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During Pandemic, With His Restaurant Closed, Chef Helps Local Families


Two months ago, Mario Santiago's restaurant in Chicago, May St. Cafe, was doing great. He's the chef.

MARIO SANTIAGO: (Laughter) Oh, I was at the height of my catering business - weddings and birthdays and engagement parties. And we were doing 800 to 1,000 people a day in lunches.

KING: In lunches. His kitchen, though, is quiet now.

SANTIAGO: From one minute to the next, we were shutting down operations and sending people home. And there's - we have no jobs.

KING: The pandemic forced him to lay off 30 people. All of them, he says, were loyal workers.

SANTIAGO: It's heartbreaking when you get these people to call you up and ask you for work and that will work for food. I mean, how do you address that?

KING: Now, a couple miles away from his restaurant, a grade school called St. Ann is also having a crisis. Parents have lost their jobs; they need help feeding their kids. So a local nonprofit called the Big Shoulders Fund told Santiago they had an opportunity for him - he and his staff could cook for the school's families twice a week.

SANTIAGO: It's not about money. It's more about survival and how we can all survive together.

GERARDO VALDIVIA: Hello. My name is Gerardo Valdivia (ph).

KING: Gerardo Valdivia and his wife have five kids. The littlest one is only 9 months old. Valdivia lost his job last month, and he and his wife have been having a really hard time.

VALDIVIA: Our meals are much smaller than what we would usually have. A nice family dinner turns into just hot dogs or a $5 pizza.

KING: But Valdivia says the meals he's bringing home from Santiago's kitchen - the rice, the salad, the pasta - not just feeding his kids, it's giving them hope to.

VALDIVIA: The hungry feeding the hungry - that's what this is.

KING: Here's the thing. With the social distancing, he hasn't been able to thank chef Santiago in person. So we put the two of them on a phone call. And Valdivia tells the chef that one day, when this pandemic is over, he would really like him to meet his family.

VALDIVIA: You know, shake his hand, give him a hug - you know, I don't know. This is an invitation, I guess...

SANTIAGO: Well, it's welcome.

VALDIVIA: ...To sit down with chef Mario and sit down and share a meal with you.

SANTIAGO: We can sit out on the patio. We can sit down as a family (laughter).

VALDIVIA: Chef Mario, I just want to say thank you. You've - you're teaching us that there's hope out there, that there's people who care.

SANTIAGO: Wow, I don't even know how to respond to that. That's amazing. I'm still living my dream because of families like yours.

KING: That is Mario Santiago, the executive chef of May St. Cafe in Chicago, and Gerardo Valdivia, a father of five. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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