If you haven't heard Marty Griffin and me on our new weekday radio program from 2-6PM on KDKA 1020AM, you likely don't know about our "Good News" segment that wraps up each day (we air it at 5:37PM). Marty and I are very different, for sure, but we share a joy in helping people, spreading positivity, and telling stories that make people stop for a minute to see the beauty and grace around them. Regardless of where you live, you can hear our show on the Radio.com app.
I love this Good News story. It's about a man named Roberto Mendoza.
Roberto grew up in El Salvador in the 1980s during the Salvadoran Civil War. Food was scarce and times were tough. “When I was 14 or 15 years old, I went to bed without eating,” he remembers. “I said ‘God, When I grow up, I do not want to feel hunger.'”
But the war got worse for Mendoza. He doesn't offer much detail but he remembers being kidnapped and taken away from his family. When he was ultimately released, workers from the Salvation Army took him to Canada. Mendoza eventually ended up in California, working at an Israeli delicatessen. It was there, as he cut onions and boiled matzo balls, where Roberto found his passion. “When I have a pan and a pot in my hand," he recalls dreamily, "it transforms me.”
After the deli, Mendoza got a job at a hotel kitchen. He went to culinary school and worked his way to the Beverly Hills Hotel where he became a chef. As his career flourished he cooked at the White House, serving state dinners for Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. He cooked for a Saudi prince and the Tennessee Titans football team. But it wasn’t the caliber of people he was feeding that was about to change his life. It was the quantity.
By 2012, Mendoza moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and opened a restaurant.
“I was doing meals for a NASCAR event in Charlotte," he recalls. "There, we fed more than 400,000 people in one week. When I saw that much food, I remembered that prayer from when I was little. God made me a chef because I suffered too much hunger in El Salvador.”
After seeing the vast amounts of food at the auto race, Mendoza drummed up support and contributions from around North Carolina and roasted 600 holiday turkeys for Charlotte’s homeless. A woman volunteering at the turkey roast marveled at the volume of food – much like Mendoza did at the NASCAR event. Then she mentioned a Dominican Republic town.
“She said, ‘I wish I could do this for the kids in Bayaguana.'” The comment resonated with the chef’s own childhood hunger. He was moved.
“I went to visit and I saw the poor village.” The seed within him was planted.
In 2013, the chef got a $10,000 tax refund. Remembering the trip he had taken to the Dominican Republic town a few months earlier, he used his money to buy land in Bayaguana for a cafeteria. His plan was to build a facility that could regularly feed the poor and needy, serving hundreds of people every day. But the funds just weren’t there to complete construction — until he scratched off a lottery ticket in North Carolina last December and hit for $250,000.
(Chef Roberto serving meals with volunteers to the homeless in Charlotte.)
Even after taxes came out, $250,000 was a lot to win. But when you’re building a cafeteria and keeping it stocked, it goes quickly. Mendoza knows there is still work to be done, and more funds to be raised.
In the meantime, the chef keeps feeding people. From high-end catering at Charlotte’s finest events to weekly dinners he regularly prepares and serves for the city’s homeless under the trees at a north Charlotte park, he relishes the universal sounds of people dining, and knows too well what hunger sounds like.
“When you are hungry, there is no language, just your stomach growling. What is in my heart, is cooking for the homeless,” Mendoza said.