Atlantans already know this, but as of this morning the James Beard Foundation has made it even more clear: The work that Giving Kitchen is doing in Atlanta is some of the most important food-related philanthropic work in the country.
The nonprofit, which helps restaurant workers in times of crisis and has a heartbreaking backstory of its own, is the recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s 2019 Humanitarian of the Year Award. Past winners of the award, which honors “an individual or organization working in the realm of food who has given selflessly and worked tirelessly to better the lives of others and society at large,” include celebrity chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, Rick Bayless, Emeril Lagasse, and, last year, José Andrés. Those chefs, typically through their own nonprofits or foundations, have given millions of dollars in aid to a variety of causes. Andrés and his World Central Kitchen, for instance, served more than 3 million meals in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Other recipients of the award include the New Orleans Restaurant Community in 2006, following Hurricane Katrina, and the New York Restaurant Community in 2002, following 9/11.
Giving Kitchen provides assistance to those suffering less headline-grabbing but no less catastrophic setbacks. The nonprofit provides grants to restaurant and catering workers faced with debilitating sickness, disease, or accidents. Such workers are typically underinsured, with limited paid time off. A grant from Giving Kitchen can allow them to pay their medical bills, childcare costs, and rent or mortgage.
“I have never heard of a resource like this in any city, and I’ve lived all over the world,” says Reggie Ealy, a former employee of Home Grown and Revolution Doughnuts who received a Giving Kitchen grant after he was diagnosed in 2016 with Multiple Myeloma, a cancer that accumulates in the bone marrow.
Ealy is among more than 1,500 people to receive assistance from Giving Kitchen, which has now handed out $2.4 million in aid since its founding in 2013.
The organization was borne of a tragedy. While husband and wife Ryan and Jen Hidinger were in the midst of building their dream restaurant, 35-year-old Ryan was diagnosed in 2012 with late-stage gall bladder cancer. Inspired by the immense outpouring of support from the restaurant community—including $275,000 raised through a benefit dinner dubbed Team Hidi—the couple decided that they would launch a nonprofit to help other restaurant workers in need. All the after-tax profits from their restaurant would support their nonprofit, Giving Kitchen.
Ryan died a year before before his restaurant, Staplehouse, opened in 2015. Not only did Staplehouse go on to earn wide acclaim—Bon Appetit named it the country’s best new restaurant in 2016, both the restaurant and its chef have been James Beard finalists, and we named it Atlanta’s best restaurant two years running—but Jen Hidinger-Kendrick has continued to expand the scope and mission of Giving Kitchen, year after year. Its seventh-annual Team Hidi benefit last month raised a record $865,000.
In front of the crowd of hundreds gathered at the benefit, Hidinger-Kendrick recalled her late husband’s reaction to the support he received from restaurant workers who rallied around him after his diagnosis: “I remember Ryan looking at me saying, ‘I want this for everyone.’ And you know what? I do, too. I want this for everyone.”
Ealy says that without the support of Giving Kitchen, he’s not sure how we would have been able to make ends meet while undergoing a stem cell transplant and immunotherapy. He describes Hidinger-Kendrick as a patron saint who helps watch over Atlanta’s tight-knit restaurant community.
“She’s kept the dream of her husband alive,” Ealy says. “And that’s kept the dreams of so many people in the industry alive.”
Giving Kitchen will accept the award at the James Beard Awards Gala on May 6 in Chicago.
Disclosure: Atlanta magazine has donated proceeds from its 50 Best Restaurants event to Giving Kitchen.