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Minn. restaurant owner drives to Houston to feed Harvey responders

Eddie Wu drove for 17 hours, served meals for 44 more, then drove back home in time to see his kids off on their first day of school

By Jess Fleming
Pioneer Press

HOUSTON — When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Eddie Wu knew he had to do something to help.

The owner of Cook St. Paul on the city’s East Side served in the Marines with Doug Hodges, a fire captain in Houston. Wu immediately began planning a fundraiser to help the first responders and victims. The idea was that he’d drive down and serve some fresh meals in mid-September.

However, when Wu heard his friend’s weary voice on the phone Wednesday before Labor Day weekend, his plans changed.

“I was on the news, making some rescues, and Eddie saw that. My wife had posted it on my Facebook page,” Hodges said. “It affected him; Eddie’s got a huge heart. He contacted me and said, ‘I want to do something. What can I do?’ The firemen were struggling, we were working long hours, so I said a hot meal would be awesome, and that’s what he did.”

“They were eating frozen bologna sandwiches,” Wu said. “I knew him well enough, I could hear it in his voice, he wasn’t willing to ask, but he was dreaming.”

So Wu hung up the phone and sprang into action. By that Friday afternoon, he had rounded up a truck, enough food and supplies to feed a crowd of first responders and was on the road. He drove for 17 hours, served meals for 44 more, then drove back home in time to see his kids off on their first day of school.

But Wu isn’t done, not by a long shot. The energetic diner owner is organizing a fundraiser to be held Oct. 15 at the Minnesota Music Cafe, so that he can go back to the Sunnyside neighborhood, the one Hodges works in, and serve meals and bring necessities to a community that looks and feels a lot like the one he serves every day. Details about the event are still being hammered out, but there will be live music and food.

“Sunnyside, demographically, is very similar to the East Side,” Wu said. “It’s overwhelmingly low-income and has a majority minority population. They are people who aren’t going to instantly have the means to rebuild.”

The fundraiser location is next door to Station 4, the fire station Wu’s father served out of, where he retired as EMS chief.

“I grew up in that place,” Wu said, which could also explain why he feels called to help.

Wu’s brother, Dan Hanson, is an outreach coordinator for the Wounded Warrior Project, which is a sponsor of the fundraiser. Hanson said his brother has always had a giving heart.

“He’s a smart guy, and he’s able to get things donated and get people together to give and help donate to things,” Hanson said. “He’s able to connect with just about anyone. That’s a special gift he has for sure.”

Hodges said that although the immediate emergency has subsided, Harvey took everything from many people in Houston.

“We have nine firefighters at this station who have lost everything,” he said. Money raised through the fundraiser would help those firefighters in addition to the neighborhood at large.

As for the initial trip to Houston, Wu said he was humbled to be able to serve the firefighters, who worked long shifts in unthinkable conditions.

But pulling the whole trip together in a few days required some creativity and a community of helpers.

After he decided he was going, Wu created a menu — bi bim bop (Korean rice bowl), Korean pancakes, hot sauce, kimchi and more. He posted a note on Facebook to let people know that he’d have to cancel the usual Friday pop-up dinners at Cook St. Paul, and to his surprise, offers for help started pouring in.

Customers donated money; Peterson Meats donated ribs for the bi bim bop and 40 pounds of hot dogs; St. Agnes made buns; Bix donated produce; and U.S. Foods couriered over some supplies.

Copyright 2017 Pioneer Press

Even the owner of Kim’s Asian Market, where Wu stocks up on Korean groceries, saw the amount he was buying, asked why and gave him half off his order.

For St. Agnes chief operating officer Mike Mitchelson, making sure Wu had the freshest buns was an easy decision.

“He’s a guy that, not knowing him well, but paying attention and being in the business for a while, he’s someone I like to support because he’s done a lot for the neighborhood here on the East Side,” Mitchelson said. “A former Marine who’s going to run down there to help out, frankly it makes it easier for the rest of us to help out.”

Josh Bau, a chef from fellow East Side restaurant Ward 6, came in to help prep. In addition to all the other prep work, they made 5 gallons of Cook St. Paul’s signature hot sauce.

But until the last minute, there was still one detail that threatened to derail the trip: He needed a van that could fit all the supplies, and rentals were scarce.

“It was the week of the State Fair, and every refrigerated van in a 500-mile radius was rented,” Wu said.

So he went with plan B, which was a rented van and some giant, borrowed coolers. The only problem was, Hertz had to recall a van for him, and Wu had to go track it down. A local veterans group paid half the cost, and Hertz covered the other half. Finally, at 3 p.m. Friday, he had a van and hit the road.

When he arrived in Houston, after driving through the night with just a 90-minute car nap in Oklahoma, Wu hit the ground running, serving a Korean lunch on Saturday to a crowd of hungry firefighters.

“Not a single person I fed the entire time I was down there had had Korean food before,” Wu said. “When I started Cook St. Paul, I wanted to be a steppingstone, to introduce people to Korean food. It was cool to be able to do that again.”

Wu went on a run into neighborhoods with the firefighters, and he saw the destruction first-hand.

“People in the streets sweeping, doing yard work next to six feet of their lives they’d pulled out of their houses,” Wu said. “Seeing the water lines on their houses, knowing everything they lost, that was crazy.”

With each consecutive meal, dinner, breakfast, lunch and dinner again, more firefighters showed up. Though other restaurants were delivering food to stations, the draw of meals cooked on site was strong enough that Wu had to ration what he had left.

A crew from a different station got an emergency call while they were there, so Wu packed up their bi bim bop to go.

Hours later, after rescuing some folks and fighting a fire, that crew’s captain sent a text to Hodges, thanking Wu for the food, even though he and his crew didn’t get to eat it until it was cold.

In a long post on the Cook St. Paul Facebook page, as he was stopped at a gas station after leaving Houston, Wu shared the captain’s text, with some thoughts of his own. Here are a few excerpts:

“36 hours of driving, for 44 hours of cooking food.

“I think: That’s crazy.

“Then, I think: Good.

“This kind of crazy is an emotional state: it comes from the heart.

“Like sadness, drive, passion, and love.

“In moments like this I prefer to listen to my heart, and not my brain.”

“That Captain had to have eaten his food 2 hours after we gave it to him, maybe longer. And somehow, some crazy way, he took time to try to make sure I knew how grateful he was of what I was doing. HE was grateful for what I was doing.”

“I would drive 1,183.2 miles just to say thanks in person to any of the people I met this weekend.

“Humanity has its ups and downs, and I witnessed the best it has to offer in the last two days.

“Houston is in my heart.”

Copyright 2017 Pioneer Press

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