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Famed San Antonio chef and local nonprofit dish up free meals during COVID-19 crisis

Famed San Antonio chef dishes up free meals during COVID-19 crisis

Hospitality worker with box of food
Hospitality workers whose jobs have been affected by COVID-19 can get a hot meal at HospitALLity House. Photo by Jade Esteban Estrada

If the San Antonio restaurant industry has seemed like even more of a tight-knit community during these past life-changing weeks, many can credit the leadership and philanthropy of chef Jason Dady and the nonprofit organization Culinaria.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, they put together a HospitALLity House, which serves meals to hospitality workers who have been laid off, had their hours cut, or lost their jobs completely.

I’m standing a (distantly) near Dady as he serves hot meals to workers one-by-one at Alamo BBQ Co. at 511 E. Grayson St. The only requirement is that folks stand six feet apart, the social distancing measure recommended by health experts.

"We are all in the same universe of hospitality,” Dady says, as he hands a woman in her 40s a plate of food, with some additional meals to take home to her two children. “I think that when you're in a crisis, you kind of bond with the people who are in the trenches with you."

When he offers her a roll of toilet paper, she lets out a sigh of relief and accepts with a glowing smile.

Lunch is being offered every day from 1-3 pm and dinner from 6-8 pm. It's on a first come, first serve basis for restaurant and bar employees, and organizers request some kind of proof of recent hospitality employment. Unless it's an emergency situation, the limit is two meals per person.

Dady has been a board member of Culinaria for over 15 years. The organization, now going on its 21st year, aims to offer direct financial assistance to restaurants, bars, and furloughed industry workers via its emergency relief fund.

"Suzanne Taranto-Etheredge, the CEO, is one of my best friends in the whole world," says Dady, who explains Culinaria's nonprofit status allows him to focus on the cooking while they handle the finances.

"I'm a cook at heart," he says. "And I'm probably not all that good with money."

Dady, who was a competitor on the Food Network’s Iron Chef Gauntlet and also won CultureMap’s Tastemaker Award for Chef of the Year, has a long history of supporting others in the restaurant industry and is widely known for his notable fare.

The goal is to keep providing these daily meals to people affected by the changes in the industry.

"Hopefully, we can get these people through a lot of hardship and hard times," he says while wearing a mask that reminds me of the super villain Bane, though his warmth in his eyes seems to overshadow that.

The COVID-19 crisis has given Dady, and perhaps many of his peers, a different perspective on the restaurant world.

"What stands out for me right now is how an entire industry — tens of millions of people — can be brought to their knees in a matter of three weeks," he says, adding that the fragility of the industry has now been "exposed."

Dady himself was forced to let over 200 employees go; currently, he employs approximately a dozen. He hopes that workers in the food and beverage industry will remember to “stay strong. You've got to keep fighting. You've got to keep you head above water, however you can, and know that you can come over here and get a hot meal and know that there's people who care about you and respect that you are the backbone of the industry."

San Antonians who would like to donate to the emergency fund can visit Culinaria’s website or contribute via Venmo to the handle @culinaria.

"[Dady] is a talented chef and an awesome human being," says Ginger Robinson, Culinaria's vice president. "Whenever he is needed, he's always there for this community."