Michael Chernow gets his hands dirty. As one half of the cheeky duo behind The Meatball Shop, the successful mini-chain of ball-focused foods, the Manhattan native made a name for himself by capitalizing on polite toilet humor and mugging for the cameras that love him. But don’t be fooled by the high profile.
In the days and weeks following Hurricane Sandy, Chernow found himself compelled to lend his hand to the people and the city that needed him. Taking a step back from business, Chernow was working in the Rockaways a week after the storm to help rebuild damaged communities. Over a month later, he continues to organize efforts to support those who need help.
The restaurateur discussed his experience with Fork in the Road, weaving his speech with equal amounts of humility and gratitude. “I was a kid growing up here and this city has given me everything,” he said. Now, he’s trying to give something — anything — back.
On taking action:
“When it was all going down, I was really inclined to contribute but I had no idea where to begin. Having never done any kind of hands-on volunteer work before, I felt I needed a good connection to make an impact. Then, the following Sunday, I was practicing yoga at Ashtanga Yoga New York in lower Manhattan. The shall (yoga studio) was cold and without power but we were led by candlelight. The experience actually kind of beautiful and I felt so grateful to be part of the community. Eddie Stern, who runs AYNY, approached me to discuss his volunteer efforts and I immediately said, ‘let’s put a plan together for tomorrow morning.’ And that’s how it started, we were both just sharing the same thought.”
“Of course, getting the work done was something else entirely. I reached out to many of my colleagues in the restaurant industry and, one-by-one, people came to the table. Mathieu Palombino, of Motorino Pizza, was particularly incredible (Ed. note: Despite the closing of the East Village Motorino location due to Sandy, Palombino worked in the dark, mixing pizza dough by-hand in an enormous vat atop a kitchen table). For two weeks after the dust had settled, in my neck of the woods at least, I focused my energy and efforts on bringing food to the people out in the Rockaways. On the first Monday following the storm, we brought 1000 meatballs for 1000 people. On Tuesday, we brought 250 pies of pizza and a ton of bread from Il Forno bakery. That was how it went, everyday, for the next two weeks.”
“On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, we brought out meals for 1,000 people and set up shop at PS 197. Eddie arranged to have a DJ and face painters at the event. All the families we’d met in the preceding days came to the school with their kids and picked up supplies and ate warm food. The experience was incredible for everyone, but it was also greater than the day itself. People caught a glimpse of things starting to turn around, they felt the small sea change. To see the happy, smiling faces of the children who’d been impacted so deeply — with their homes gone, their belongings destroyed and their schools closed — was like a ray of light guiding us towards better days ahead.”
On what’s still needed:
“We’re trying to figure out what to do next now that there are businesses opening and things starting to turn around. The donations have been incredible and many people do know where to turn for supplies. But now the efforts need to be directed towards the higher price tag items- generators, heaters, hand and foot warmers- those things are still desperately needed. Many people have electricity but some are still living without it. Smaller homes and buildings have largely been left out to dry. I know many people will knock the Red Cross, but I’m not going to be that guy. People are helping in any way that they can and, at the end of the day, the government is doing incredibly good work. Nobody can prepare for a disaster like this one. Unfortunately, this is a crash course in what to do when it happens again. At the same time, it’s inspiring to see the wealth of New Yorkers that are ready, willing and able to lend a hand to people whose lives have been drastically altered by a storm.”
On giving thanks:
“This is my hometown and I’m forever humbled by the business that I’ve created. Initially, I said to my business partner, Daniel Holzman, hey man, I want to do this work and I’m sorry that the business could probably use me right now. But he, and the rest of the great people I work with at The Meatball Shop, have been supportive and understanding of my change in job description for the last month. I don’t really know how to explain what I felt — this personal call to help — but I wanted to do this work. I just sort of had to.”