Local chefs cooking up meals for frontline workers treating COVID-19 patients.
Pig in a Fur Coat sous chef Pat Hickman slices Mexican chili crusted pork loin destined to health care workers at SSMHealth hospital in Madison Thursday. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Father of SSMHealth ICU nurse comes up with idea to show gratitude to daughter, coworkers by bringing good eats their way

The dinners being served lately to healthcare workers at Madison’s SSMHealth Hospital sound like they came straight off the menus of the city’s top restaurants.

Take one of last week’s offerings: Duck confit with a Spanish garbanzo bean stew, roasted pork in a date-infused mole sauce and blackened chicken with aged cheddar grits.

So perhaps it would surprise no one to find out the city’s top chefs are now cooking for workers,  sending 100 meals a night to those on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the  Help a Hero, Save a Restaurant program developed by Madison attorney Eric Farnsworth.

His daughter, Taylor, is a nurse in the ICU at St. Mary’s, working 12-hour shifts taking care of COVID-19 patients.

“And those shifts are often longer than 12 hours. They work, go home and sleep and get up and do it again,’’ Farnsworth said. “We’d talk to her on the phone and she’d be waiting in the drive-thru lane at Culver’s for dinner. One time she tried to get dinner at a sandwich shop and the guy yelled at her and told her she shouldn’t be in there.”

Pig in a Fur Coat chef Daniel Bonanno, right, and co-owner Bonnie Artent dish up Mexican chili crusted pork loin with roasted vegetables at his restaurant Thursday. Bonanno then delivered the 100 dinners to health care workers at SSMHealth hospital in Madison. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Taylor told him that her co-workers with families have it worse because they were sleeping in basements or in a tent in the garage to avoid infecting their families. 

“I thought, the least we can do is get these people a warm meal,” he said. 

Meanwhile, he knew that many of his favorite restaurants had closed and laid off staff because of the pandemic. So he asked some of his chef friends if they’d be interested in cooking for health care workers.

Food handoff
Pig in a Fur Coat chef Daniel Bonanno arrives at SSMHealth Hospital in Madison to deliver 100 dinners of Mexican chili crusted pork loin with roasted vegetables to health care workers. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Tory Miller of L’Etoile, Dan Bonanno of A Pig in a Fur Coat, and Dave Heide of Liliana’s agreed immediately.

The effort is supported by a Go Fund Me  page and a private contribution to the St. Mary’s Foundation. Farnworth says there’s currently enough to pay for three meals a week for three weeks. If they take in more donations, they can expand to more chefs serving more hospitals, he said.

“It felt so good to be back in the kitchen again and accomplish something,’’ said Bonanno. “By giving them something a little different to eat after a difficult shift lets them know, ‘We’re looking out for you.’”

Bonanno is cooking for the health care workers on Thursday nights. He made a mole pork roast last week and is cooking Argentine style brisket with chimichurri sauce this Thursday.

At L’Etoile, Miller said he’s been able to bring back some of his staff by cooking for the hospital workers on Tuesdays and for takeout family dinners on Wednesday through Saturday nights.

Last Tuesday, he went French with duck confit. Tuesday he’s going with his Korean heritage and dishing up traditional bibimbap. His wife Christine, a pastry chef, also creates a special dessert to go along with the dinner. Last week, it was salted caramel brownies.

“It’s good because we get to buy food from local producers,’’ he said. “People get to eat good food and we get to cook.”

SSMHealth employees head back into the Madison hospital to distribute free meals to employees. (Photo © Andy Manis)

In Other Food News

In addition to the Feed a Hero program, Heide has several charity endeavors to help people in difficult times through his restaurants, which are named for his children: Liliana’s in Fitchburg, Charlie’s on Main in Oregon, and Little John’s, a pop-up named for his youngest son.

Through Little John’s, a group of 70 volunteers is cooking up and delivering six family meals a week for families of 636 small children who are enrolled in the Head Start Program. That program, through Reach Dane, has enough funding to operate until Friday and is in need of further donations.

“Some of these familes don’t know where their next meal will come from,’’ Heide says. “Our goal is to get good food into kids’ tummies.”

People who want to donate to that program can donate here or email Heide directly at  Dave@littlejohnsrestaurant.com

Heide is also running a “pay it forward” soup operation at Liliana’s for people willing to donate to cover other’s meals, including donations to homeless shelters, and with Bonanno and other Madison chefs, this week launched NomNomNom Kits

These feature meat and produce from local farmers who can no longer sell at farmer’s markets, along with a chef-created sauce to pull the meal together. Profits will support the emergency fund at the Dane County Farmers’ Market and REAP food group.