, Paul Lema had a simple response: “We gotta do it. If we don’t, who will?”

Lunches and green salads were packed into bags and other grab-and-go containers. After the first month, WCK left Chico, as is its intention in responding to disasters, so that local businesses can take over the response. The Lemas stepped in on their own, and Italian Guy Catering continued to supply as many as 5000 daily meals until the end of January when the shelters shut down. Even now, the catering company continues contracting with California’s Office of Emergency Service (OES). The Lemas feed the scientists, academics, and other workers monitoring debris removal and living in OES trailers in north Chico.

Remarkably, through all this, Italian Guy Catering continued catering their customers’ weddings, parties, and other events. Many Lema family members—Paul’s two sons, a sister, a niece, a nephew, and several in-laws—evacuated during the fire. Erik’s and his brother’s houses still stand, empty and deemed unlivable. Others lost their homes. Erik and his wife live with his mom and dad—along with four extra dogs belonging to various family members.

But what the Lemas want to talk about is all the people who simply wanted to lend a hand. Many volunteers, notes Paul, were also evacuees. Volunteers showed up from all over California and even other states. Erik tells of a young woman who flew out from New Hampshire, rented a trailer to live in, and volunteered. Shortly after she had returned home, a couple from the same town arrived to volunteer, so moved were they by their friend’s story. Erik also noted, from the Chico food community, a range from “nice old ladies wanting to help” to “busboys from 5th Street Steakhouse.” Paul and Erik joked that so many people phoned to help, the business needed a dedicated phone line just to respond to their calls. In fact, the operation came to engage a volunteer coordinator.

Some who began as volunteers are now Italian Guy Catering employees. Not only will they help the Lemas with the ongoing contract with OES. It’s an unfortunate reality: Paul Lema anticipates that Italian Guy Catering will again be called upon to feed evacuees of 2019 California wildfires.