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Sarasota chef Paul Mattison keeps Florida rescue teams well-fed

You can feast on the cooking of chef Paul Mattison many ways. At streetside tables at Mattison's City Grille in downtown Sarasota, or at Mattison's 41 a few miles south. Or at Bayside before a show at Van Wezel, at swank weddings and society affairs along the Gulf Coast. Or at kids' cooking camp, evening gourmet classes or on guided trips to Italy.

Or under a rain-soaked tent with hundreds of tired linemen and emergency power crews fighting to restore electricity after a hurricane. He may not be serving his artichokes Esther, but the big hot meals he serves are just as welcome for FPL workers and the hundreds rushed in from other states.

While the Red Cross and fast-food companies rush to feed civilian victims, utilities arrange with caterers, logistics outfits and occasionally independent restaurants to feed the workers who will restore power.

"When we've got people working 15 hours in these conditions, we need to take care of them," says Duke Energy spokesman Sterling Ivey. For his company and Gulf Power that means big contractors that specialize in disaster recovery. But it can involve operations as small as Pete and Peg's Roadhouse Grill in St. Cloud, which sends its mobile concession kitchen loaded with home cooking out when Orlando Utilities Commission crews are working night and day.

In Tampa, TECO has 10 caterers ready to cook three meals for its crews without electricity and with a bit of hometown and country flavor. They include barbecue from Lupton's and Fred's Market, Spanish and Italian from Latam and Tony's restaurants as well as Bob Evans and Catering by the Family.

Of course, cooks and servers work on short notice in the same rain, cold and lack of power, but for caterers and restaurateurs who have the mobility, it's a profitable challenge.

One weekend about five years ago, Mattison got word he might be needed: He and his crew would have to be 200 miles away and should start setting up in a parking lot in Sunrise at 3 a.m. Monday. He would feed 300 for breakfast, 500 for lunch, 800 for dinner and then three meals for 1,500 the next day.

He rallied a crew of 20 and loaded his trucks with all the gear and food he had and made their first deadline with a few improvisations. "Probably the first time those linemen had shrimp and smoked salmon for breakfast," Mattison laughs, but he had extra food from a wedding and added it to the buffet.

Mattison's crew worked the staging area for two weeks straight, from 5 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m., grabbing sleep where they could. As the days went by, they mastered the drill. The storm itself helped: Dining dropped off all over Florida, freeing more Sarasota employees to help; the power outages meant vendors had food to move quickly, so Mattison was able to sub ribeyes for beef stew one night.

"My crew said they never worked so hard, made so much money or had so much fun" being part of the rescue effort, Mattison says.