“I don’t have to be rich. I’m a cook, that will never happen anyway “: this chef on leave borrowed a food truck, served Thanksgiving and found an idea he could implement
Forty-eight-year-old Jim Berman wouldn’t call his first food job “cooking,” per se. At 15, he left his hometown of Pittsburgh and went to Canada for the summer to serve tables for a fishing club that needed help in the kitchen. He was what he called “the assistant-assistant-assistant cook”, which meant he was filling soup cups and chopping lemons. While studying economics at university and needed an apartment, he walked past a restaurant looking for a “grill cook, experience required”. He had cooked on the grill in his parents’ house; it wasn’t exactly a lie. He got the job. After that it was in Santa Fe to pursue his older career; then to Delaware, where in January 2020, he became executive chef of Wilmington’s Chase Center, the region’s largest special events center, formerly known as the election headquarters of the Biden campaign. Less than three months after taking office, he laid off nearly 80 people. Coupled with his big-room skills and a network of chefs on forced sabbaticals, Berman’s familiar DNA-level need to feed people practically wrote the next chapter for him.
I inherited from an employee of a large establishment who did a lot of business – 3,000 meals a week. At the end of March, I laid off practically all my staff. Here’s the new one, and one of my first official responsibilities at the Chase Center was making this call. And then, in mid-April, I was fired. So I went from a 60 hour work week to zero. I would say that at our lowest point we still had maybe five people on the payroll.
During the summer, I volunteered with World Central Kitchen; commuting daily between Wilmington and Nationals Park in Washington, DC, where I was the executive chef in charge of on-site sourcing. Meals were distributed to community centers, first responders and anyone who came to distribution locations.
In October, I returned to work part-time at the Chase Center, doing mostly paperwork, menu writing – pretty much whatever needed to be done; cleaning, moving tables and chairs. The building was closed with the exception of very small meetings that were guidelines for gatherings.
Thanksgiving was early. My boyfriend has a little Thai food stall in the farmers market, of all places – this amazing Thai food oasis that has three bar stools and a tiny little kitchen. He also has a few food trucks and didn’t use them for vacations. I said, “Let’s go feed some people.”