Have you ever heard of the term “Climate Refugee?” I hadn’t heard that term used until last night. Imagine a wildfire ripping through your community and destroying ALL of your personal belongings, home, and place of business… leaving you with NOTHING. As Chef Tyler Florence explained to me last night “Climate Refugee’s” aren’t the refugee’s we’re familiar with running across borders. Climate Refugees are a product of a natural disaster brought about by a catastrophic event in nature. We’re going to be talking about this term in the future as natural disasters destroy towns and communities.
Last night I had the pleasure of having a one on one interview with Chef Tyler Florence to discuss his documentary film “Uncrushable.” Uncrushable told the story of Climate Refugees of the October 2017 wild fires that ripped through California. Seventeen fires broke out in forty-eight hours. Forty-four lives, homes, and businesses were lost. Uncrushable shares the harrowing accounts of first responders, chefs, and winemakers. During the weeks of filming we also see the “repair” in terms of a community coming together to stand California #STRONG. The second half of the movie shows a family like community ready to put in the work to repair the town they call HOME. Uncrushable is a powerful story of the human spirit and road map of what we can do to help out our fellow man.
Chef Tyler Florence has been in the television business for 23 years, but said to date “Uncrushable” is his best work. Chicago showed out to see this incredible film at the Logan Theater on Milwaukee last night. Just like the “Grateful Table” in the film Chef Tyler Florence and the Coopers Hawk Winery team made sure we were well fed with Hors d ’Oeuvres and wine before the showing. After the showing there was a question and answer session and every attendee received autographed books signed by Chef Tyler Florence.
I consider myself extremely lucky I was given the opportunity to interview Chef Florence one on one before the event began. Check out our interview regarding the film below. I may or may not have even snuck in a question about Chef Tyler Florence favorite Chicago Restaurants. Find out below!!
Tavi J One on One Interview with Chef/ Filmmaker Tyler Florence
Welcome back to Chicago!
I’m so glad to be back. I love Chicago! I think Chicago is the most beautiful city in America. Every time I come here I’m like this is how a city should be laid out. It’s great! I love coming here.
I couldn’t agree more! I wanted to speak to you a little bit first about one of the major and most powerful scenes in the movie. The “Grateful Dinner” fundraising benefit for the October 2017 wild fires crossed two borders, had 500 people in attendance (some were first responders and firefighters), and all proceeds went straight to the victims of the wild fires. What emotions were running though you when you saw the table filled with people breaking bread in the name of helping others?
You know it was at the end of a really long month and a half of suffering for a lot of people and it felt like this moment where we put a flag in the ground and we all agreed that what happen happened and recovery begins today. We felt like we all survived this, we lost 44 of our neighbors, a lot of homes of Northern California gone and people were just homeless. They were climate refugees.
Can you explain more the term climate refugee? I never heard of that term used before.
Climate refugees are not going to seem like or feel like refugees the way people picture refugees. The refugee isn’t necessarily fleeing across the border. The climate refugee could be your neighbor. There could be 10, 15, 20 thousand people where the whole town gets wiped out by a catastrophic event dealing with nature. In the culture of California we deal with an extended dry season. We actually have beautiful weather and summers, but then it rains for six months of the year. Towards the end of October/November we used to always get rain. It was end of harvest and winemakers were pushing to get harvest completed before the rain came. You have to get the grapes off because as soon as they get wet mold happens and the grapes are kinda ruined. So it’s like a rush down the finish line of leaving them on for a day or two and kinda fighting the weather forecast. But all of a sudden it just wouldn’t rain. It wouldn’t rain for weeks and weeks and weeks after what normally would be the start of the wet season. And on top of that the five year drought we had. Even when it did rain it wouldn’t rain that much.
On October 8, 2017 my kids were at the beach of this little beach house we rent and I was coming back. All of a sudden you could smell smoke. First I thought the house was on fire. Then I was walking around the house and you could literally see smoke in the air. You could see smoke in the house and you start to freak out a little bit. Then you go on social media and you realize there’s a fire. There’s a fire up in Napa and then you start to hear stories about how fast it spread and how many fires got started. 17 fires started in one night.
How did you feel when you smelled the smoke in the house and you went on social media and saw the fires?
You start to get really concerned because it’s kinda like that thing everybody fears in California. It’s like the earth quakes you know. We know we have the potential to be involved in a pretty heavy forest fire but you always pray it’s not going to happen today, or this year, or in my backyard. But as soon as we started to smell smoke and then you go on Twitter and you start realizing everyone has started to talk about it and the topic is starting to trend. Then you go on the news and you realize how many fires are starting to break out at one point and time.
So it’s just pure panic mode, it was speculation, it was fear, it was rumors, it was texting, it was everyone trying to get some kind of information. It wasn’t until the next day or the day after that the ninth or the tenth until everybody got a sense of the scope of the fire or the fires and how fast they were starting to spread out of control. Everyone was unprepared. The evacuation center started to fill up. Fifteen to twenty thousand people were homeless in two days.
The fires were so intense as they were starting to spread. San Francisco turned orange. It was the worse air in the world for about 15 days. 300,000 acres burned to the ground. It was tragic because the conditions of the climate contributed to the fire, but the ignition of the fire was man made. We have power poles all throughout the state of California. When they put the power poles in the ground they may not even tend to that power pole for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years. They’ll tend to the wires but not the poles. So now in our dry season we also have a windy season. The dry season and the windy season combine is called a red flag event. It’s basically the equivalency of a hurricane warning. With the wind the telephone poles blow over and when they blow over they’ll take two poles with them and they’ll snap the power lines and the field will catch on fire and then the forest will catch on fire and then the town right next to it will catch on fire.
So that’s what started the wild fires?
Absolutely. It started in 2017 and happened again in 2018. PG&E power company has admitted to all of this and filed for bankruptcy. There in the middle of massive billions of dollar’s worth of lawsuits. It was pure negligence. Most climate scientists say that we won’t realize we’re in the middle of a climate catastrophe until we are. There is like a new fire season that happens in California now and you don’t know where it’s going to happen because there’s millions of power poles all over the place. The short term fix between PG&E, the State of California, and CAL FIRE for when a red flag warning is announced in very specific locations the power will be turned off by PG&E. This is not a good idea because they’ll basically shut your power off so they’ll stop the electricity in those lines. This is a short term fix but that’s definitely not how anyone wants to live… just because it’s windy outside you don’t have any power. That’s dangerous….especially if people need electricity to stay alive.
So what made you do the film “Uncrushable?”
I’ve been in a couple of those really pretty visit California commercials. I’m pretty good friends with the state and they were like we need to control the message because the only thing the world is seeing right now is California is on fire. Tourism is a big part of the California industry. We wanted to build a story or a big event that’s really going to get some attention and then that turned out to be the catalyst that got everything moving. The Grateful Dinner was just one part of the story line. We started getting these leads every day like…”You should go talk to this person they just lost their house” or “There’s this Chef feeding people off of food trucks.” What we were watching is a community that pulled together to take care of their own without being asked or even organizing. People were saying “What can I do for YOU?” Not saying what can we do with the Red Cross but, how can I help you right now. It was this really beautiful sense of humanity that was just everywhere.
It was one of those things we happen to be in the right place at the right time and I happen to have a very interesting skill set from shooting television for 20+ years. So we started reaching out to my videographer friends in Los Angeles and we shot for a month and a half. I think we told an incredible story of an incredibly historic event. It wasn’t just about the fire, but it was about the community that lived through the fire. And I think it came out pretty good.
I have to ask you one question that I read. You had said the one question you had for wine was what is the 2018 vintage going to taste like. So what is it going to taste like?
I don’t really know. The great thing about the season or timing was it was a very warm summer. We had over 25 days of 100 degree heat. So because it was a hot summer most of the grapes were pulled already. Most of the wine was actually already in. So the damage to the agricultural product was minimal. The damage to the wineries themselves was fairly extensive. A lot of wineries burned down. The vines themselves actually acted as a fire breaker because they were well irrigated. The fires were on all sides and they would hit a row of vines and just stop because all of a sudden the ground was moist so the fire had nowhere to go and would burn out a little bit.
I’m sure some wine sommelier or wine critic is going to find some smoky note for the 2018 but I think it’s going to be that million dollar question as far as what the product is all about. It’s going to be a hard four or five years before we get any feedback but I think in the meantime the majority of California is going to be fine. We still make a tons of juice here.
History repeated itself in 2018. Exactly one year later another wild fire broke out making it the biggest wild fire in the State of California. Is there anyway to solve the problem?
So there’s a couple of things floating around from this standpoint I think California is going to have to do something about. You can’t wait for the next one. The difference between a hurricane and a fire is the weather forecast. You’ll get a 3 or 4 day notice of a storm coming and you’ll have time to board up and get your things together. But when a fire hits and with all the poles in the state of California you just don’t know where it’s going to hit.
First, we have to get power lines put underground in the state of California. Because we can’t do anything about the dry weather or the wind. I think it’s a huge economic incentive to do so. Not only will you put power lines underground but you’ll update the power lines at the same time and also you can install high speed fiber optic cable. So now you’re providing internet access to more communities. The other thing is an alert system for when something like this is occurring or about to occur, sort of like an amber alert.
Before we end the interview I have a light hearted question for you. What’s restaurant(s) do you like to visit when you come to Chicago?
I’m staying at Soho house which I love! I love Little Goat. Stephanie is a very good friend of mine and I love Alinea.
Make sure to follow Chef Tyler Florence on social media to see when a screening of “Uncrushable” will be happening near YOU
Twitter & Instagram @TylerFlorence
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