Cody Utzman gained a bit of fame competing on the Food Network show “Chopped,” but last week he was cooking in a very different environment and for a very different reason.

The owner and head chef at Frankie’s restaurant in North Albany flew to Texas to help out in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

“You can see how much one little meal means to someone,” Utzman said.

Utzman cooked around the clock for two days, helping the nonprofit organization Mercy Chefs feed thousands of residents in Rockport, Texas.

He wanted to volunteer in the Lone Star State because he had experienced the aftermath of a natural disaster before.

Utzman was running multiple restaurants in New York City when Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012. The next morning, he drove to Rockaway Beach and handed out hot chili and cornbread for hours.

He figured that plenty of Texans wouldn’t be getting the support they needed.

Utzman and a fellow chef from California started a fundraising effort online, raising $3,500 for plane tickets and supplies.

“They needed help and we have skills. We know how to help,” he explained.

The Houston area, where they arrived, was well situated. “We didn’t really know where to go from there. We knew if we kept on heading south, we’d find more people in need, because it was closer to where the storm hit,” Utzman said.

So they kept driving with a pickup full of bottled water, energy bars, canned tuna, dog food and other supplies.

More than a week after Harvey made landfall, Rockport still didn’t have water or electricity and numerous buildings were destroyed. “People were wandering around from makeshift camps and FEMA tents just in a daze,” Utzman said.

The chefs were trying to find a way to get involved, and they were directed to Mercy Chefs, a faith-based nonprofit that had set up an operation with refrigeration and cooking trailers in Rockport. Mercy Chefs provides substantial, restaurant-quality meals for residents, first responders and volunteers after disasters.

“I’m extremely inspired to help this group in the future,” Utzman said, adding that the organization now is feeding people in Georgia who were displaced by Hurricane Irma.

Mercy Chefs needs more experienced chefs to volunteer, though.

Utzman said he hopes to help set up a network of restaurants that will send employees to disaster areas, providing airfare and paid leave time to assist Mercy Chefs.

The volunteer work in Texas made Utzman grateful for what he has and his success, and left him thinking of the bigger picture.

“You have to give back. If you don’t help your fellow man, what is it worth?” he said.

Utzman is creating a new bakery near Frankie’s in the North Albany Village shopping center, and he hopes to have that business open in November.

For more information on Mercy Chefs, go to mercychefs.com.

Kyle Odegard can be reached at kyle.odegard@lee.net, 541-812-6077 or via Twitter @KyleOdegard.

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