Cooks Who Care: Organization Bolsters Community in a Lonely Industry

Chef Maria Campbell founded her not-for-profit to support the health and well-being of workers in the food and beverage industries.

Maria and Scott Campbell of Cooks Who Care
Maria Campbell and her husband, Scott, dealt with mental-health struggles brought on by the restaurant industry. It led Maria to start Cooks Who Care. Photo courtesy of Vincent Rebbecchi

Though she is better known as a mental-health advocate, Maria Campbell dubs herself a chef by trade.

She and her husband, Scott, were chefs for many years. After they had a child, Maria stayed home while Scott continued working. That resulted in some mental-health struggles for the pair. Maria remembers thinking, How do we do this and still be a part of the industry?

Chatting with friends and coworkers, the two discovered they were not alone. So Maria took it upon herself to begin a conversation not many people were having at the time.

“It started with a group of chefs, and we wrote down what is so backwards and broken in our industry,” she says. “We began thinking about how we could help each other as a community.”

In 2017, Maria started Cooks Who Care, a not-for-profit dedicated to supporting the health and well-being of food and beverage industry workers. They’ve made it their mission to become a resource through events, seminars and other community-driven projects in the Greater Philadelphia area, including New Jersey.

In December, the organization released the Cooks Who Care Community Cookbook, a digital compilation of video demonstrations from local chefs committed to supporting mental-health advocacy. Proceeds benefit the Cooks Who Care Community Fund for food-service workers in the Greater Philadelphia area.

“When there is someone in the industry who isn’t having their best day, I want to be the hand that reaches out,” says Maria, who plans on making a print version of the cookbook later this year. “I want to tell them there is a community that cares about them and understands what they’re going through.”

How did Cooks Who Care start?
Maria Campbell: In the beginning [2017], we interviewed 100 chefs for a YouTube channel and asked them to get honest about the industry and their experience within it. For example, I was married to a chef who wasn’t home, and we had a kid. After doing 100 interviews, we figured out that everyone felt somewhat alone. Some would say they had a marriage or relationship but it couldn’t outweigh their sustainability in the industry. We felt it didn’t have to be this way. It opened another kind of dialogue.

What kind of outreach does Cooks Who Care do?
We do a ton of outreach and are starting to do a lot more. This year we are planning on doing a lot of cooking demos and bridging things for the community in Camden with Cheldin Barlatt Rumer. She is from IG Creative, which helps small businesses grow their community, and is putting a space together that will include the Cooks Who Care community.

How did the Community Cookbook come about?
At the start of the pandemic, I wanted to help the industry, especially the small businesses. They needed to get their names out there, so I reached out to a friend who does some film work, Eric Lovett Jr. We did a Cooks Who Care takeover, born of the intent to serve the community. We had chefs and people in the industry come in and film a recipe while also telling their stories. The project turned into a digital cookbook. People can listen to the stories as they make a meal.

Are there plans to print the cookbook?
Yes, we’re really excited about putting this into print! The chefs, mixologists, wellness experts, etc. featured made some incredible food and drink items, but we’ve found that the key element was getting to know the person who created them. What you don’t see is the time it takes to develop their craft, or the mental health affected, or the sacrifices they made to do what they do.

How did you choose what went into the cookbook?
People gave us more recipes than we knew what to do with! Our budget could only afford 80 pages, so we threw in some bonus recipes in the video part of the book. Because we are self-publishing, I’m learning while doing. Each chef only had 30 minutes to make their items, but we edited it down to 15 minutes or less for each video. You can read steps in a recipe, but a video really shows you exactly what is meant to be done.

Are there chefs in the book from Jersey?
Yes. Springfield-based chef Joshua Walbolt of Lovefoodmore Productions created a fried congee with duck confit and truffle chili glaze. We also got fish from Dock Street in Wildwood. We are really trying to do more with Cooks Who Care in the Jersey area so everyone can be involved in this connection with their craft.

Do you have a favorite recipe in the book?
I love the versatility of the book and recipes, as well as the different tips you can pull from each chef. I made my own recipe for the book, which was beets and salmon. We bought the seafood from Dock Street in Wildwood. I showed people some knife skills and did roasted vegetables and used an infused vinegar with the salmon, which added so much flavor.

What does Cooks Who Care ultimately mean to you?
I was terrified at the beginning of the year and asked the food and beverage community to be a part of it, because they have been through so much. When I was embraced by the industry and had people wanting to help, I felt the love. I do this as a self-healing but also because I know there is a community that feels so disconnected from each other. We want to be the place people run to when they’re feeling alone, and [we] help any way we can. We just want to keep doing more.

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