Philip Tessier had just been hired as executive chef by PRESS restaurant in St. Helena when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early March.
He knew people were losing their jobs and ability to afford food, and he wanted to keep his employees working and the restaurant afloat, said Kristine Keefer, who nominated him for the Register’s Heart of the Valley honors.
“With his even temper and can-do attitude, Phil quickly pivoted to a takeout and drive-through model, even expanding offerings with a wine-through when wineries were unable to host tastings for their latest releases with tasting rooms remaining closed in the spring,” said Keefer, who has a public relations firm in Napa.
“More importantly, even with his hands full ensuring that staff was paid and the restaurant remained above water, he found time to establish Feed Our Families, a donation meal program for needy local families, and in partnership with the Boys & Girls Club of St. Helena and Calistoga.
“Phil, his team and partner restaurants —Brasswood, Gott’s, Farmstead and Charter Oak — have made 25,000 meals, and counting, since the pandemic started. The recent Glass Fire that burned through much of the eastern part of the Napa Valley became a new focus and with an addition of 3,000 meals served.”
In an interview, Tessier said that when things shut down in March, the restaurant had a three-tiered plan.
“In no particular order they were: one, how is the business going to survive, what do we need to do to be responsible to the business, and what’s the most creative and effective thing we can do? Secondly, how are we going to take care of our staff, both salaried team and hourly team? Thirdly, what can we do for the community? All three of these were equal priorities.”
He didn’t want to lose his employees, some of whom had come from across the country to work with him.
“They’re people, and we’re their source of income and their livelihood,” he said. “A lot of this staff was here before I got here. The right thing to do is to take care of people, so we offered our drive-through and take-out program March through May. It kept our salary team employed, nine of us, for those two and a half months.
“All the tips and donations people left us went straight to our staff. We were able to raise over that period basically $1,000 per team member. It was also a huge relief to hear that all the unemployment benefits were increased and came through. The PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) came in the beginning of May, so that kind of brought some confidence in terms of the future of the restaurant.”
After all, as Tessier likes to say, you can’t take care of other people if you’re not taking care of yourself.
Tessier has distinguished credentials in the restaurant world. He participated in the Bocuse d’Or, considered the Olympics of gastronomy, bringing home a silver medal as an entrant in 2015 and a gold medal in 2017 as a coach.
Keefer said she has known Tessier, a Williamsburg, Virginia native who studied at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park in New York, since he was a sous chef at Per Se in New York in 2004. He worked with Thomas Keller for 11 years.
“Through the years, I have observed him grow and mature to become a caring mentor to the next generation of young cooks,” she said. “He gives nothing less than 100%, and he’s never backed down from a challenge. He is always able to rally his troops, keep everyone’s morale high, and allay any fears or worries by his team.
When the pandemic hit, “it really came down to, ‘How can I create something that’s sustainable?’” Tessier said. “So we looked at what other people were doing and the most significant example was the Sonoma Family Meal program that had been started in 2017 when the fires hit. They created something that grew some legs and is still a vibrant factor throughout the year. I think they’ve raised $1.5 million that they’ve given to restaurants.
“We set out to replicate that model through private donations and we (and other restaurants) started the Feed Our Families program. The money went to the Boys & Girls Club and we worked out a price per meal, which we were able to reduce because one of our meat purveyors donated literally over a ton of food.
“We initially donated a week’s worth of meals just to get the program started and then the money started to come in and we started to be able to work things out for $10 to $15 per meal.”
The restaurant would have the meals ready to be picked up at 4 p.m. each day for the Boys & Girls Club to deliver them to club members. PRESS started getting thank-you notes, posters and pictures.
“We kept it going all the way through September, and we had to keep raising money every month. That became difficult because a lot of people had already donated so much,” Tessier said. “But our staff felt like they were part of something that was making a difference. We’ve built the road map for what we want to do more long-term.”
Heart of the Valley: Meet outstanding members of the Napa County community
Each year the Napa Valley Register runs a series of community profiles to shine a spotlight on unsung individuals whose actions have made a difference in the lives of others in Napa County.
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