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Chef Jesse Vega (third from left), of Candela Latin Kitchen, cooking outside on a recent trip to Puerto Rico with Chefs De Borinquen. Photo courtesy of Chefs De Borinquen/Facebook

The Denver Food Community Is Stepping Up to Help Puerto Rico

Jesse Vega of Candela Latin Kitchen and Juan Padro of Tap and Burger Concepts have both recently made trips to the island to provide much-needed supplies and hot meals to those in need.

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Three months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico on September 20, the U.S. territory and its inhabitants are still facing an uncertain future. The number of deaths remains unknown, much of the island is still without power, and life for many, particularly outside of the capital of San Juan, is anything but normal.

But among the influx of bad news have been glimmers of light, especially from chefs across the country. For instance, as of early November, chef José Andrés and his World Central Kitchen nonprofit has managed to serve 20,000 meals to residents in some of the island’s hardest-hit areas. And the Denver food community is following suit.

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In mid-November, Jesse Vega, head chef at Candela Latin Kitchen, visited the island with six other chefs as part of an effort by Chefs De Borinquen, a group working together to provide food in still-struggling areas. Over three days, they served more than 3,000 hot meals, handed out boxed meals in Juana Díaz (with a car’s headlights as their only source of light), and cooked buffet-style for large groups at the Boys & Girls Club in San Lorenzo (where their cooktop was a makeshift grill set up in the parking lot) and at a church in Humacao.

Vega says some of the people he met said that this was their first hot meal since the hurricane hit, and that the group of chefs was the first who’d come to help. “It was a very intense and humbling experience,” Vega says. The New York–born chef’s father and grandparents are Puerto Rican; he lived on the island briefly before moving to Denver. He hopes to return with the group early in the new year. “We did something nice, but at the end of the day, they had a hot meal for one day and we left and went back to our lives and nothing has changed for them,” Vega says. “We have to attack this from a different angle. We’re trying to collaborate with chefs and farmers there.”

Juan Padro, managing partner at Tap and Burger Concepts (Sloan’s Lake Tap & Burger, Bar DoughSeñor Bear, among others), has visited the island—where his father is from and where much of that side of his family still lives—a number of times since Maria (most recently, in mid-December, with Third Wave Volunteers), bringing supplies and helping ensure they reach the right people. “Life’s getting back to normal in the cities, but in the hills, it’s really bad,” he says. “There’s no water. There’s no light.”

In October, Padro organized Giving Light to Puerto Rico, a fund-raiser at Sloan’s Tap to provide solar lights to Puerto Ricans. Padro doesn’t know exactly how many lights were donated as a result (the money went into a big pool as part of an effort that extended well beyond Denver), but he says it’s in the thousands. Much of the work he’s doing (on his own dime) is in conjunction with global humanitarian Alison Thompson’s efforts, and Padro already has another trip planned for January. “That’s where my heart is,” he says.


How You Can Help

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Vega and Padro recommend giving to worthy efforts, such as United for Puerto Rico, Friends of Puerto Rico, Global Empowerment Mission, and #Yonomequito. Or, grab a bite at Candela: $1 from every mofongo (a traditional fried plantain dish) sold until the end of the year benefits United for Puerto Rico; owner Isiah Salazar will match the final donation total, which already exceeds $5,000. If you have the time, you could also plan a trip to Puerto Rico. Says Padro: “Go take a vacation and hang out on the beach. Go down for 10 days, and spend three days helping and enjoy seven days on the beach. Do something.”

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