Jason Collis: Giving Back Feeds Chef's Sould
Last December 3, Jason Collis was where he usually is on Sunday morning: sitting in a pew at the San Buenaventura Mission. “I was praying for guidance,” he remembers. It had been some time since he had given back to his community, he says, and he prayed: “God, use me for whatever you want.”
The next night, the Thomas Fire ripped through Ventura and Collis had his assignment. By Christmas Eve, Collis and hundreds of volunteers had provided 36,000 meals to evacuees and first responders through World Central Kitchen. Once the meals for the January Montecito mudslide were added in, the total rose to over 40,000.
Giving back has been part of Collis’s life since childhood. He joined the Boy Scouts as a youngster in his hometown of Burbank. At age 8 he was helping his grandfather, Antonio Genero (Jerry) Vuoso, feed the homeless at a soup kitchen in the San Fernando Valley. In his early teens, Jason went with his grandfather to monthly union meetings, where his grandfather was the president.
“It showed me community involvement,” Collis says. “It showed me from the ground up how to help people.”
These days, Collis assists in organizing events for numerous organizations, including the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Ventura, Casa Pacifica, Community Memorial Healthcare Foundation, Project Understanding, Interface Children & Family Services, Holy Cross School, La Reina Middle School, FOOD Share and Totally Local VC.
Additionally, he sits on the Culinary Advisory Board of Ventura Adult and Continuing Education. He says being a chef dovetails nicely with his philosophy of giving back. “It’s giving of the talents that were given to me through food,” he says. “Food is not only something to eat for your nutrition but for the soul as well.”
Collis graduated from the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Pasadena in 2001 and did stints at Spago and Wolfgang Puck Kitchen before moving to Ventura County. Here he worked as a line cook at Nona’s Courtyard Café in the Bella Maggiore Inn in Ventura and later moved on to Jonathan’s at Peirano’s.
At Jonathan’s he leapfrogged from line cook to executive chef to owner; Collis purchased Jonathan’s in 2003 and ran the popular restaurant until he sold it in 2011. He now owns and operates Plated Events by Chef Jason, a catering and event planning business headquartered at Limoneira Ranch in Santa Paula. The success of his businesses fuels his desire for reciprocity.
The first big fundraiser Collis organized in Ventura County was in 2005, a benefit for victims of Hurricane Katrina. His cousin, Michael Vuoso, is a shrimp boat captain from New Orleans who was severely affected by the storm. Collis coordinated 20 chefs, 15 restaurants, numerous wineries, four musical acts and a silent auction for a spirited afternoon at Jonathan’s. (The event was akin to the much larger Thomas Fire Benefit Festival, where Collis was a co-producer and in charge of the VIP Tasting Tent hosted by Chef José Andrés, who in February was named “Humanitarian of the Year” by the James Beard Foundation.)
“It became a big celebration with people dancing in the restaurant, on the patio, at J’s Tapas,” he remembers. “It turned into a Mardi Gras party.” The event raised $20,000—half went to the Red Cross and half to United Way.
Thanks to the breadth of his volunteering in Ventura County, he was able to mobilize quickly when the Thomas Fire struck. A phone call from a friend on the board at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Ventura led to a conversation with Nate Mook, director of relief operations with World Central Kitchen. The Washington, DC–based organization was formed in 2010 by Andrés in response to an earthquake in Haiti and provides healthy food to people affected by natural disasters. Mook was already on his way to the Los Angeles area and needed a local contact and co-organizer like Collis.
Five days after the fire started, Collis had coordinated with L.A. Kitchen, recruited Chef Tim Kilcoyne of Scratch Food Truck and Scratch Sandwich Counter in Oxnard to help organize, and secured a base of operations at the San Buenaventura Mission kitchen with Father Tom Elewaut.
On December 10, the first lunches were delivered. One Facebook post later, Collis had rounded up enough volunteers to work the next 14 days, running five 20-person shifts each day. “We made about 100,000 individual portions of food,” Collis says, adding that they prepared and delivered hot food to evacuation and first responder centers in Oxnard, Ventura, Ojai, Santa Paula, Fillmore and Santa Barbara. “It’s amazing how the community came together.”
During the last week of January, Collis coordinated the World Central Kitchen team in serving 7,500 meals to the search and rescue and disaster recovery teams in Montecito after the mudslides.
In 2015, Collis spent 10 days in Tactic, Guatemala, on a project designed to bring nutritionally dense food to Mayan communities in rural areas. The Seeds of Tomorrow Project, an initiative of Houweling’s Tomatoes in Camarillo, sent Collis to train cooks in schools operated by Impact Ministries.
“For many kids, the meal at school is their only meal of the day,” he says. “I taught the cooks how to use nutritionally rich foods like kale.” He is quick to point out that he got something in return: “They taught me how to make tortillas,” he recalls.
Collis, who lives in Oxnard with his wife, Jocelyn, and their children Jeremiah, 14, and Jianna, 13, looks forward to continuing his outreach. “Now that I’ve seen what a great organization World Central Kitchen is, I’m going to volunteer my time,” he says. “I’m on a list of people able to go out and help with a disaster when one occurs.” He will also continue his local volunteer activity.
“I feel like I’ve been blessed in so many ways,” he says. “Giving that back to the community and to people in need is a no-brainer for me.”