John Filiatrault

John Filiatrault takes notes while working in a room off the main dining area at Sozo American Cuisine. Filiatrault is a sous-chef, but for the past three weeks has been working construction as Angus Burgers & Shakes and Sozo have to rebuild after the flood.

KEARNEY — John Filiatrault is a sous-chef by trade, but for the past three weeks he and many of his kitchen colleagues have turned into carpenters.

As he countersinks a screw in wallboard Tuesday inside what used to be Sozo American Cuisine, inside the Holiday Inn, he said he’s noticed a lot of the skills that go into preparing a great meal can be applied to construction.

“We’re already used to the stress, and you know how to use tools,” he said.

Filiatrault, who is employed at Angus Burgers & Shakes in south Kearney’s hospitality district, is among the army of restaurant and lodging professionals who would be out of a job — and a paycheck — if there weren’t so much work to do recovering from the July 9 flood that put all but 600 of Kearney’s 1,800 hotel and motel rooms out of commission. As floodwaters rose that morning, many of those workers scrambled to evacuate guests and diners, and to save whatever equipment and other valuables they could.

Joe Crocker, the head chef at Angus Burgers & Shakes, can describe minute-by-minute what he experienced during the flood. “It was unbelievable. That little bit of water I saw early in the morning became more and more.”

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Before it was finished, Crocker was exhausted and wading through chest-high water. He had helped evacuate hotel guests and then wondered what would become of his job while restaurants, hotels and motels were rebuilt.

“I knew the walls were going to have to be replaced,” Crocker said Tuesday as he swept shards of gypsum board into small piles while the rest of the chefs-turned-carpenters went about their tasks.

All said they are grateful the owners of Angus Burgers and Sozo — Dale and Shawna Klute — and General Manager Liam Mendoza were able to find work for them during the recovery. Some of the workers were employed in construction before their restaurant careers. All possess valuable kitchen skills that will be needed in a few weeks when their restaurants reopen.

“I’ve discovered a lot of muscles that I forgot I had, but I’m very thankful for Liam and the Klutes for keeping us working,” said Brett Quintana, the head prep chef and six-year veteran at Sozo.

As he countersinks another screw in wallboard, Filiatrault smears a dollop of joint compound into the hole, then takes a final look before driving in the next screw. He said construction can be a lot like cooking, “You always want the presentation to be great.”

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