SPOKANE, Wash. – He is the man behind Spokane restaurants like Sante, Inland Pacific Kitchen and Hogwash. Now, Chef Jeremy Hansen is becoming known for his humanitarian efforts.
Chef Hansen spent most of November in Puerto Rico helping to feed Americans left hungry and without power in the wake of Hurricane Maria. He boarded a plane back to Puerto Rico Thursday morning to help the more than 1.5 million people who still do not have power.
After his first trip to Puerto Rico, Hansen went back to cooking at Island Pacific Kitchen where he whipped up a dish that, at this point, he could make with his eyes closed.
"It's like a chicken stew," he said. “The cool thing is you can make it on a…on a...on a large scale."
He knows because he made it on a massive scale practically the entire month of November. Hansen and fellow Spokane chef Aaron Robertson volunteered with relief group World Central Kitchen spearheaded by celebrity Chef Jose Andreas. The Spokane duo was deployed to the mountain region of Utuado, Puerto Rico, a place that had seen little relief.
"They really wanted to get help up there or people fed up there but for some reason they couldn't do it," Hansen explained.
FEMA had gotten a bit of food there in the weeks prior but Hansen, and many others, describe the meals as more like snacks of mostly junk food.
"Even the people that were handing food out and giving it out and helping were like oh man this is... there's not very many nutrients," he said.
So, there in a sweltering school kitchen the Spokane duo, with an assist by a couple of women from Puerto Rico, they set about to finally bring people something nutritious and hot. Every day for three weeks they turned out tens of thousands of meals for hungry Americans.
"It was really heartbreaking though seeing some of these people…how hungry they are," Hansen said.
They were rendered hungry by Hurricane Maria and her 150 mile per hour winds back on September 20. The result was a catastrophic humanitarian crisis for 3.4 million U.S. citizens that has lingered for months. Officials said 90 percent of homes were damaged, roads were impassable and the power grid was obliterated. Hansen said light was most often accompanied by the jarring hum of a generator.
"Nobody in the homes had power. I think maybe a couple houses. But like out of thousands of houses that's like nothing. There's no way to cook. All of the local farms were devastated," he explained. "Everybody grows their own vegetables, everybody has their own not farms, but yards they grow food in. But everything was stripped away."
That is why when Hansen arrived in early November people were ecstatic.
"They couldn't believe it actually. They were just really welcoming and thankful," he said.
For three weeks, the typical day brought an atypical amount of work, making 4,500 meals in an eight-hour period. Hansen said that work has never been more rewarding.
"I hope that in other places in the world when stuff like this happens people can remain positive and friendly just like what's happening here,” Hansen said.
Hansen returned to Spokane changed by people he feels took nothing for granted.
"And when I'm back now I hear people complain about just whatever. A red light or being late or whatever. It's like, 'Pfft.. there's no sense. You're fine.' Even myself. I mean I was complaining about stupid stuff," he explained.
In that way, Hansen believes the people of Puerto Rico gave him more than he gave them.
"I don't know there's something about it that just grabs you by the heart and you can't... I don't want to stop and I want to keep doing this," he said.
When he says he wants to keep doing this, that is a nod to humanitarian work he would like to start locally. He wants to start something called 509-COOKS to help people in crisis. While he is in Puerto Rico for the next three weeks, Hansen will be helping cook for the many people in need there, while also learning a bit more from World Central Kitchen in the hope of starting a relief organization of his own.