A Delaware chef fed the pandemic hungry nationwide. Then he realized how to help even more at home.

Ryan Cormier
Delaware News Journal

Nationals Park should have been overflowing with excitement on that day in early April.

The Washington Nationals had won the World Series the year before and it was time to unveil the championship banner on what would be opening day.

That's what Wilmington-based chef Jim Berman was thinking as he sat there eating a quick lunch on break, one of only a handful of people lounging in the stadium's 41,313 dusty seats.

Instead of plops of ketchup dirtying food stand counters, it was a thick coating of dust and grime that had collected in the offseason.

Trash on the ground from fans was replaced in some spots by a chilling sight: pigeon carcasses that had been torn apart by a falcon that now used the ballpark as a hunting ground.

Berman was there working for chef José Andrés' World Central Kitchen, which took over the stadium's kitchens to make hot meals for the community, which were then ferried into the streets to those in need.

The grassroots Wilmington-based Operation Rolling Turkey organization has served free hot meals to the hungry at various locations across the city since Thanksgiving.

His eyes start to water as he flashes back to that time last spring when life as we knew it was smothered by a global pandemic that has since taken nearly 550,000 American lives.

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"I was sitting there with Section 201 through 244 all to myself. People should have been there with their kids making memories," he said, recalling his childhood of attending Pittsburgh Pirates home openers with his parents, who let him skip school. "I looked at the championship banner that they've kept covered and just had a really emotional moment.

"It was just really, really sad."

From Biden to the Bay and back home again

As Chase Center on the Riverfront executive chef for hospitality group Sodexo, Berman had a busy summer and early fall, leading the kitchen to help cater a presidential campaign, sometimes making meals for future President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. 

Chef Jim Berman's view  during a lunch break at Nationals Park on April 23, 2020, where he worked for World Central Kitchen making food for those in need. "*Sigh* still waiting for first pitch," he wrote on Facebook.

But in the pandemic months in between, Berman kept busy in other kitchens across the country when he himself was furloughed.

Berman and some of his fellow Chase Center staff volunteered and still use their kitchen once a month to make hot meals to feed the military and other workers manning the Food Bank of Delaware's monthly drive-thru mobile pantries.

At the same time, he made regular round-trip drives to Washington, where his volunteer work in the kitchen soon turned into being put in charge of procurement for the massive emergency food operation. The World Central Kitchen pop-up made more than 870,000 meals during its six-month run ending in early October, which were ferried into neighborhoods by community groups.

After that, Berman took a cross-country train trip to the San Francisco area at the beginning of August, where he led a kitchen cooking for Pacific Coast power grid operators and workers, who were in a sequestered emergency operations center.

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But it was when he got back home before Thanksgiving that he began reflecting on the hungry and how he could help hyper-locally.

Over a plate of the stir-fried noodle dish pad see ew at Kapow Kitchen, he woodshedded an idea with friend and fellow chef Wit Milburn: bringing hot meals directly into city streets for anyone who wanted one on Thanksgiving.

Volunteer chef at Food Bank of Delaware Jim Berman prepares meals to be sent downstate at the Food Bank's headquarters in Newark Wednesday, March 17 2021.

Milburn lent Berman one of his Kapow food trucks and Operation Rolling Turkey was born. And with nearly 10 events already under its belt, the nonprofit, grassroots feed-the-hungry organization is looking to expand and continues to accept donations on its GoFundMe page. (A link can be found at rollingturkey.org, where more than $5,000 has been raised so far.)

The next event with free hot meals will be April 3 at Adams Four Shopping Center (800 W. Fourth St.) from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. 

While Berman is happy to talk about the organization, he was adamant in an interview that he didn't want his role glorified in this article, even though his tale of the past year is part of Operation Rolling Turkey's DNA.

With a shaved head and arms covered in tattoos, Berman has clearly been humbled by the pandemic, which has given his drive to help others in need a boost. It not only puts home-cooked hot meals packed with comfort in stomachs who need them, it makes Berman feel better.

He says he's been reflecting on his life and the decisions he's made.

"This isn't me being benevolent. I've made a lot of wrong steps in my career and personal life," the 48-year-old father of three says without elaborating. "This is me trying to make a little bit of peace with the universe."

'I wasn't going to sit around'

Berman, who has worked everywhere from Jessop's Tavern in New Castle and Philadelphia's La Colombe Coffee Roasters to hotels to corporate food service jobs over the years, was only two months into his new job at the Chase Center when COVID-19 closures swept across the planet, eventually reaching the convention center's doors at 815 Justison St.

Jim Berman serves food at an Operation Rolling Turkey event Feb. 12 in Wilmington.

One of his first duties was laying off most of his kitchen workers when The Chase Center staff shrunk from more than 80 employees to just over 10. "I met everybody and then had to lay them off. It was heartbreaking," he said.

The Pittsburgh native, who has been based in upstate Delaware for 27 years, was eventually furloughed himself and fell back on what he had been doing on his own time for the past eight years or so: working as a volunteer chef for the Food Bank of Delaware.

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He didn't have to go far. The first of what would be many drive-through distributions across the state was held in the parking lot of Frawley Stadium, located right outside the Chase Center.

Sodexo and Chase Center operators Riverfront Development Corporation both gave Berman the go-ahead to use the convention center's kitchens to help make hot meals for the essential workers guiding traffic and handing out boxes of food to those in need.

Megan McGlinchey, RDC executive director, called it a "no-brainer."

Members of the U.S. Army pick up meals while working at a Food Bank of Delaware drive-through food distribution event at Christiana Mall on April 20, 2020.

"Our community is struggling and if there is something we can do for our employees to give back, it just makes sense," said McGlinchey.

Since Berman had time on his hands, along with previous experience volunteering for World Central Kitchen, he headed south with his Chase Center sous chef Mike Doyle when he heard about the Nationals Park effort.

"I wasn't going to sit around; I was going to do something," Berman said.

The nongovernmental organization was founded by celebrity chef Andrés in 2010 to help in the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti that killed more than 100,000. It now fans out across the globe to help during crisis. Berman first volunteered with them at the end of 2018 during the government shutdown, feeding federal workers on Pennsylvania Avenue.

At its peak in Nationals Park, World Central Kitchen produced 16,900 meals in one day using the ballpark's commissary kitchens, along with the kitchens at the Diamond Club behind home plate and the Brewhouse in the outfield, Berman said. 

In his first three weeks in charge of ordering, he dropped $1 million on food and packaging, both of which were sometimes hard to find as the world scrambled and supply chains crumbled.

Chef Jim Berman along with fellow World Central Kitchen workers at Nationals Park on July 20, 2020, where they made meals to feed those in need.

One hot day during the summer, he went to a distribution site in Langley Park, Maryland, and saw first-hand who he was ordering for.

"It had to be 630 degrees outside and there were people waiting as far as you could see on black asphalt for God know how long," he said. "You had moms with their kids in tow and you realized this is their only meal of the day."

It was days like that which ended with a silent 2½-hour drive home – no music, just the sound of Berman's own head spinning: "You almost expect to wake up the next day – not that it was a dream, but that we're back to normal. But this now was normal."

A fancy grilled cheese and a trip out West

In the summer months when the Democratic National Convention was based at The Chase Center, Berman led his home kitchen again as they assisted a previously purchased caterer in feeding the campaign. By election time, his kitchen was making more than 500 meals a day, juggling floating timelines and specialty menus.

Volunteers with José Andrés' World Central Kitchen make sandwiches with Wilmington-based chef Jim Berman at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., on June 6, 2020.

He says he tried to accommodate every request during the campaign's time there, but there was one he couldn't. And it was coming from then-Sen. Harris.

She asked about the possibility of getting an anchovy and arugula pizza. Without a pizza oven (or anchovies or arugula), Berman offered an old favorite instead, serving her a grilled cheese sandwich made with three cheeses (Delice de Bourgogne, Tillamook cheddar and Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam) on crusty semolina bread that "she really, really liked."

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Berman and his kitchen team stayed on through the day after Biden's acceptance speech, which was held in Frawley Stadium's parking lot – the same place where Berman helped feed workers in the first week of the shutdown.

At the end of July, he left for his two-month stint out west in the Bay Area feeding essential power workers, who, like him, were completely quarantined, similar to the National Basketball Association's "bubble" last season.

The operations center ran 20 hours a day, meaning meals at all hours for the 100 or so shift workers. Once that job was done, he headed home in time for the campaign's final stretch.

Turkey operation gets rolling

When Biden officially became president-elect, it had been nearly eight months since the start of both the pandemic and Berman's nationwide mission to help the only way he knows how: by cooking.

A show of support for the Food Bank of Delaware, U.S. Army and American Red Cross at a rainy drive-through food distribution event last year.

And that's when the Operation Rolling Turkey concept popped into his head while he was hunched over a spicy plate at Milburn's Kapow restaurant in Booths Corner Farmers Market in Garnet Valley, Pennsylvania.

"I thought it was an awesome idea," says Milburn, who spent part of his Thanksgiving helping Berman before heading home to finish his own family's holiday dinner. "He had down time and wanted to give back. You can't say no to that."

Berman reached out to Delaware's tight community of chefs and found help everywhere he looked, whether it was Chris Baittinger, the chef behind Wilmington pickle line Bacon & Mason Co., Delaware culinary veteran Morgan Harvey, chef Tony Rizzo of Wilmington's Cinnamon Bun Exchange or Andrew Cini, then-sous chef at Hotel du Pont's Le Cavalier and now head of Soup Noodle Soup.

"Nobody said no to anything," Berman says.

Berman since established the GoFundMe account and is currently registering the rag-tag group of foodie volunteers as an official 501(c) organization. Rolling Turkey's events now usually piggyback onto wellness pop-ups organized by Wilmington police. For Christmas, Rolling Turkey volunteers also brought gloves, socks, scarfs, hats and other items to give away.

The initial idea was to serve a hot Thanksgiving meal to anyone who wanted one – everyone from those in need or without homes to on-duty workers like police officers working on a day when restaurants and takeout spots were closed.

The Chase Center staff in early November 2020 after hosting (and feeding) President Joe Biden Vice President Kamala Harris and their campaign team throughout the summer.

About 80 meals of turkey stroganoff and fixings were served during that first event on Thanksgiving in Rodney Square, which brought out one woman who confided in Berman that her grandfather had died of COVID-19 that morning. 

"She just didn't want to sit at home alone and asked if she could sit with us and have something to eat," he said. "How do you even begin to process that?"

So far, about 1,000 meals have been served by Operation Rolling Turkey over the past four months, including platters of smoked brisket pot roast, shredded barbecue chicken and bowls of turkey chili.

As many have noticed, the one-year anniversary of the shutdown came and went recently, and Berman realized it was the one-year anniversary of the first Food Bank mobile pantry event at Christiana Mall only a few days ago.

The massive operation involved U.S. National Guard, U.S. Army and the American Red Cross. At one point, Berman stopped and took a moment to absorb what he was seeing: a military-led disaster recovery effort.

"That's the moment I realized that this is really is a disaster," he said, taking a moment to gather himself as emotion washed over his face. "It's hard to put into words, but I knew we were going to come out of this a changed people."

Have a story idea? Contact Ryan Cormier of The News Journal at rcormier@delawareonline.com or (302) 324-2863. Follow him on Facebook (@ryancormierdelawareonline) and Twitter (@ryancormier).

HOW TO DONATE OR ATTEND

Donations are accepted through a GoFundMe account at rollingturkey.org.

The next pop-up Operation Rolling Turkey event with free hot meals will be Saturday, April 3 at Adams Four Shopping Center (800 W. Fourth St.) from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.