East Side restaurant owner heads to Texas to cook warm meals for Harvey first-responders


Cook St. Paul restaurant owner Eddie Wu spent Labor Day weekend down in Houston cooking for Houston Fire Station 55 as firefighters dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. photo courtesy of Eddie Wu

While not cooking, Wu traveled with some of the firefighting crew as they assessed damage and looked for those needing help. photo courtesy of Eddie Wu

While not cooking, Wu traveled with some of the firefighting crew as they assessed damage and looked for those needing help. photo courtesy of Eddie Wu

Wu connected with Station 55 because his close friend, Doug Hodges, who he served with for four years in the Marines, was a firefighter there. photo courtesy of Eddie Wu

Wu explained that each time he goes on a trip, his 6-year-old daughter, Khan, gives him a stuffed animal to take with him for pictures. Wu said she gave him the gorilla because she believes they are “the bravest animal.” photo courtesy of Eddie Wu

When a natural disaster hits halfway across the country, it can be difficult to find a way to directly help those affected. 

Cook St. Paul owner Eddie Wu decided to send himself and his cooking talent to Houston following Hurricane Harvey.

Wu was watching the news showing the aftermath of the storm, which flooded a large part of the country’s fourth largest city, and saw his good friend, Doug Hodges, a firefighter in Houston, pulling someone from a house. 

He said he could tell Hodges, who works out of Station 55 in Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood, looked exhausted, so he contacted him to ask how he could help.

“I’m a Marine, it’s in me. I joined the Marines because I wanted to help people,” Wu said, adding he had grown up in a fire station, as his dad had been a St. Paul firefighter for years. 

He said that, coupled with his ability to leave work without losing his job, made him feel he had the means to help, so he had to.

While everything was still unfolding on the ground — Harvey made landfall Aug. 25 and ravaged the city for days — it was hard to know what was needed. But when Hodges talked about his crew eating frozen bologna sandwiches, Wu offered to cook some fresh meals.

Hodges and Wu served together for four years in the Marines, and Wu described his friend as someone more comfortable helping others than himself. 

“He never said ‘I need help,’ Wu said “But he said ‘My crew could use a good meal.’”

 

Last minute planning

Originally, Wu planned to go down to Houston the third weekend of September, but as he planned with Hodges, it became evident a fresh meal should come sooner — Hodges described a drained fire crew, hinting Wu could make a difference right away.

Wu said he talked with his wife Eve, who he credits as being the most analytical in their relationship, to see if it would be possible for him to leave Sept. 1. The only stipulation was Wu needed to be back to send his kids off on their first day of school on Sept. 5.

“We kind of reverse engineered it,” said Wu, explaining that once he had his return date, he was able to plan the drive, what he’d need, and everything else.

With the plan in place, Wu quickly reached out to his food industry contacts trying to find food, a refrigerated van and some help to prepare the food. 

In the end, Wu received food and supply donations from Bix Produce, US Foods, Saint Agnes Baking Company, Peterson Craft Meats, the St. Paul Fire Department and Kim’s Oriental Market.

Though he wasn’t able to rent a refrigerated truck — they were all gone due to the State Fair — Hertz was able to get Wu a van, which the Wounded Warrior Project paid for.

Wu said when he decided on what to make, he would stick to what he knew — the Korean rice dish bi bim bop, Korean pancakes, lemonade and hot dogs, served with his signature Koritos.

On the evening of Aug. 31, Wu, along with Ward 6/Salvation Army cook Josh Bau and Wu’s 6-year-old daughter, Khan, prepped the food he would need for the trip.

The next day Wu left, driving 18 hours to Houston, with one 90-minute nap at a small Oklahoma airport. He arrived and set up to cook right away.

 

HOW TO HELP: Cook St. Paul owner Eddie Wu, who travelled to Houston this month to cook meals for firefighters, is planning another trip there later this fall. Beyond cooking more food, he said he hopes to bring donated items to the Sunnyside neighborhood, which he describes as being very similar to the largely working class East Side of St. Paul.

A fundraiser called “Bail out Houston: from the East Side to Sunnyside” has been planned for Oct. 15 at the Minnesota Music Cafe — search for the fundraiser’s name on Facebook for more details.

Cook St. Paul, located at 1124 Payne Ave. in St. Paul, will also have a donation bucket in the restaurant and Wu is working with other area businesses to have donation buckets to aid Houston in their shops, as well.

 

Observing resilience

Wu spent three days at Station 55 cooking meals. He said he was glad he brought to-go containers, as the firefighters would often get calls in the middle of a meal and need to head out.

“Most of the guys have been working nonstop,” Hodges said, adding that nine people at Station 55 had lost their own homes in Harvey, and dealt with that while working long shifts to rescue others.

Wu said he felt a bit ill-prepared, leaving on such short notice. He’s planning on returning to Houston later this fall to cook more meals, perhaps bringing along a bit more meat. He lauged as he recounted Hodges teasing him about his vegetarian Korean pancakes — Hodges said Texans are a carnivorous lot. 

For many of the people Wu fed, this was their first introduction to Korean food.

As word got out in the firefighting community, rescuers from other departments came by Station 55 for a hot meal. Wu said one of the rescuers tracked down his phone number to send him a text message thanking him

“If someone takes the time to track you down and say ‘thank you,’ that’s all I need,” Wu said.

Hodges said Wu’s help was important to his and Station 55’s relief work.

“It’s super busy right now, and if we don’t have to worry about cooking a hot meal and you know someone else is going to do it, it means a lot,” he said. “Especially Eddie’s food. It’s great.”

 

Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto


 

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