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A COVID-19 Hero Called to Serve Philadelphia

November 9, 2020

Zac Cohen, a Culinary Arts and Science junior, already has an impressive resume. Cohen has been working in Philadelphia-area restaurants since high school, starting at Stargazy before moving on to Zahav and Abe Fisher and eventually landing as a prep cook at Vernick Food & Drink.

“When looking at schools, I wanted to be able to keep my job at Vernick and continue to cultivate the relationships I have with local chefs,” he said. With that in mind, what one Drexel Food and Hospitality staff member told him cemented his decision to enroll. “I know Executive Chef Rich Pepino—he went to my high school. He knows people in my family. He told me that Drexel offers what other schools can’t." Pepino told Cohen that there aren’t many other culinary schools that have a co-op program. “That was one of the biggest deciding factors for me," he confessed.

Culinary Arts and Science junior, Zac Cohen (second from right) helping out local Philly chefs at Everybody Eats pop-upCohen’s path was set, and he continued working at Vernick throughout his first few years at Drexel. That is, until March when the COVID-19 pandemic brought the food and hospitality industry to a screeching halt and turned up the heat under his interest in civic engagement. Instead of transitioning to take-out, Vernick decided to temporarily close, leaving Cohen without a job and with time on his hands.

When he was contacted by several Philadelphia chefs asking if he was available to volunteer at an event that they were organizing called Everybody Eats, he was able to enthusiastically say yes. “It's great to help the community,” he shared. “It's also great to help friends with a project.”

Started by Philadelphia Chefs Stephanie Willis, Kurt Evans, Elijah Mulligan, Aziza Young, Gregory Headen and Malik Ali, Everybody Eats is an organization dedicated to increasing food security and leading the community in the fight against hunger. They host bi-weekly, chef-led food and essentials drives and give out what they collect to various communities in Philadelphia for free. Food is donated by several local restaurants, including Vernick Food & Drink, and several more are collecting donations of household goods and non-perishable food.

“I’ve been connected with these chefs for a long time now. I worked the first Cooking for the Culture dinner during the summer of 2018. That was started by Kurt, Elijah and a number of other African American chefs in Philadelphia. Ever since, I’ve been helping them with their other events.”

Everybody Eats’ first pop-up in June, which took 48 hours from conception to execution, was a food drive and distribution event for a neighborhood impacted by vandalism and looting. “Food was pretty scarce after that; West Philadelphia is already technically a food desert. There were literally lines multiple blocks long to get in to get food.” The bulk of the groceries available are fresh produce, but canned goods and other household staples are given out as well. “You see people walk in wondering what would be available, and then you see people walk out with carts full of food with smiles on their faces.”

Set up inside the pop-up, the first of which was held inside Underground Arts, residents were not only able to pick up groceries and essentials, but were also treated to prepared food, with Cohen behind the grill. “We made burgers, hot dogs, chicken, corn and we fried fish. We also served pre-prepared sandwiches.” Cohen was instrumental in organizing donations and getting them from the collection site to the pop-ups. In the beginning, this meant loading up volunteers’ cars and renting small U-Hauls, but as the organization grew and more financial donations came in, they were able to upgrade to full-size refrigerator trucks.

Everybody Eats continues to plan bi-weekly pop-ups in various Philadelphia neighborhoods, using Instagram and word of mouth to spread the news, and hopes to eventually expand to South Jersey. They are also taking on another project – the Everybody Eats Café, which will be a community gathering place and a community kitchen that can be used by local citizens.

Cohen, with a new-found enthusiasm for community engagement, continues to volunteer with the organization and will “for as long as I possibly can,” he said. “School obviously comes first for me, but after that, as long as I’m still in Philadelphia, I’ll be working with Everybody Eats.”

Written by Maggie McCrea