Step one for Heleo Leyva’s weekly free community cookouts is setting up the grill. Well, step one is really getting donations so that he can then go buy meat (asada and chicken) from the carniceria next door to where he sets up on Santa Monica Blvd. So step two is setting up the grill, and by then, he’s already got volunteers stepping in to help. At the weekly free East Hollywood cookouts, it’s apparent from the 125 or so no-cost plates that fly out in 30 minutes that the need is tremendous — and so is the support.
Across more than a dozen events, Leyva has guided locals and volunteer chefs in Los Angeles, each their time to feed a growing line of unhoused East Hollywood residents, and many elderly neighbors with a weekly free cookout taking place on the sidewalk. The events have engaged chefs and restaurants to use their resources, from operating grills to providing ingredients, as a way for the industry to give back to the community. Just like Leyva’s previous quesadilla giveaways under the banner of Quesadillas Tepexco, and the community fridge he runs on the same Santa Monica Boulevard block, there are no questions asked or needed, only hot grilled dishes with a smile. This is direct action and community support, done with a restaurant heart.
“You can’t put a price on some of the chefs who have come out” to support Leyva’s plan to feed as many of his neighbors for free as he can, every week, for as long as the pandemic runs. “Their time is worth so much.”
Leyva first reached out to Daniel Mattern, co-owner of Friends & Family restaurant in East Hollywood. Mattern had the four-foot grill and the desire to give back himself, even if it meant spending time cooking on his only day off to do so. The two make an easy match, each turning meat and tortillas, guiding the long, snaking line — though Mattern (and everyone else) is quick to note that Leyva deserves all the credit for starting and running the cookouts.
“Heleo has such a reach in the community. It’s really cool to see,” says Mattern. The chef also says that he’s just happy to be able to give back to the area where his restaurant, and his home, both reside. “When COVID happened, the economy dropped away for so many people. A lot of people have lost their jobs, their income, and they live right here. You may not always see them, but they’re our neighbors.”
Even with the pandemic surging as a third wave, with over one million cases in California, and the future of independent restaurants at stake, Mattern believes that he has an obligation to do more, and he’s looking to Leyva to lead the way. “People argue whether or not restaurants have larger duties to their neighborhoods,” says Mattern, “but I sure feel like we do. I don’t have a lot of money to give away, but I can show up and grill food for people.”
Baker and chef Karla Subero Pittol agrees. She linked up with Leyva early on because she wanted to directly support impacted communities, and she saw Leyva leading by example. She now shows up weekly, handing out free food from her small but mighty restaurant Chainsaw, a pop-up turned soon-to-come restaurant in Echo Park.
“I want myself, my business, to be associated with giving a shit about the community,” says Pittol, “and the best way to make that apparent is to be involved.” And while money is tight for her, her business, and basically everyone else she knows, Pittol agrees that direct action is a new kind of model for how restaurants can and should participate in the neighborhoods that support them. “A lot of owners have the ability to help, if not with hands then with money,” or by amplifying the need on social media channels, says Pittol. “They’ve got the audience, and can help. That’s what I’m able to do, and what people in my position should do more of. Everyone has a way.”
Leyva says that he’s been touched by the outpouring of restaurant support. “There’s so many it’s too much to name all of them,” he says, ticking off names like Ponchos Tlayudas, Kernel of Truth Organics, and Elio’s Wood-Fired Pizzas, for a start. “They come out and they want to help because they see the need in the community. And now they’re thinking of doing their own thing, in their own neighborhoods.” So far, independent cooking events have happened in Downey, with East LA and Whittier in discussion for the future as well. Leyva is hosting a second cookout this weekend in MacArthur Park. “We’re decentralizing the whole thing,” says Leyva.
There are plans for an upcoming event in Fresno, which Leyva says is an even more direct response, a way to give back to the communities of farm workers that provide vital produce to Southern California. “With all the talk of supporting our farmers, very few people go up there and actually say ‘thank you for all that you do.’”
In the meantime, Leyva and his volunteer crew will continue to cook for East Hollywood, and they hope to grow their weekly donations so that they can help more people with a warm meal. Unhoused people and the many elderly locals who show up weekly “may not always be able to cook for themselves,” Leyva says, meaning drops of unprepared produce or canned goods at a community fridge may not help everyone. One meal from the community cookout helps, and that’s all that Leyva wants to do.
“For me to be able to give someone a nice, warm meal, it’s a blessing.”
Community Cookouts has distributed over $25,000 in free food already, and can be found on Instagram for volunteering or donations. Cooks happen weekly on Tuesdays at 4621 Santa Monica Boulevard.