Mercy Chefs Founder Gary LeBlanc on Making a Difference One Meal at a Time

Hurricane season is here again, which means it’s time for Gary LeBlanc and his non-profit disaster relief organization, Mercy Chefs, to roll up their sleeves, put on their aprons, and get to work. New Orleans native LeBlanc was moved to take action after witnessing firsthand the devastating destruction and loss wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He remembers, “Seeing people standing on the bridges whose faces I recognized from working there drove me to do the only thing I knew to help. That was to feed people.” And he certainly has — Mercy Chefs has served 2 million meals over the past 13 years! Read below for my conversation with Gary about how he’s making a difference one meal at a time…

Katie Couric: You were inspired to start Mercy Chefs after your experience volunteering during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina…tell us about what you witnessed and how it drove you to start Mercy Chefs…
Gary LeBlanc:  It was the utter destruction of my hometown. It was the complete break in the fabric in what makes New Orleans so special. I think New Orleans is the most vibrant city in the world. The flooding and loss of life stole the heartbeat of New Orleans. Seeing people standing on the bridges whose faces I recognized from working there drove me to do the only thing I knew to help. That was to feed people. There were a lot of people doing a lot of things trying to help, but I couldn’t understand the lack of food safety, sanitation, professional acumen, and passion for the food and the people being served. It made me angry because people I considered my family weren’t being fed the way I thought they should be fed in the aftermath of a tragic disaster. I knew there was a better way. It burned within me until we founded Mercy Chefs and dedicated ourselves to excellence in the food. We feed people when they’ve lost everything.

Katie: I love your observation of “the incredible difference a hot meal can make.” How have you observed that difference firsthand?
Gary: As a child growing up, I watched my New Orleans/Cajun grandmothers feed everyone for every reason, in times of celebration and times of sorrow. At a young age, I learned the value a meal prepared with love could bring to any circumstance.

In the aftermath of a storm, people have lost all sense of normalcy. Everything is out of order and in turmoil. Sitting down for a high quality, chef prepared meal with neighbors and family is often the first opportunity for them to examine their circumstance. It’s where healing begins as community rallies around each other. We talk about feeding body and soul. Anyone can feed the body, but a meal made and served with love and compassion feeds the soul. That should be the very best meal we are able to prepare. I want people to feel like I felt when I was in my grandmother’s kitchens.

Katie: You didn’t go to culinary school…would you describe yourself as self-taught? How did Jacques Pepin’s “La Technique” help you learn to cook?
I learned on the job. I worked my days off in the kitchen with some of the best chefs in the industry. I’d learn from their creativity and passion and as is with Chef Pepin, that creative force began to stir within me. His book, La Technique, was my first guide in classic kitchen preparation. There was tremendous joy when I was successful in preparing one of his dishes. He taught me to debone a chicken!

Katie: What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in doing your work? How do you maintain the resilience necessary to do your work and help others as you witness so much suffering and devastation?
The biggest needs are for additional mobile equipment and supplies, professional chefs and skilled volunteers. Our volunteers are the backbone of what we do. Our professional chef will go in with a team of 20 volunteers and we have an army. We struggle in response when we don’t have enough volunteers. And of course, we are completely donor funded. If people don’t fund our mission, we aren’t able to respond.

When witnessing so much suffering, it can be a real challenge to stay emotionally and physically strong. The difficulties are often overwhelming. The faces, hurt and stories of victims stay with us long after we’ve left a disaster site. We have to recognize the traumatic effect that has on us as first responders. We often say our greatest responsibility is to the person on our right and left and the importance of talking through our experiences. It’s important that we practice self-care as sometimes it is too much to bear alone. I work with some do the most caring and talented individuals in the hospitality industry. We care for each other.

Katie: Mercy Chefs started out and remains committed to disaster relief, but you’ve branched out to several other areas of service. Tell us about those ventures…
: Early on, we realized that internationally – and sometimes at home –  we could make the greatest impact in real time response with high volume water purification systems. In Haiti, Nepal, the Philippines, Rockport, TX, Lumberton, NC and Puerto Rico, Mercy Chefs was able to make an incredible impact by sending water purification units and trained staff to teach sanitation. Clean water represents the foundation of any recovery and is often the only barrier to devastating outbreaks of disease in the aftermath of a disaster. In addition, we established permanent kitchens in Haiti and Puerto Rico that employ locals and meet the needs of at-risk communities today.

Here in the US, our community kitchen model is breaking new ground in childhood nutrition, summer feeding programs and job skill training programs. This is an area that we feel an increasing responsibility to devote our skills, talents and abilities. When there are on average 1 in 7 children that will go to bed hungry tonight here in the United States, it can’t be a place of indifference for us or the country. We’re actually just about to launch a new community kitchen where we’re based in Portsmouth, Virginia.  That’s a project we’re really excited about.

Katie: When you look back at all that you’ve done so far to help others, how do you feel? What do you feel you still have left to do?
Gary: I’m astounded that we’ve served two million meals in our 13 years, the last million meals being in the past three years. It’s clear that the need continues to increase. I feel great satisfaction in all we’ve done, but I’m sobered by the tremendous need that still exists.

Each time I feed one, I see three more that I should be feeding. Even now I’m consumed by the need to feed more, to do more and be in more places. I know I need to do all I can to make a difference one meal at a time.

Katie: Thank you so much, Gary!