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Spokane chef Jeremy Hansen reflects on the 25,415 meals he helped cook and serve in Puerto Rico

Chef Jeremy Hansen models a Spokane Cooks for Puerto Rico sweatshirt in the dining room of Inland Pacific Kitchen, one of his downtown Spokane restaurants. Proceeds from the T-shirts and sweatshirts will go toward meals for victims of Hurricane Maria. (Adriana Janovich / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane chef Jeremy Hansen traveled to Puerto Rico at the end of October to spend a month cooking meals for island residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

The hurricane made landfall Sept. 20, knocking out power to the U.S. territory’s 3.4 million inhabitant. Three months later, parts of the island remain without power.

Hansen and one of his employees, chef Aaron Robertson, helped prepare and serve more than 25,000 meals for hurricane victims with support of chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen as well as Spokane-area donors. They held a benefit dinner at the Washington Cracker Building to raise funds before they left.

Hansen remained in Puerto Rico until Nov. 22, returning in time for Thanksgiving. He plans to return this week to spend most of the first month of the year in the U.S. territory cooking more meals with World Central Kitchen.

Here, we catch up with Hansen, whose Spokane restaurants include Santé and Inland Pacific Kitchen, about his initial trip.

How much was raised during the Oct. 27 benefit dinner? About $8,000.

When did you leave, and when did you return? Oct. 28 and Nov. 22.

What made you decide to go? I saw what was happening and felt like I needed to do my part.

What were your initial impressions? It was dark and lifeless. There was nobody around. There was garbage everywhere, in piles in the streets. All the streets were dark. It was kind of crazy. It was already a month after Maria, and it was bad. Everything was boarded up and shut down. No stoplights were working. There was debris everywhere. Cars were abandoned. It was really eerie. Probably 10 percent of the people had power.

How big was the team? It was the two of us, plus four helpers. We called them the mariposas (butterflies). They were these four ladies who helped us.

Where were you stationed? We helped in two areas: San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, and Utuado, in the central mountainous region. It was one of the hardest hit areas. Utuado was just destroyed. We used a kitchen in a school. The school was still in good working condition.

How’s your Spanish? I speak kitchen Spanish.

How many meals did you cook in all? 25,415. The first few days, we only cooked 400 to 600 meals per day. Then I got on the radio, and the very next day we had a line out the door. We did 4,400 meals the next day. They were in desperate need of food. They had no food. I got on the radio twice.

What did most meals consist of? Mostly rice under a chicken stew of some sort, usually chicken or pork adobo. Instead of rice, sometimes we used yuca root and potatoes. We set up a scoop-and-serve station. People filled up containers and took them home and to the hard-to-get-to areas.

What did it feel like to be there? I grew up a poor kid. You have rough times. But it’s not the same thing. I had a lot of emotions. Mostly disgust. It was a really bad situation. There was a lot of red tape. I think people felt abandoned. I think people felt helpless. On the other hand, it was exciting; it was energizing. People were really appreciative. They were pretty resilient. That kind of balanced out the disgust. Everybody just did what they could to help each other out.

Were things improving by the time you left? It got better and better. When I left a lot more stores were open and more power was on. But I didn’t have a hot shower the entire time I was there.

What’s next? I’m planning to go back Jan. 4 to 22. I’m going to Utuado to visit. Then I’m going to San Juan to cook with World Central Kitchen. And I want to start my own organization called 509 Cooks because I want to do something local.