The COVID-19 pandemic has left a significant impact on the restaurant industry around the world, with many restaurants forced to close temporarily or permanently due to the lockdowns and social distancing measures put in place to slow the spread of the virus. This has not only shaken up the ways restaurants operate, but also the way that chefs view issues such as financial instability, food distribution, hunger, and social equality in their societies.
Many chefs started to recognise that they have a unique skill set that can be used to support their communities during this time of crisis. With their expertise in food preparation, chefs are able to create healthy and nutritious meals for those in need, while also providing a sense of comfort and normalcy during challenging times.
As a result, some chefs started charity projects during the pandemic to help support their local communities and provide assistance to those who are most affected by the crisis; either individually or through mobilising industry peers, suppliers such as farmers and fishermen, and restaurant supporters. These charity projects take many different forms, from donating meals to frontline workers and vulnerable communities, to organising fundraising events to support local charities and empower the younger generation. We highlight some inspiring examples from across Asia below.
Empowering the Younger Generation
Charity dinners for youthful victims of violence in memoriam of Antoine Alléno
After Yannick Alléno lost his 24-year-old son, Antoine Alléno, to a tragic hit-and-run accident in May 2022, the prominent French chef turned his grief into action by founding the Association Antoine Alléno, a charity that aids under-25 victims of violence and their families. The association offers them the moral, psychological, and financial support they may need, such as network of psychologists and lawyers, as well as funds to pay for funeral arrangements, transport, accommodation, and meals.
The association’s first charity dinner outside of France was organised in Seoul on 20 March, followed by a dinner in Hong Kong on 23 March. Hosted by Mingoo Kang of two-MICHELIN-Starred Mingles, the Seoul event brought together six chefs including Hans Zahner of STAY, Seakyeong Kim of Cesta, Jinhyuk Kim of alla prima, Kihak Lim of L'Espoir du Hibou, Anthony Yoon of L'Impression, and Chunghu Lee of Zero Complex. Proceeds from the night were donated to the Association Antoine Alléno and Korea’s Dream Love School, a government-backed educational institution that provides remote classes for children who have difficulty attending school due to childhood cancer and other illnesses.
In Hong Kong, a 14-hands dinner hosted by chef Maxime Gilbert of two-MICHELIN-Starred Écriture brought together chefs Julien Tongourian of L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Hong Kong, along with chefs Yoric Tieche of Le Cap at Four Seasons Hotel Cap-Farrat; Cyril Bonnard and pastry chef Marie Wucher of Le Parc Hotel Obernai; and Nicolas Beaumann of Maison Rostang.
Charity dinners to support disadvantaged children around the world
Started in March 2022 by chef Allen Suh of one-MICHELIN-Starred Restaurant Allen, Table For All aims to help children from impoverished or disadvantaged backgrounds around the world. Two charity dinners held previously involved chefs such as chef Sung Ahn of three-MICHELIN-Starred Mosu, chef Jungsik Yim of two-MICHELIN-Starred Jungsik, chef Jinhyuk Kim of two-MICHELIN-Starred alla prima, chef Park Seungbae and Cho Eunhui of one-MICHELIN-Starred Onjium, and Heesuk Cho of Hansikgonggan.
The third dinner in the series will be held this April and will see the participation of regional chefs such as Hong Kong-based Vicky Lau of two-MICHELIN-Starred Tate and Michihiro Haruta of two-MICHELIN-Starred Crony. Further events in Paris and Champagne are also planned for early 2024.
The charity dinners are organised in collaboration with Compassion Korea, a global organization for children and all proceeds are sent to Kenya, Uganda, and other places around the world. Said chef Suh: “Doing a charitable act is not as difficult as many might think. It is our way of saying 'I will walk with you' to children who are suffering from poverty all over the world.”
Providing for children from low-income households in Singapore
Daniele Sperindio, chef-owner of MICHELIN-Starred Art di Daniele Sperindio is highly passionate about supporting the next generation. Every year, he hosts the Alba White Truffle Benefit Dinner and Charity Auction at his restaurant, where 100% of the proceeds from the silent auction are donated to its beneficiary partner, =DREAMS, which provides after-school enrichment and holistic developmental support for children from low-income families.
“By providing tailored support to children from disadvantaged home environments, we are able to empower the next generation to break out from the poverty trap and reduce social stratification through the provision of equal opportunity,” he says. Apart from =DREAMS, Art di Daniele Sperindio has also been a pillar of support to Make-a-Wish Foundation Singapore, with one of its projects involving selling pizzas, where the proceeds went to granting the disadvantaged children’s wishes.
Currently, the restaurant is also working with the Shatec School of Hospitality to provide opportunities to teenagers who have dreams of staging overseas but cannot afford the costs. “I always focus on providing opportunities to children and young adults,” shares Sperindio. “They are the building blocks for tomorrow, so we need to ensure that they are given the platforms to succeed and to thrive.” Find out more about =DREAMS here.
Promoting Japanese culinary appreciation through food education for youth
Chef Toru Okuda of the two-MICHELIN-Starrd restaurant Ginza Kojyu is concerned that Japanese cuisine is becoming less and less popular among the youth of Japan, so he devotes his energy to food education for children.
Since 2014, he has worked to create healthy school lunch menus as a member of the Washoku School Lunch Project in Japan. He also holds free classes and lectures for elementary and junior high schools in Japan on specific elements on Japanese cuisine, such as a course on dashi, to instil a greater appreciation for Japanese food culture among the younger generation.
Supporting Disadvantaged Communities
Monthly charity meals for the disadvantaged in Taiwan and beyond
Started way early in 2009, Tainan Bib Gourmand restaurant Dong Shang Taiwanese Seafood head chef Tsai Juei-chen has been preparing meals for the disadvantaged almost every month since 2009. These include tang yuan soup for the homeless to mark the winter solstice, charity meals at orphanages and elementary schools, and year-end banquets for low-income families.
His deeds are not bound by geography: he has even made porridge with milkfish, Tainan’s famous local delicacy, for the homeless on a trip to Osaka, when he had only four simple gas stoves to use. Nor did the pandemic put a stop to his goodwill: he sent meal packs to medical staff and the homeless throughout.
Beyond the kitchen, Tsai — inspired the popular movie “Island Etude” about a hearing-impaired college students’ island tour on a bike — also started his own bike tours to raise funds for charitable organisations. The costs of organising these tours are covered by profits from the restaurant, or from Tsai’s own fees from giving lectures and public speeches.
“The biggest reward for me is seeing the look of happiness on the faces of the beneficiaries,” he said. “What you obtained through cooking, you can also share others with cooking.”
Food boxes for Bangkok's slum communities
In 2020, amidst the raging global pandemic, Evelyn Yap, a Bangkok-based Singaporean chef-owner of a social enterprise together with her filmmaker husband Kevin Mak reached out to chef Amerigo Sesti and Yoan Martin of one-MICHELIN-Starred J’AIME by Jean-Michel Lorain in Bangkok to discuss the concerning food insufficiency among communities in Khlong Toey, a district in central Bangkok home to the city’s largest slum. And thus, the self-funded food box initiative was born.
As Sesti and Martin opened their kitchen space, a network of chefs, producers, distributors and volunteers joined in to lend a helping hand to feed the city’s slum communities facing hunger issues worsened by loss of work and travel restrictions. After restrictions lifted, the team continued to support the needy by partnering with Scholars Of Sustenance Thailand and chefs including David Hartwig of one-starred IGNIV Bangkok, Christian Martena from Clara, Andrew Martin of one-starred 80/20, Joe Napol and Saki Hochino of Bib Gourmand restaurant Samlor, and Dan Bark of one-starred Cadence by Dan Bark, just to name a few.
“Our goal is to fight the persistent hunger issue in Bangkok,” said Sesti. “The fundamental criteria of a chef are to feed people, and trying to do so beyond the four walls of a restaurant to impact a community is a greater purpose to foster further.”
The team continues to seek restaurant spaces and crew members to prepare food boxes monthly. Volunteers and donations are also welcome. Contact email@example.com to participate.
Supporting Thai farmers via farm-to-table meals
It started with casual gym banter between two fitness enthusiasts in Bangkok. Between sets and reps, Spanish chef Gerard Villaret Horcajo of one-MICHELIN-Starred Elements, Inspired by Ciel Bleu Swiss chef David Hartwig of one-MICHELIN-Starred IGNIV Bangkok designed a four-hands collaboration event in the hopes to showcase and celebrate the passion that local Thai farmers have for their produce. Interest grew and the pair roped in mutual friend Dustin Joseph of Left Hand Roasters coffee and the self-funded Plant to Plate initiative was formed with the hope to raise awareness of the importance of supporting local farmers in Thailand.
“Chefs and farmers rely on each other because you can’t make a good dish without good produce,” said Hartwig. The debut farm-to-table event was held at Green Garden in Chiang Mai on 21 February, where guests were served lunch and dinner using produce from all over the nation with the support from the chefs of MICHELIN-Starred restaurants in Thailand such as Chudaree “Tam” from Baan Tepa, Pichaya “Pam” Soontornyanakij from Potong, and Arnaud Dunand Sauthier from Maison Dunand, along with culinary peers like chef Billy Bautista from Santiaga and Nick Pitt from Royalebrat. “We would like to raise awareness to highlight the work of local farmers and producers because they are the foundation of our society,” Hartwig adds.
Diners can support via booking for the next event held at the end of 2023 by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Combating food waste in Hong Kong one step at a time
Since 2021, Vicky Lau, owner-chef of Hong Kong two-MICHELIN-Starred restaurant Tate has been a board director of Feeding Hong Kong, a charity that fights hunger and food waste by collecting surplus food from various sources such as supermarkets, airlines, and manufacturers; and redistributing it to multiple charities across the city. She is responsible for overseeing the organization and ensuring that it is fulfilling its mission and operating ethically and effectively.
A shocking 3,400 tones of food waste go to the landfills in Hong Kong every day, while more than one million people in the city live in poverty, struggling to afford three nutritious meals a day. There is a global problem of uneven food distribution and food waste is one of the root causes of hunger globally, explains Lau.
“As chefs, we are often too focused on the daily operation of our restaurants and sometimes we forget why we entered the industry in the first place, which is to feed people and spread love through food. I also want to learn more about managing food as a resource and educate to drive changes in our society,“ says Lau, who also takes hands on operational roles in the charity, such as packing food distributions.
Feeding Hong Kong welcomes volunteers all year round. Find out more here.
Nutritious meal boxes for the underprivileged in Hong Kong
Agustin Balbi, chef-founder of one-MICHELIN-Starred restaurant Ando, is the official ambassador of MORE GOOD, a charity that unites F&B community to help people in need. He first heard about the charity in 2021 amid the pandemic and has become a regular volunteer ever since.
Now, he brings together chef friends each month to cook together in Ando on a Sunday. They create 160 to 200 meal boxes, which they distribute to needy communities around Hong Kong. Restaurants that have participated recently include Hansik Goo and Amber, while upcoming events include a six-hands dinner with charity founder Matt Abergel from Yardbird and Ricardo Chaneton from Mono for an exclusive six-hand dinner at MORE GOOD’s event space in Wan Chai to raise funds.
“I come from South America where, sadly, the gap between the rich and poor is very big, and people who need food or help from others are very present in their daily life. It is impossible to describe the feeling of hunger if you have never experienced it,” says Balbi. “As a chef, I work with food, and food can make people happy with it. This is a way to give back to the community and keep me grounded and in contact with where I come from. “
In 2022, MORE GOOD prepared and distributed more than 15,700 meals, organised more than 90 volunteering sessions, and supported four communities per week. The charity hopes to increase the number of meals to 37,000+ meals in 2023.
They welcome volunteers to their professional kitchen in in Chai Wan where they can prepare high-quality meals for needy communities using fresh ingredients. Find out more here.
Onigiri made with love for healthcare workers and children in Ukraine
During the lockdown in Japan in 2021, two prominent Japanese chefs, Yoshiro Narisawa of Restaurant Narisawa and Hisato Hamada of Wagyumafia teamed up to start a charity project called Onigiri For Love. The onigiri, or a triangular hand-shaped rice ball, is a symbol of love for most Japanese people as it brings back memories of their mothers preparing one for their school lunches. Since then, the chefs — bonded by their common love for onigiri — have been collaborating with other local chefs and sake makers to make onigiri together at various distilleries across Japan.
The onigiri are then donated to local community projects and hospital workers to express their gratitude for their work. The movement has inspired other prominent chefs all around the world to create and share their own versions of onigiri on Instagram to spread a common message of hope and unity. When the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out last year, the chefs also ran a charity drive to raise funds for support children in Ukraine. Diners who donated ¥1,000 (US$8) or more at the restaurant would receive the rice balls made by the chefs, alongside evacuees from Ukraine who also joined the drive.
Written by Wakana Kubo in Japan, Kim Nayoung in South Korea, Pruepat “Maprang” Songtieng in Thailand, Mikka Wee in Singapore, and Hsieh Ming-ling in Taiwan; introduction and edits by Debbie Yong