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Serving Silver Linings

September 2018
Serving Silver Linings
PHOTOGRAPHER: 

When a Puerto Rican chef’s livelihood was devastated by Hurricane Maria, Doug Blair of Voysey’s stepped in to help

Sous chef Jose Fabregas (left) works alongside executive chef Doug Blair at Voysey’s.

In mid-September of 2017, when America was still reeling from Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in Texas and the Gulf Coast, a tropical storm was brewing in the Caribbean. By September 18, the whirling winds had transformed into the deadly category-five Hurricane Maria, and she was barrelling towards Puerto Rico.

In Charleston, Voysey’s executive chef Doug Blair was watching the news nervously. That spring, he’d met Puerto Rican chef Jose Fabregas at a private golf club culinary retreat on Kiawah Island. “We’re a close-knit community, and it’s always fun to meet the new players and share techniques,” Blair notes. “Jose and I got along really well.” At the time, Fabregas was the executive chef at Royal Isabela Golf Club’s restaurant in Puerto Rico’s coastal town of Isabela, whose lush landscape earned it the nickname “Jardín del Noroeste,” or “Garden of the Northwest.”

After the industry event ended, Fabregas headed home, but the chefs kept in touch. “When Maria hit, we saw Puerto Rico’s wreckage on every TV channel,” Blair says. As the eye rolled northward, much of the island, including the Royal Isabela, lay in ruins. “I immediately picked up the phone and started calling Jose again and again. On the third day, I finally connected with him,” Blair remembers. Fabregas’s news: the club was ruined, and he and all of his coworkers were out of work.

“A few weeks after the hurricane hit, Doug offered me a job,” says Fabregas, who was particularly devastated because Maria wiped out the pop-up restaurant he was just days shy of opening. “So I started looking for flights to Charleston.” Airline fares had sky-rocketed at the time, costing around $3,000 for a one-way trip, but the chef finally snagged tickets in October for himself, his wife, and their two- and four-year-old daughters.

While the family searched for a new home in the Lowcountry, Blair hosted them in his house, showing Fabregas—his new sous chef—around the golf club’s kitchen and touring day cares with both parents.

Raising the Bar: Voysey’s offers upscale pub fare and seafood-forward entrées to Kiawah Island Club members.

Within a few days, Blair knew he needed to take action again. “Many of Jose’s coworkers were without jobs, and we had a staffing shortage here, so it behooved us to solve our labor issues by helping them out,” he explains. As of today, the Kiawah Island Club has hired 30 Puerto Ricans, all of whom are offered housing and access to an all-day shuttle until they find permanent residences and transport.

In Puerto Rico, Fabregas’s favorite thing to do was fish in the morning, bringing his catches back to the restaurant to serve that night with fresh vegetables from an organic garden in Royal Isabela. While he plans to return home eventually, the chef is grateful for the Kiawah Island Club’s kindness and support. “In many ways, Charleston is similar to Isabela, because we have access to the water, fresh seafood, and vegetables,” he says. “And the people are good people.”

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Photographs by (2-chefs & Voysey’s interior) Sarah Westmoreland & (brunch) Patrick O’Brien