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In Mexico City, Restaurant Kitchens Turn Into Relief Centers

How free meals fostered community after the earthquake

Outside the Enrique Rebsamen school in Mexico City.
Daniel Cardenas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in Mexico City, families and friends were enjoying the famous tuna tostadas at the lauded Contramar restaurant. Just after 1 p.m., the restaurant began to shake. Locals, known as chilangos, immediately recognized the forceful tremblings as an earthquake with deadly potential.

Contramar manager Armando Camacho quickly sprang into action, enacting the restaurant’s well-rehearsed emergency protocol and ushering customers outside. “It was a terrible moment,” Camacho said. “Everything was shaking. It looked like a building near us was going to fall, and in front, there was a gas leak. In that moment, we didn’t have an idea of the magnitude of damage that it caused.”

The September 19 earthquake killed nearly 200 people in the capital and at least 125 more in other parts of the country. At least 44 buildings collapsed in Mexico City, including some close to Contramar and Barracuda, a nearby restaurant with the same owner. Just two hours earlier, the city had undergone an earthquake drill to mark the 32nd anniversary of a 1985 earthquake that killed at least 5,000 people.

The Tuesday earthquake shook many Mexicans into action, including a whole generation who didn’t experience the 1985 earthquake. The help came in all forms — from donating medicine to clearing rescue sites in search of survivors to providing free psychological counseling. In the intensity of the search and rescue, taking care of basic needs often falls to the wayside. But the free meals provided by restaurants like Contramar have proven to be a crucial part of the rescue efforts.

“I’m here simply with the pleasure of knowing that I am giving food to a lot of people who are helping,” Barracuda waiter Antonio Rosales said on Sunday, “and it’s a chain that we are all supporting to be able to move forward.” Rosales had been working since Wednesday, serving free food at Contramar, as his usual employer, Barracuda, had shut down.

In the immediate hours after the earthquake, Rosales, Camacho, and other restaurant workers became part of rescue efforts, with many moving rubble from a nearby office building that collapsed. Authorities eventually took over the task of searching for survivors. Camacho and his colleagues were no longer able to assist in this way, so they decided to help the best way they knew how.

“We couldn’t help hands-on, so we started evaluating the situation to see if we could bring food,” Camacho said. “There were so many people bringing food [to the rescue sites from restaurants or their homes] that we decided it was better to prepare food here, so people could have a moment of rest in a clean place where they could eat something, wash their hands, rest a little, charge their cellphone, and use the bathroom.”

Camacho called Contramar’s owner Gabriela Cámara, who was in San Francisco, to ask her approval to use the kitchen to serve free food: “She was totally in agreement with the idea,” Camacho said. He then called up their food producers to make the arrangements: Transit in Mexico City was difficult on the Tuesday of the quake — residents lost power and the streets were filled with people — but the transportation chaos settled down more or less in the following days, allowing produce deliveries to arrive to the restaurant.

Camacho estimates that by Sunday, five days after the earthquake, Contramar had served 6,000 free meals, with the restaurant assuming 80 percent of the costs. Producers took on the remaining costs, by providing free or discounted fish and vegetables.

The food was first served at the restaurant, but over the weekend, Contramar once again opened its doors to paying customers. “The economy needs to start again, and many families depend on this business,” Camacho said. But just a few doors down, Contramar continued serving free food buffet-style — fish tacos and agua de jamaica (hibiscus water) — in separate dining area they had set up. “We can’t remove debris, but we can give people food,” Camacho said.

A volunteer hands out food to rescue team member in Mexico City on September 21, 2017.
Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

About 12 miles south of Contramar, in the family-owned Restaurante Leo near the collapsed Enrique Rebsámen school, a similar situation played out. Miguel Angel, the restaurant’s manager who preferred to be identified without his last name, started to feel the restaurant shake early Tuesday afternoon. He shouted at his team to leave the building and quickly closed the gas before running out himself.

Seconds later — earthquakes typically last 10 to 30 seconds — Miguel Angel heard a loud crash and saw the cloud of dust rise as the school collapsed. “Rosa [Restaurant Leo’s owner] was there near the tree, crying and in despair,” Miguel Angel recounted recently, noting Rosa’s son was in the school at the time of collapse. She was soon able to find her son unharmed; but still upset from the events, she asked Miguel Angel to act as the unofficial spokesperson for the restaurant.

In the immediate aftermath, Miguel Angel and other cooks and waiters from the restaurant rushed over to the school to help; some survivors were rescued from the rubble, and others were found dead. (As of this writing, the death toll at the collapsed Enrique Rebsámen site is 25, six adults and 19 children; the tragedy has raised questions about the quality of the school’s construction).

After Miguel Angel checked in on his wife at home, who was unharmed, he headed back to the restaurant to see what more he could do. “I thought, ‘I’m going to try to help,’ and I tried to go into the rescue site,” Miguel Angel said. “But they wouldn’t let me in. By that time, the police, army, and marines had arrived. I felt frustrated and thought [to myself], how can you help?”

The answer: Miguel Angel organized his kitchen staff. In the days after the earthquake, Restaurante Leo served coffee and food to thousands of marines, volunteers, rescuers, and doctors who descended upon the school, which has emerged as an unfortunate emblem of the loss caused by the earthquake. As the local and international media followed the school’s story over several days, the restaurant offered journalists a place to sit down, rest, connect to wifi, and charge their phones.

As Restaurante Leo’s manager, Miguel Angel has now started to worry about how the lower-profile restaurant will absorb the costs of its recent efforts, including food, electricity, and gas. The neighborhood was badly hit by the earthquake, with an apartment building on the corner near collapse and declared uninhabitable. In the south of the city, far away from more central tourist hotspots like Condesa, Restaurante Leo is unlikely to receive many tourism dollars to boost its economic recovery.

But these concerns came after the international camera crews cleared the area and the number of police, marines, and volunteers began to dwindle (although today, they are still working to clear the area, in the second week of recovery). Like many Mexicans, Miguel Angel chose to put others first in the immediate aftermath. “I’ve learned in the last 32 years since the earthquake in 1985 that one thing hasn’t changed in spite of so much technology, internet and social media: the solidarity of the Mexican people,” he said.

It was a solidarity that lasted even after many sites were cleared. “We didn’t think so many people would come, but the restaurant filled up,” Contramar’s Camacho said of Sunday’s return to regular service. “So many people are still helping in the collection centers and at the fallen buildings.”

“Our intention was never for people to recognize what we are doing,” he adds. “We just wanted to help, and I think we have had a great impact.”

Anna-Cat Brigida is a freelance journalist who covers politics, immigration, and culture in Latin America.
Editor: Erin DeJesus