As the holiday season becomes more of a memory and true winter settles in, things become a bit quieter in the Hamptons. With the “season of giving” behind us, it is easy to forget that there are many people who could use a bit of help year-round, and in the wake of Superstorm Sandy the numbers of those in need and displaced has grown. One local chef is tackling the problem on a day-to-day basis.
Tucked away in the corner of the Hamlet Green next to the Hampton Bays movie theater is a small restaurant, Frutta di Mare, owned and operated by Chef Marco Barrila and his fiancée, Sheila Minkel.
Frutti di Mare is also the hub kitchen of Barrila’s renowned Insatiable EATs catering company, but as the home base for his Frugal Food Project it is as vital for serving the community as it is known for serving Mediterranean fare.
Born in Messina, Italy, Barrila first learned to cook in his grandmother’s trattoria. At 24 he moved to America to become a chef in Manhattan, starting as head chef at Sfuzzi and eventually moving on to the high-profile Fiorello’s at Lincoln Center, where in 1999 he landed on a list with the likes of Daniel Boulud and Marcus Samuelsson as one of New York’s Top 40 chefs.
After a holiday trip to the Hamptons, Barrila fell in love with the East End, and its fresh, local ingredients reminded him of his native Messina. He moved east, and with Minkel opened Insatiable EATS in 2008, then started the Frugal Food Project in 2009, working with Citizens 4 Humanity (which his fiancée’s sister started), a national organization that applies the think-globally-act-locally philosophy, to help fight hunger in the area.
Barrila feels the best way to help hungry people is to give them food. And while working as a private chef for the mega-rich in the Hamptons, he had a revelation. A client would tell Barrila to get 20 lobsters for a dinner party but would only need five. The amount of food waste bothered the chef but he realized something—if he could donate even 10 or 20% of the waste, he could help feed people in need.
Big flashy charity dinners, Barrila says, are often expensive and usually a pat on the back for the people throwing the party, but you rarely really see where the aid goes or hear from the people who are helped directly. He wants to see the food and donations go directly in the hands of the needy, no middlemen.
His approach to giving back is functional, door-to-door, neighbor-helping-neighbor, community-based work. “We have to look at the little stuff,” Barrila says. “We always look at the big stuff. Look at your neighborhood—your neighbor may need help.
“We are fishermen, we are all workers in Hampton Bays, regular people,” Barrila continues. “The community is not all rich, and we need to help each other. Together we can achieve a lot.”
At Frutti di Mare, they practice what they preach on a hyperlocal level. At the end of the day, local homeless and families in need come in and are given dinner and food to take home out of what is leftover from that day’s service. Barrila says they feed 10 to 15 families a week, but sometimes that number jumps to fifty.
After Superstorm Sandy, the need was much greater. Citizens 4 Humanity has become the first response for the Red Cross on the East End, and following Sandy the Red Cross called on Barrila for help.
The chef—who also personally donated food and clothing for families affected by Sandy and helped find Christmas accommodations for families displaced by the storm—responded by preparing 400 meals in three and a half hours.
Quantity matters, certainly, but Barrila also wishes to upgrade the quality of food being donated. Instead of giving people canned food, he would like to create a food bank of cooked meals, made of fresh nutritious ingredients. After the meal is cooked it can be put in a special bag, cryovacked and frozen. When it is time to eat the meal, Barrila says, all that needs to be done is cook the bag in boiling water until it is hot, then open and eat.
The Frugal Food Project initially began as a way to help single parents feed their kids, but it didn’t take long before Barrila realized that there were many more families in need than just single-parent homes, and the charity has been growing ever since. However, with growth comes the need for more donations, in the form of money, food, time and effort.
Barrila is dedicated to aiding his community, and he appreciates the support he’s received from local businesses, markets and restaurants. But his small organization cannot do it alone.
“We need help,” Barrila says. “We need big-money people to reach in their pockets and buy a food kitchen. We want food trucks. This is hard to do as a small business owner. With more money we can do this on a much larger scale.”
For more information about Citizens 4 Humanity, call Sheila MInkel at 631-377-3353 or visit citizens4humanity.com