Feeding the Front Lines in Los Angeles
Culinary Arts student Mattia Corbia shares his experience preparing meals for health care workers in LA while the campus was closed.
While the Los Angeles campus was closed, our chef-instructors, students and alumni channeled their culinary creativity in a variety of ways. Some pursued private chef opportunities, returned to food blogging or entered our weekly market basket challenge. And then there were those who used their knowledge and skills for the greater good. Among the many in our community who used the extra availability to prepare dinners for frontline workers, Mattia Corbia shares the 1,000-meal initiative at his family’s restaurant.
In mid-March, only four weeks into his Culinary Arts studies, Mattia was already working in a professional kitchen where he’s spent his entire life: Mauro Cafe. The Italian restaurant inside the Fred Segal store on Melrose Avenue was started by his uncle Mauro, his father Roberto and his other uncle Sergio and was sold to his mother, Evelyne Joan, in 2012.
Mattia started working there at age 16 and remembers scrubbing floors on his hands and knees and washing dishes. At 17, he moved up to busboy, prompted by his mother. “Then I would become a manager or hop in the kitchen and she said, ‘then the sky’s the limit!’” That pivotal promotion shifted Mattia’s relationship with the restaurant forever. “I hopped into prep, and I fell in love with it right away,” he recalls.
After a few years and some time in community college, Mattia decided to attend culinary school at the end of 2019. “At work, I was learning all the recipes, but not the details,” he says, but a few short weeks into his education at ICE, the city shut down. He returned to the restaurant full-time.
“We had a week or two of dead time — things were slow,” Mattia says. So slow that a co-worker brought in a video game console, and when they weren’t playing video games or cards, the crew was outside the restaurant kicking around a soccer ball. Evelyne would not have it.
“She said we were not going to sit around and do nothing,” Mattia says. Aware of Chef Nancy Silverton converting her restaurant, Osteria Mozza, into a relief center for hospitality workers, Mattia’s mother had an idea. She asked one of her servers to reach out to their friend who worked at health care organization Kaiser Permanente. “We asked if they might want free dinner,” Mattia says. “Of course, they said yes.”
Evelyne raised an initial $5,000 from a generous donor to kick-start the restaurant’s efforts and created a GoFundMe page to raise additional funding. In addition to Kaiser, they contacted nearby hospitals like Cedars-Sinai and urgent care facilities. “About three to four times per week, we provided meals for the frontline workers,” Mattia says. “Immediately, the atmosphere in the restaurant boosted.”
They put thought into the type of meals the health care workers would crave — comforting and easily reheatable after a long 12-hour shift and always including dessert. “We prepared pastas, primavera or pink sauce with chicken and peas, a side salad of frisee or mixed greens, bread rolls and little pastries like a chocolate fondant or madeleines,” Mattia says. “Everything was made in house.” The staff even wrote inspirational notes and funny jokes on the packaging. And they didn’t shy away from dietary preferences: for every 40 meals, they prepared 10 vegetarian and five vegan versions.
After two and a half months and more than 1,000 meals, things reopened and the health care workers’ needs changed. The crew at Mauro’s shifted their efforts but did not cease their philanthropic work. “Every Wednesday we give goods to the church, like dried pasta, beans, tomato sauce,” Mattia says. “We want to keep the ball rolling, as you give more, you get more.” He refers to one example of the increase in positive Yelp reviews the restaurant received after feeding the frontline workers.
“When we work as a team, I know it sounds cliché, we are all on the frontlines,” Mattia says of what this experience has taught him. He also recognizes the importance that restaurants play in society.
“We were donating so much, we were even selling toilet paper we sourced from our produce supplier,” Mattia says. “It made me realize how much power a restaurant has, how much we can help and be a part of the community.”
Mattia has returned to his studies at ICE, while he continues to contribute at the restaurant and looks to the future. “For my externship, I want to expand my horizons,” he says, stepping outside of the restaurant so he is not within earshot of his mother. “I was thinking of going to Spain.”
Mattia values the experience of growing up in the restaurant industry around a mother who shares her passion for cooking and eating.
“Cooking was always in me,” he says. “When I was 11 or 12, my mom bought me a barbecue grill and every weekend I would grill meat for my friends.” His mother attended Le Cordon Bleu in Los Angeles, and he fondly remembers her introducing him to a variety of foods when he was young. “I ate uni and all the stuff that kids usually don’t eat. My palate was a little bit better than [my friends]. I ate olives and sushi and my mother exposed me to so much good food.”
His father, who was also a chef, died tragically when Mattia was only 3-years-old. “Even the chefs here tell me I walk like him, talk like him,” he says. “When the rush is coming, I tell my mother to get out of the kitchen, which she says stresses her out because I sound just like him.”
Mattia explains that his single mother emphasized independence from a young age. “She taught my sister and I to work. If you want something, you have to pay for it.” Evelyne left France at age 18 to go to Spain and Italy, eventually meeting up with his father in the U.S.
Now she’s teaching her son about giving back. “There’s a homeless woman who lives two blocks from the restaurant that the police were harassing,” Mattia says, adding that his mother provides her with clothing and feeds her each day. The pandemic was merely another opportunity for Evelyne to be an example for her son to help others.
“She immediately knew we needed to give back,” Mattia says. “I realized it, too.”
He’s already thinking of ways to share his culinary training while giving back. “I would love to teach kids about food that don’t have the opportunity to do so,” Mattia says.
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