Gary LeBlanc in front of one of Mercy Chefs' mobile kitchens.
Photo by Mark Edward Atkinson
■ The Visionary: Gary LeBlanc, an experienced chef and restaurant- and hotel-management specialist, and founder of Portsmouth-based Mercy Chefs.
■ The “Aha!” Moment: After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, LeBlanc felt compelled to return to his former hometown, where many family members still lived, to offer his help. In a city that loves food, LeBlanc did what he knows how to do best: He cooked, volunteering with an organization running a mobile kitchen. Two weeks’ exposure, however, to standard disaster-relief food service—cold food, warm water, inadequate facilities and an alarming absence of food safety and sanitation—left LeBlanc determined that it could be done better.
■ The Vision: In the wake of disaster, hot meals, professionally prepared and served with love, could offer not merely sustenance, but also comfort and support to victims and the first responders there to help.
Nine months after returning from his volunteer experience in New Orleans, LeBlanc, inspired by his deep Christian faith, founded Mercy Chefs as a nonprofit with a mission to “feed people, body and soul” when disaster or devastation strikes.
If everyone else seemed to accept that in the absence of power or running water or other basics, the best that could be hoped for was to dole out peanut-butter sandwiches, warmed-up canned beans or flavorless Meals Ready-to-Eat, LeBlanc, 58, believed otherwise. Recalling his Cajun grandmothers, who responded to every occasion, joyful or tragic, by stepping into the kitchen and cooking up delicious food, LeBlanc says, “Food creates comfort, a sense of normalcy; it re-engages people in community. And when you offer people food, you should do it with passion, with gusto, with all your heart.”
“Food,” says LeBlanc, “is love.”
With three decades in hospitality services, LeBlanc knew he had the experience and the connections to do something different. And so, undaunted by the fact that he already had a demanding full-time career running a hotel group and that he had no idea at that point how he might find money, equipment or partners, LeBlanc felt called to be, as he puts it, “obedient to the vision.”
His first mission came less than a month after creating Mercy Chefs in 2006. Armed only with cutting boards, knives and a commercial hot box for holding warm foods at proper temperatures, LeBlanc packed up his wife, Ann, and their three kids in his SUV and headed to Conklin, New York, where catastrophic flooding had ravaged the town. He teamed up with a local church, training the volunteers in those essentials he’d seen missing in New Orleans: food safety, menu development and creative use of donated products. “In four days, we could see that a little professional acumen went a long way to helping them become more effective.”
Eight years later, what began out of the back of that SUV “has grown past anything I could have believed,” says LeBlanc. Based in Portsmouth, with a fleet of three custom-built, commercial-code mobile kitchens, and with the help of many volunteers (more than 1,000 in the past eight years), Mercy Chefs serves hundreds of thousands of hot meals every year in communities across the U.S. shattered by floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and other disasters. With its own supply chain, water-purification units and diesel generators, and with the mobile kitchens moved to different staging locations around the country depending on seasonal weather patterns (tornado alley in the spring, deeper south for the hurricane season, north for winter’s havoc), Mercy Chefs can arrive on scene and begin setting up within hours of a disaster, usually partnering with a local church or sometimes with disaster-relief organizations. LeBlanc hopes that one day not too far in the future, Mercy Chefs will have a mobile kitchen and crew within eight hours of 90 percent of the U.S. population.
“We would never serve up a sandwich and a bottle of water and call it a meal,” says LeBlanc. Amid devastation, Mercy Chefs dishes out daily miracles: meals like penne Bolognese with warm focaccia or chicken parmesan with mashed potatoes and green beans Florentine. One thousand people were fed twice a day after Hurricane Ike in Texas, and 10,000 to 12,000 meals a day were served on Manhattan’s Lower East Side after Hurricane Sandy. (The grocery bill might be as much as $40,000 by the time Mercy Chefs packs up and heads home.)
At home in Virginia, Mercy Chefs has stepped in after several tornadoes and the infamous June 2012 derecho, and has participated in various forms of community outreach; last summer, the organization helped provide meals in Norfolk for a summer program feeding elementary school students.
And Mercy Chefs has found its reach expanding beyond the U.S. as well. In Haiti, following the 2010 earthquake, Mercy Chefs built a permanent kitchen and trained a local staff; now the kitchen feeds mission teams helping in the rebuilding process. Last year, following typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, Mercy Chefs sent chefs and portable water purification units to one of the worst hit islands; now ground has been broken to build a permanent kitchen there.
What he envisioned in 2006 as a “humanitarian hobby” has now become the consuming focus of Gary LeBlanc’s life, a full-time job. And for that, he expresses nothing but gratitude for the gift of this mission, this calling.
“We always leave,” he says, “more blessed than when we arrive.”
Find All the Visionaries here:
Steve and Jean Case, Early Mountain Vineyards
Brooke Curran, RunningBrooke Fund
Gary LeBlanc, Mercy Chefs
Erik Robinson and Billy Wagner, Second Chance Learning Center