At 5:30 a.m. in the kind of godforsaken industrial crevice of Queens where mob bodies are probably buried, Daniel Dorado recently waited in a line of mostly undocumented restaurant workers before the opening of Restaurant Depot, a wholesaler like Costco on steroids available only to the industry. His goal was 2,000 meal containers, and, boom, he was in and out in 12 minutes.
The containers would soon be packed with sumptuous entrees: citrus garlic salmon with Cuban black beans and coconut herb rice, or moussaka-stuffed zucchini with dirty rice and beans, or mojo chicken with chimichurri and roasted potatoes with grilled shishito peppers. “But really there’s only one meal we serve,” said Dorado, as he loaded up his SUV. “We make Donald Trump eat his words.”
Dorado, an American-born son of a Mexican immigrant, has been running what is probably New York’s largest restaurant-quality active cooking operation during the pandemic lockdown, serving 6,000 meals a day. Last year he and two former colleagues from Ilili, a Lebanese-Mediterranean restaurant in the Flatiron District, formed the Migrant Kitchen NYC, ostensibly a catering company, which orchestrated an alliance with four other kitchens. Leading the operation are Dorado, who has been a chef for 20 years, the team’s heart; Nasser Jaber, a Palestinian immigrant who was an Ilili waiter, the team’s social media-manic mouth; and Kelly McCaffery, an event manager from the Astoria neighborhood in Queens who was Ilili’s catering director, the team’s brain.
As much attention as beleaguered restaurants have gotten in the pandemic’s lockdown, far less attention has been paid to catering companies, which can produce food on a massive scale but not within the limits of a la carte orders available through delivery apps. Enter Migrant Kitchen. They pay wages of $20 to $25 an hour in their kitchen, Jaber said, and with the four other kitchens pooled 40 largely undocumented workers from Make The Road, a civil rights group - plus workers and volunteers who handle packing and delivery. Migrant Kitchen’s GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $100,000 so far. And, Dorado said, celebrity chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen also agreed to pay Migrant Kitchen $7 per meal (less than the $10 average it pays restaurants) for up to 1,200 meals a day, increasing its reach greatly: What started out on March 13 with 100 meals to hospitals and shelters quickly grew to 6,000 meals a day to 13 hospitals, four food pantries, three homeless shelters, three senior centers, public housing complexes in the Bronx and Queens, a Queens mosque and dozens of covid-19-infected families. The needs change dramatically day to day, too often because of hospitalizations or deaths.
In case of allergies, no meals contain nuts. And a few days before Ramadan began on April 23, they switched all meals to halal-certified. “We don’t just want to give people food,” Dorado said. “We want them to know we took their needs into consideration. We don’t want anyone getting food that they don’t want to eat. It’s for them, not for us.” For families, Migrant Kitchen also makes grocery bags of staples like eggs and milk, and tucks in chicken tenders or pizza for children. Even diapers.
Migrant Kitchen’s attention to empathy and generosity operates even at the courier level: Its DoorDash deliveries are filed so that the couriers get $35 per trip.
The broader squad added kitchens from Lemons & Olives, run by Marko Mannheim, a Serbian immigrant; Hand Crafted and Bartleby & Sage, run by Lisselly Brito and Ramon Lara, respectively, both Dominicans; and Not Today Maybe Tomorrow, run by Bradley Smithart, an Oregon transplant. The last week of April, World Central Kitchen’s citywide operations made 452,478 meals with 36 kitchens, including one food truck, for an average output of 12,569 meals, some of them cold sandwiches with fruit or vegetables. Migrant Kitchen’s alliance of five kitchens produced 31,200 cooked meals, Dorado said, a dizzying growth from the 5,015 it served the first week of April.
“We are big fans of what the Migrant Kitchen team is doing, and I’m glad we can work with them,” said Nate Mook, World Central Kitchen’s CEO.
Sam Bloch, WCK’s director of field operations, laid out Migrant Kitchen’s strength: “It’s beautiful, right? How many win-wins can you have? Where the food is coming from, who’s making it, how it’s supporting that individual person, how it’s supporting that [kitchen], and all that built on top of the fact that someone who really needs that plate of food is receiving it.”
This month, the alliance disbanded when the other four kitchens each began working directly with WCK, while Migrant Kitchen began working more closely with the city’s GetFoodNYC program, delivering hundreds of nine-meal batches to feed recipients for three days at a time, twice a week. “Groups like the Migrant Kitchen that are focusing on serving our neighborhoods are critical partners in this work - work that won’t stop as long as there are people in need,” said Kathryn Garcia, the city’s covid-19 food czar, who noted that 2 million residents citywide face food insecurity in the crisis.
In the worldwide capital of cosmopolitanism - where a person can eat from more than 140 nations’ cuisines without leaving the city limits - Migrant Kitchen has knitted the knowing intimacy of Anthony Bourdain with the splashy scale of Andrés. The international, intersectional result is a harvest a century in the making: Ellis Islanders’ wildest dreams come true.
They are piercing reminders of E.B. White’s essential 1948 essay, Here Is New York, which divided the city into three residents: natives, commuters and settlers. A settler “was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something,” White wrote. “Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.” Not that Migrant Kitchen has settled for anything.
One Migrant Kitchen packer, Dalal Abi Ghosn, a Lebanese lawyer from Brazil who arrived in New York in 2018, explained her motivation as she helped put together a batch of 500 meals: “I can work from home, so that’s what I’m doing. New York is my home.”
As the greatest hits of Puerto Rican pop salsa singer Héctor Lavoe blasted in the Midtown Manhattan kitchen, head chef Ryan Graham explained the mission: “A lot of big-batch cooking . . . doesn’t monitor seasoning, the flavor, the texture, the veg, the meat, the starch, the digestion, the nutrition.” By contrast, he noted, he was slow-cooking a sauce that included 20 spices for nine hours. One of his cooks also recommended that a dish’s tomato paste be caramelized. (Bloch called the approach “food with dignity.”)
Of Migrant Kitchen’s international flair, Graham shrugged matter-of-factly: “American cooking is the compilation of all cultures, all authenticities.” Dorado put it succinctly: “It’s pure New York. Every kitchen I’ve ever worked in this city has been a mini U.N.”
Graham’s wife is Ecuadoran American from a family of immigrants, and every day after work he takes extra meals to his immigrant brother-in-law in the Bronx; his immigrant in-laws in Queens; his wife and daughter; his immigrant sister-in-law, her wife, and their son; his Colombian neighbor, his wife, and their three children; and scattershot Mexican former kitchen colleagues.
“This feels like a mission, a purpose, helping out, being seen,” he said. “A beginning instead of so many days in this industry - even before the crisis - where you felt like you were ending.”
In an interview, Andrés recalled his immigration to New York in 1990 to Spanish Harlem and Greek Queens. “In the international city of international cities, empathy wins - especially in low-income or poorer immigrant areas,” he said. “There is a lot of respect for each other and they are proud. The way to show pride sometimes is to respond to these things with unity.”
Throughout the day, Dorado and his team make runs all over town to collect food donations. Beninese and Singaporean immigrants at Marie Blachère, a Greenwich Village bakery run by French immigrant Chris Mars, for example, donated boxes of baguettes and Viennoiseries. (“Everyone speaks bread,” Mars quipped.) At the Migrant Kitchen’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters - the space itself held by a nonprofit organization that happened to have massive training kitchen space - two Irish immigrants who own a Wall Street pub strolled in on a recent afternoon asking how they could help. They crossed paths with a courier sent from Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a social justice group that picked up meals for 12 Afghan, Bangladeshi and Pakistani undocumented families in Queens who have covid-19 or are immunocompromised or food insecure.
“I’m trying to keep myself strong. I’m alone but I don’t feel lonely,” said a 76-year-old Bangladeshi man who lives by himself in the heavy-hit Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens and walks with a cane after open-heart surgeries in 2016 and 2018, three stents, and a hernia in December. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he said he was ashamed to be publicly identified as in need. He hasn’t left his home since the first week of March. His income is $500 a month. Through DRUM, his Migrant Kitchen meals - two a day - come every afternoon, but, in accordance with Ramadan, he waits until sunset and pre-dawn to eat them. “It’s a blessing for old people,” he said. “It’s an example for humanity.”
Jaber, who is a lapsed Muslim, said such service is essential in New York, home to roughly 700,000 Muslims, or 22% of the U.S. Muslim population. “Imagine fasting in this,” he said. “Imagine being forgotten while you’re fasting. I’m so sick of Muslims being forgotten.” His mantra is a line by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: “Stand at the corner of a dream and fight.”
Back at the Midtown Manhattan kitchen, as Jaber bounced around posting to Instagram, Dorado and McCaffery wrestled with spreadsheets and flooded inboxes in an unused conference room.
“If we bought 100,000 containers,” Dorado said, looking around as he seemed to be thinking aloud, “we could put them in this room.”
McCaffery nodded and said with impish, audible excitement what might as well be Migrant Kitchen’s motto: “We could do that. I don’t see why not.”