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Community Impact

Food for Behind the Front Lines

“What month is it?” laughs Chef Jes Bengston, the Regional Executive Chef of both Terrain Café and Amis Trattoria in Westport. Like many of us, she is still finding it hard to adjust to a life that seemingly went from a hundred miles an hour to zero, overnight.

With COVID-19 tearing through major cities and tiny suburbs alike, businesses that were deemed “unessential” were faced with the decision to close their doors or risk receiving fines and other penalties for violating the state-issued order. March 17th marked day one of the statewide shutdown, with restaurants only being allowed to remain open for takeout and delivery services.

Because of this, many restaurant workers have been furloughed indefinitely. Chef Jes counts herself among the more fortunate ones in the industry, as she is able to work from home even after both of her restaurants decided to close their doors for the remainder of the mandated shutdown.

While many people would welcome a break after fifteen years of working at a breakneck pace (and sure, the Chef does admit she has happily spent more times outdoors and is learning to play the drums), her desire to positively contribute to the community that she is a part of couldn’t let her hands remain idle for long.

Lying in bed one night in April, Chef Jes thought of the many restaurant workers who were being financially devastated by the pandemic. “I just knew that those particular weeks [at the beginning of the shutdown], there was just this need for something because these people needed to eat.”

She decided to start a fundraiser through GoFundMe to buy groceries in bulk and give them to furloughed restaurant workers and their families. Through only her own social media accounts, Chef Jes was able to raise over $2,200 in one week. The money was used to buy an array of fresh food and pantry items which were then packed into individual boxes and handed out to 126 affected families.

Chef Jes places credit for the fundraiser’s success on the community members who funded her late-night musing into a reality and the people who helped execute day-of operations. These people included Nicole Straight of Food for the Front Lines, Ria Rueda of Bread and Butter Marketing, Stephanie Webster of CTbites, and Aitoro Appliance in Norwalk (who generously donated their outdoor space to be used for distributing donations to families).

“I can’t say enough how amazing the community is. It was a very moving experience.”

By the time you are reading this, restaurants and other local businesses may be open to the public in some capacity. Standing in this moment, it’s hard to say exactly what that will look like for restaurants. Chef Jes believes that the return to “normal” will be an uphill climb, with restaurants still needing the help of their communities to help to make it into the next year.

So, what would her suggestions be for ways to support local eateries? If you feel comfortable doing so, go out to eat once restaurants are allowed to seat customers again. If you are still wary of venturing out, order for takeout or delivery, or purchase gift cards for use at a later date.

“Support them. Follow their social media. Spend your money locally. Do whatever you can.”

At the time of our interview with Chef Jes, we are midway through May and still unsure of when social distancing guidelines will ease up. To continue supporting the local restaurant community, she has partnered with CTbites to host more grocery donations in the coming months. You can stay updated on their progress by following CTbites on Instagram (@ctbites) or Facebook.