Chef Brian Poe

When I returned from my vacation to St. Maarten in September, a few days off from my work as chef/owner of the Tip Tap Room in Boston, I found my computer screen open to an article that said Hurricane Irma wasn’t going to come. How wrong that was. I know because I barely escaped with my life.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, I owe my safety to kitchen and hospitality professionals.

But back to the beginning. When my wife and I arrived, they were even joking as we landed on the plane. “Beautiful weather on Sunday, Monday, and then Tuesday, the hurricane.” They said, “The next day they’ll have it all cleaned up. You’ll be on the beach.”

But I started getting texts from the United States, from friends and neighbors, saying it was getting bad. I looked up the news and saw it was coming at us hard, so I bought a ticket for Chicago and one for Cancun to get out of there on Monday or Tuesday, but they canceled both of those flights before we could get on them.

It all happened so fast. At the hotel, the Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort, they called us into a meeting in the ballroom to discuss the plan. I thought that it was good communication, they’re just doing what they’re supposed to do. I was in the hotel business for years, so I knew they were doing everything right. Then the ocean started to get really, really strong, knocking people over and taking over the area. That’s when I looked up and said, “Man, this might get real.”

“What chefs can do is we can feed people and make them feel better.” – Chef Brian Poe

The night before the storm, in the restaurant, they said, “That’ll be the last picture on this patio.” I thought, “That’s odd.” Then all of a sudden, the staff just started handing everybody a six-pack of beer and I was like, “That’s not normal.” I wasn’t in the mood to drink because I knew this was getting serious.

It got real at 4 o’clock in the morning. The wind knocked a wall down. I heard glass shatter. We were in the center of the hotel taking shelter, but they moved us into the ballroom and within minutes, pieces of the ceiling started to fall.

I owe the hotel staff my life: the general manager, the food team and the front office–those are always the ones I could count on in hotels. They took a calculated risk: We either let the ceiling collapse, we move down to the basement where it’s starting to flood, or we move across the eye of the storm to get to a safer place. That’s what we ended up doing, and it was the right decision to make. There was no handbook for this storm. Their intuition was incredible.

We had a 10-minute window in the eye of the storm. Everything was going so fast. At that point, things were falling. It was 5 or 6 in the morning and I remember thinking it should have been brighter outside, but it was just a brown sky. I saw a wave. There was no sound to it. Then I realized it was in the same spot we played volleyball the day before. Then I looked down, and saw a little girl. And we were at an adults-only resort. I realized, “Jesus Christ, that’s the general manager’s daughter and wife. Not only is he taking care of 100 people, he’s saving his own family.”

We made it through the eye of the storm to the fifth floor of the hotel, which had ankle-deep water. The insulation and everything was all over the floor, blowing down the hallway and you could see and hear glass shattering, and, of course, you hear the wind. They told us if we had an inch of water in our room, it was a good room. The staff was trying to push the water out, but it was still pouring in. That’s when we realized the sixth and seventh floors were gone.

We were sharing what little food there was, and then as the sun set and it got darker, we started seeing SOS flashing out across the island. Not one, more like 10 of them, people sending distress codes. I saw a flare go off. I heard a helicopter, but I couldn’t see anything. It was so dark. I thought, ”There’s a whole lot more damage out there than I could even imagine.”

Restaurant Chef Brian Poe
Chef Brian Poe. Photo Credit: Michael Piazza

The next morning, the GM, Alex Katner, and his team, the food and beverage team, and the front office, were making significant moves. They were able to find us shelter in a food and beverage training vocational-type school with the Dutch military. Someone was able to run a cable from the street so we could get three phones to work. Not our phones, but three from the front desk, so people were at least able to call home.

We stayed there Wednesday, Thursday and most of Friday. Everybody did something to help out. I made pancakes with just flour, water and honey because that’s all that was there. Another woman made rice pudding. There was another guy helping to season food for the evening. I didn’t even eat because I was just happy to help cook, until they told me I had to eat something. One woman was helping sweep out, we were all helping each other move chairs around. You see the goodness in people. Everyone was doing something. One, to feel better and two, to help. In a bad situation, it was such a great thing to see.

Food and community really come together in that type of environment. José Andrés serving people in Puerto Rico speaks volumes to what a good man he is. It’s just, “What can I do?” And what chefs can do is we can feed people and make them feel better. Food is sort of the church that brings us all together.

We were told we could get on a flight to the Dominican, but it fell through. No one was upset, just disappointed. We had given away all of our clothes at that point, everything we had, because we could see the need. We went back to the shelter to wait. Then we got word that 24 people could leave on a military plane. Somehow, we got to the front of that line and they took us. But all of a sudden, they said, “I’m so sorry. There was a misunderstanding.” They told us we couldn’t go. This is when everyone started to get really emotional. Then we started to see the locals with injuries start to show up at the shelters.

“When we all get to go home, there are a lot of people who don’t have a home to go back to.” -Chef Brian Poe

We were headed back, everyone in tears, when a car chased us down. They said, “Turn around. We can get you on this last plane off the island tonight.” The airport was destroyed. Cars were flipped over in the parking lot. They said, “Hold up your passport,” and the next thing you know we were with the Air National Guard from New York. They had a girl with diabetes they were trying to get off the island, and they put us all on and got us to San Juan. We were on our way home.

The first few weeks afterward were very emotional. But now that I’ve survived, I feel I have something I need to do.

I’ve organized a GoFundMe fundraiser, St Maarten Hurricane Help. We’re trying to help. If I were rich, I’d give them everything I had. I think it’s important that people know that there are such amazing people in this world, and that when we all get to go home, there are a lot of people who don’t have a home to go back to.

This changed who I am as a chef, a restaurant owner and a person.

I’m grateful. I’m more patient; the little things bother me less. I have more balance, and more respect for those in need. Let’s instead go with positive, good energy and get things done. Let’s help people, let’s feed people, let’s enjoy this.

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Chef Brian Poe was born in the town of Macon, Georgia, and grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He has helmed kitchens around the country, eventually settling in Boston as executive chef and food and beverage director at Seasons Restaurant in the Millennium Hotel. He then went on to open Poe's Kitchen at the Rattlesnake Bar & Grill in 2009, and the Tip Tap Room in 2012. He is also a culinary instructor at Newbury College, an active board member of the American Institute for Food & Wine, and a board member of several local and national charities. He often serves as personal chef to such local celebrities as Curt Schilling and his family. Chef Poe lives on Revere Beach with his wife, Cristiana.