Chef James Canter's first customer Monday morning was a lost dog. It showed up at the door of Guerrilla Gourmet in Victoria, Texas, like thousands of people affected by Hurricane Harvey have the past few days, and was served a hot breakfast of eggs and donated biscuits.
Canter, 45, who used to be the chef at the Museum of Fine Arts cafe in St. Petersburg, now runs a food truck and brick-and-mortar restaurant on Constitution Street in the historic and solidly constructed building that also houses the Victoria Advocate newspaper. He and his wife, Maureen McKoen Canter, started cooking five days ago in advance of Harvey and have scarcely taken a catnap since then, tucking their three boys, two cats and two dogs into a tent in the back room of the restaurant.
Over the weekend, they were one of the only buildings in town with electricity. Drawn by the light, people would show up at the back door for a bowl of soup or stew. The first day they served 300 people; now it's up to 1,000 a day, largely first responders, energy crews and journalists. About an hour inland and northeast of Corpus Christi, Victoria is near where Harvey made landfall and was under a mandatory evacuation — one many residents didn't heed.
J.R. Ortega, copy desk chief at the Advocate, said fellow newspaper reporters came to work on Friday to hunker down in the block-construction building before Harvey hit, and most of them have pretty much stayed. Canter's food, he said, has been a godsend.
"We lost power on Saturday, and he used the generator in the food truck to cook up food for emergency personnel, the reporters and whoever," Ortega said by phone Monday. "The bigger thing has been water; we've had it off two, going on three, days. As far as I know, they were the only ones serving food. It's a lot of good stuff: burgers and brats, fried rice, pork tacos, we've even had dessert a couple of times."
The first day, Canter made 19 gallons of smoked kimchi chicken stew, which the next day turned into spicy chicken noodle soup and has kept on going. He is serving breakfast at 9 a.m., lunch at 12:30 p.m. and dinner at 6, but he has pots of food available around the clock. And through it all, Willie Nelson is the soundtrack because, Canter said: "He's a good old Texas boy. He's our guy around here."
It's "pay what you can," and Canter said he's heard horrific stories about losses in and around Victoria as he has served folks. With projections that it may take another week to restore power and water to all of Victoria, his pace is not sustainable. Luckily, reinforcements arrived on Monday via roads still littered with downed trees and power lines.
Canter is a member of Chef Cooperatives, a nonprofit based in San Antonio. He put out word on their group chat that he could use help — supplies, cash donations or volunteers. Chefs around the state mobilized.
"I'm on his food truck right now. I'm working the fry station," Stephen Paprocki said by phone Monday afternoon. Paprocki, who owns Texas Black Gold Garlic, and seven other chefs convened in Victoria, many of them stopping along the way to pick up donated food from different sources in the San Antonio area: a whole truckload of produce from Chop Shop Produce, other fruits and veggies from Truckin' Tomato, pork from South Texas Heritage Pork, beef from Mesquite Field Farm. More chefs will arrive Tuesday.
"Right now we're trying to get service back up to speed," Paprocki said. "There were major lines today. And we're trying to get the food truck set up so it can be taken around town."
In the restaurant, Canter holds the phone against his chest as he fields thank-you after thank-you from satiated Victoria residents. Even through the muffle of his shirt, you can hear him say to each one: "God bless, and stay safe out there."
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.