LeBlanc describes his mission as an answer to a "burning, driving, all-powerful call: Just feed people."

Advertisement
Chef Gary LeBlanc Southerner of the Year: The First Responder
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

In the days following Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, as the levees broke and the water rose in New Orleans, chef Gary LeBlanc sat in front of the television at his house in Virginia and felt a strong tug at his heartstrings. He had moved to Portsmouth nearly a decade earlier, but the Louisiana native had spent 16 years in the restaurant business in New Orleans, and for him, it would always be home. “I watched the pictures on TV of the people being plucked out of the water and deposited on the bridges, and I recognized those I had worked with. I was just like, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ Donating 10 bucks wasn’t going to ease my soul,” says LeBlanc.

He returned to New Orleans to help in the best way he knew how. He volunteered as a cook with a few well-meaning groups, but he believed more could be done. “I didn’t understand why there wasn’t a professional involved,” he says. “Where was my industry? From my town? Feeding my people?” NOLA residents had lost everything, and LeBlanc felt they deserved more. “I can’t just open a can of green beans and scoop them onto a plate 12 nights in a row.”

Frustrated by what he’d seen after Hurricane Katrina, LeBlanc started Mercy Chefs in 2006. He and a team of professional cooks began showing up in the wake of natural disasters to serve restaurant-quality meals to victims and first responders. He describes it as a “burning, driving, all-powerful call: Just feed people.”

The Mercy Chefs team has provided more than 2 million meals to date, but the impact is far greater than giving away plates of food. “It’s the most amazing thing to share a meal with somebody,” says LeBlanc, explaining that it’s a symbolic promise of hope and recovery.

In addition to their disaster-relief efforts, Mercy Chefs opened a community kitchen in 2019 in Portsmouth to support their own city on a permanent basis. “This wasn’t how I intended to spend the rest of my career or the rest of my life,” says LeBlanc. “But here I am, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”