A sense of fearless determination took over when chef Kelly Eastwood got the call to help feed people affected by the New Year’s Eve 2019 bushfires on the NSW South Coast.
With the support and guidance of not-for-profit organisation World Central Kitchen, Kelly converted her food business – Eastwood’s Deli and Cooking School in Bermagui – into a fully fledged disaster relief kitchen. Leading a team of 270 volunteers, she produced 46,322 meals over seven weeks for thousands of firefighters and displaced locals.
The operation had to be set up quickly, and cope with large-scale demands and logistics. “All of a sudden, I was being mentored [in disaster relief work] by a chef from Mexico,” Kelly says. “He’s saying, ‘You need to find 80 kilos of potatoes, 80 kilos of onion. You need to find this many tonnes of rice.’ I just sat there and thought, ‘How the hell am I going to find that much food?’”
Kelly rose to the challenge. Businesses in the region weren’t operating normally after the fires, but after convincing local suppliers that her mammoth food order was real, she got to work.
Eastwood’s Deli and Cooking School was reconfigured, as was the nearby basketball stadium, allowing Kelly and the volunteer team to begin work. For 49 days they cooked and prepared daily meals in the face of power cuts, bushfire evacuations and the constant threat of further fires.
“It was overwhelming and surreal,” she says. “It was like opening up a new restaurant every single day with 270 people who had no kitchen experience whatsoever.”
Helping care for her community
Kelly is no stranger to demanding work, having spent 14 years as a chef on superyachts. She turned her skills to television, becoming a food producer for MasterChef, My Kitchen Rules, Better Homes and Gardens and The Great Australian Bake Off before settling on the NSW South Coast for the River Cottage Australia series.
Kelly says helping people during the bushfires has connected her to the South Coast community for life. “It’s taught me a lot about community and how tight we are as well,” she says. “It showed how much care everybody has for each other and how much we all had each other’s backs.
“People come into the cafe all the time and say, ‘Now we know where the food came from, thank you so much’. And then it’s tears. It was just really emotional and exhausting physically and psychologically, the scale of it all.”
Although she feels she could never leave the region, Kelly’s “ultimate fantasy” is to travel with World Central Kitchen one day, helping out in other countries dealing with disasters.
“I’d be passionate about it and I’ve got a little bit of experience under my belt now,” she says. “They go to volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes – whatever it is, they’re there. I’d love to go and do what we did here.”
After COVID-19 affected local businesses, the experience of managing the disaster relief kitchen helped Kelly pivot Eastwood’s Deli and Cooking School to include online take-home meals.
“It’s the biggest part of the business at the moment,” she says. “It’s turned into something that’s been pretty awesome. We deliver up and down the coast, and a lot of the deliveries are to people who have lost their homes and have gone through all of that with us as well.”
Kelly has long believed in the nurturing power of food but never more so than for people in a crisis. “It shows you that someone cares about you and you’re not forgotten,” she says. “For people who have lost their businesses and their homes, who’ve lost absolutely everything and don’t know how to pick themselves up again, it reminds them that they're still loved and they’re not forgotten and not to give up. Just by feeding them at the very least.
“We’re not all in fortunate positions, and that could be us one day as well. I have my health and I have a roof over my head and I have food, but not everybody has those privileges. So I have the ability to help other people where I can.”