It's been about 9 months since Hurricane Maria thrashed through the Caribbean in September of 2017, leaving a swath of destruction from the island of Dominica to Puerto Rico to Florida in its path, but there are still plenty of fresh reminders of just how much havoc the storm wreaked on the area as it steamrolled its way north. "Most of the homes and businesses in San Juan do have power, but only about 10 to 20 percent of traffic lights in the city actually work, and they’re still missing a lot of signage, like highways signs, or big billboards blown over," says Larkspur Dining Director Anthony Pinard. "Especially when we went to some of the more rural parts of the country, it wasn’t unusual for houses to be missing walls or roofs—this one home, in particular, the only thing that was there was the floor and the refrigerator. Nothing else."
Pinard and eight of his fellow coworkers from Golden Peak's Larkspur Restaurant took advantage of the business's seasonal closure at the end of the 2017/18 winter season to skip town for part of May. Instead of decompressing at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico like most Vailites, the Larkspur crew put their culinary skills to work in Puerto Rico, where they teamed up with chef and restaurateur José Andrés' global nonprofit World Central Kitchen to prepare and serve hot meals for hungry locals still impacted by the fall hurricane. It all started with a staff meeting months earlier, when talk turned to ways the restaurant could help out with the situation in the US territory. "I had read another article about Puerto Rico, but it had been about four months since the hurricane and no one was really talking about it anymore," recounts Pinard. "We looked at getting involved in a number of different ways, but [Larkspur owner] Thomas [Salamunovich] suggested we play to our strengths and use our skills in the kitchen."
So, Salamunovich kicked in the funding to send nine employees south, where they spent four days cooking enormous batches of meat, rice and vegetables—two-to-eight thousand meals a day, to be exact—in a jumbo-sized kitchen in San Juan, feeding hungry islanders at local churches, or distributing hot meals door to door with a local guide. The Larkspur team spent its last day at a farm on the southwest corner of the island, helping repair fences and planting softball-sized seeds to replace plantain trees that had been ripped from their roots. The work was rewarding, they say, but after five-days of volunteering, they appreciated how much still needs to be done. "A lot of the people down there don't have the means to help themselves, the first part of that being access to food," says Pinard. "They don't have the infrastructure right now for energy or for water, and a lot of people down there, especially in the rural areas, still rely on generators that have been donated, but the problem is now fuel. There's a lot of concern now with the upcoming hurricane season—that's supposed to be even worse than last year—if they get hit again, it's going to be absolutely devastating."
In the meantime, Puerto Rico is slowly finding its footing, with cruise ships packed with passengers starting to call on San Juan's Cruise Port (as of March it was estimated that about 85 percent of San Juan businesses were serving customers). But the territory's main industry—tourism—hasn't rebounded quickly enough for many locals who still suffer through rolling blackouts, lack of housing, and access to nourishing food. Getting able-bodied locals to stay has been a challenge, too, as over 200,000 residents of Puerto Rico are expected to resettle in Florida and Texas by the end of 2018.
As for the group from Larkspur, they might have all returned to the restaurant's slopeside dining room at Golden Peak, but goodwill cultivated from the trip is fresh in their minds. "Everyone in the group had a terrific time, the locals were all warm and hospitable, and from the cities to the beaches, the country has a lot to offer," adds Pinard. "I hope the best for them."