Feeding the few in Rikuzentakata: Elio Orsara gives back

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

Estimates vary on how many perished in the city of Rikuzentakata on March 11th when the tsunami obliterated that small coastal town in Iwate Prefecture. In the early afternoon, some 23,000 residents were going about their daily lives: working in small businesses, shopping on the shotengai, studying in school.

By late afternoon, the city had vanished, crushed by a 13-meter wall of black water as immeasurable tons of Pacific Ocean advanced with inexorable force more than ten kilometers inland. Some accounts mention 10,000 deaths. Other accounts guess maybe 5,000. No one really knows. So much was swept back out to sea.

This last weekend, June 5th, Elio Orsara and his crew of 15, kitchen staff and volunteers, drove up to what remains of Rikuzentakata to serve a five-course lunch to some of the residents.

Elio is the owner of a very successful Italian restaurant in Tokyo, Elio Locanda Italiana. Japan and the Japanese have been very good to him, he says, and he wants to give back. This was his fourth visit to the town.

We gathered outside Elio’s Locanda at 11:30 p.m. Saturday night and waited on the street until others from the “Italians For Tohoku” organization showed up.

“I’m proud of how fast the Italians got together to help the people of Tohoku,” said Elio. Though within that group, Elio doesn’t want to promote himself or his restaurant with his charity, so he’s created his own loosely knit group, Calabresi nel Mondo. 

We, in Elio’s crew, will be going to Hirota Elementary School, he explained, while the other group of Italians in the caravan will serve lunch at a nearby community shelter.

A television crew shows up from a website. They start filming. Elio has no idea who the film crew was or why they were there.

When everyone finally arrives, he claps his hands together to gather us around. “OK,” he says, “we are going to Rikuzentakata to feed the people. We are not tourists. Don’t take photos like a tourist. These people have their pride and don’t take photos. We go there to work.”

At about 12:15am we set off. After a ramen stop at 4:00 a.m., we arrive around 7 a.m. at the location of the Rikuzentakata train station. Now completely gone. Nothing remains.

“When I came here the first time in March,” says Elio, “there was so much more debris. They’ve cleaned up two thirds of it already.”

Still, immense piles of steel, or wood, or rows of destroyed cars, trucks, and vans, or piles of dead trees or brown shrubbery stretch to the faraway hills.

In the distance, we see excavators and backhoes working with debris. At one spot near the cratered ruins of the town’s sports stadium, a vast expanse of seawater stretched to the horizon. “That is not the sea,” says Elio as we drive slowly past. “That is seawater that remains. The sea is a kilometer or two beyond.”

Since this was the crew’s fourth trip, the setting up of the portable kitchen and buffet goes amazingly fast. Three large tents are unpacked, unfolded, and snapped into shape in about five minutes.

Meanwhile in those few minutes, the truck is unloaded, tables set up and duct taped together, gas burners connected to portable gas containers, 30-liter red and blue plastic water containers unloaded.

Vacuum-packed bags of bolognese sauce, caponata, roasted potatoes, and chicken with rosemary are heated in cauldrons. Two large plastic boxes of al dente pasta are set out ready to add to the sauce.

Hours and hours of preparation had already taken place earlier that evening—making the minestrone, the meat sauce, the side dishes and main dishes, and kilograms and kilograms of al dente penne noodles.

Crisp white linen table clothes are then taped to the tables, as Elio checks the drape of each cloth so it hangs evenly. Fresh fruit is cut into wedges: oranges, watermelon, musk melon, red grapes snipped into small handfuls, then artfully arranged on plastic platters.

Large boxes of artisanal bread—large life-preserver shaped loaves, square loaves, focaccia and baguettes—all baked at Elio’s catering shop, are sliced and arranged in woven baskets under Elio’s watchful eyes.

Elio tastes the minestrone and the bubbling bolognese sauce, “Good, but add a little salt,” he says. “The sauce is still a little thin, add some Parmigiano cheese.”

Paper bowls and plates, plastic spoons and forks are sorted and placed for an easy flow along the buffet tables. Plastic bags are taped to the school building wall and labeled: burnable trash, plastic, raw garbage.

Under a separate tent, tens of boxes of donated items: shoes, blankets, blouses, scarves, sunglasses, space heaters, toys, a small red bicycle, umbrellas, jumpers, are set out. Elio had sent out a message via his Facebook site to all his customers asking them to donate whatever they could. He had it all boxed up and loaded into his truck.

Just before 11 a.m. Elio claps his hands together, “Come here, everybody! Okay, at 11 a.m. we start serving. Get ready.”

The five-course buffet line is set out beautifully: minestrone, penne with bolognese sauce, caponata, potatoes with herbs, and roast chicken with rosemary. Trays of colorful cut fresh fruit, and baskets of bread. And at the very end, boxes of Chupa Chups lollipops.

Then Elio bellows, “Irashaimase! Welcome! Lunch is served!” The oba-sans and oji-sans who had been sifting through the boxes of clothes start to move toward the cups of minestrone. The line lengthens.

I start scooping out a ladleful of penne onto each paper plate—in the amount Elio had decided for he needs to make the food last.

Elio starts smoozing with the oba-sans. Some wear plastic slippers, thick socks, cotton training wear. Some with aprons, wind breakers, and cotton hats. Some have faces as wrinkled as prunes, with thick sturdy fingers and bright undefeated eyes. I see pairs of hands after pairs of hands—moving past, holding plates and sometimes trying to balance the cup of soup.

Some of the donation boxes of shoes, or blouses are empty and stacked nearby. Someone realizes that carrying the abundance of food would be easier with a tray. A cardboard flap is torn off the box and used as a makeshift tray. Now plates and bowls enough for two or three are easier to carry. Suddenly, everyone has a torn piece of cardboard for a tray. The line of hungry people shuffle slowly past my pasta tray. It’s empty. Again and again, it’s empty. Each time, the cook behind me quickly replaces the empty tub of pasta with a full one.

Once people have settled down to eat on the concrete school steps, or makeshift tables under a tent set up by the elementary school, someone brings their torn cardboard “trays” back to the head of the line so that the next person can use one.

Some people come back for seconds or thirds. Elio, or other members of his crew, sometimes help out carrying the torn cardboard trays of food.

At noon, basketball practice ends and young students in blue sports uniforms start to line up too for lunch. Elio comes over to one woman who must be in her seventies. He says in Italian-accented Japanese, “Hello, my new girlfriend! How are you? Let me carry your food.” For ninety minutes we dish out food. One by one, the courses run out. At 12:30 p.m., all that is left is penne with bolognese sauce and bread. New people show up for lunch. We dish out hearty portions of the pasta into paper bowls topped with spoonfuls of grated parmigiano cheese.

The focaccia sandwiches which had been prepared for our lunches are set out for the Rikuzentakata citizens. Soon those sandwiches are gone as well.

Throughout the whole meal no one pushes. No one shoves. No one tries to take more than they think they can eat.

At 1 p.m., Elio claps his hands together again. “Ok! Let’s shut this down and pack it up!”

Within ten minutes, everything is packed up and loaded into the truck which is only half full now that the food and donated goods are gone. Large trays of the remaining pasta are left for the residents. All the donated boxes of clothing and toys are left too.

One boy plays with a toy dinosaur and a boxed race car set which is too big for him to carry. One woman looks at a silk scarve perhaps a Celine. “I can’t use that,” she says with a laugh. A few minutes later, I see another woman with a handful of those scarves and other goods stuffed into a plastic sack.

The cooks pour out the remaining water onto the red tiles of the landing and scrub them down, just as they do at the end of the day in Elio’s kitchen. The garbage bags are collected.

Before we get into the cars for the 7-hour drive back home, Elio gathers us all together again. Some residents ask for photos to be taken with Elio. Hand shakes. Then Elio asks us to form a circle for the Japanese tradition of “ippon jimei” which is done at the conclusion of a communal job well done.

“We served about 300 people,” he says. “Thank you for all your efforts.”

Elio’s right-hand man, Mikata-san yells out  the cue of “Yo!” Then we all try to clap our hands together in one loud clap. We mess up. Our timing is off. “Let’s do it again,” says Elio. This time it’s perfect.

Elio had originally planned to go to Hong Kong this weekend, but when he heard he could go to an elementary school this time, he cancelled his trip.

“I do this for the kids,” he says. “I like to see their smiles.”

The Rikuzentakata elementary school children have eaten and are sitting together on the red-tiled steps of the landing near the classrooms singing songs along with an oba-san strumming on a ukelele. The kids are laughing and clapping with white Chupa Chups sticks poking out from their smiles.