When I first started working at the high school in Summerville, I received a strong admonition from a trusted mentor about, of all things, where to eat. “Don’t eat in the teacher’s lounge; it’s more dangerous than the cafeteria food.” I follow his advice and always eat lunch among my students and the neverending drama of the ninth grade, shoving down soybean burgers and frozen fries, chicken strips, cartons of chocolate milk, and the occasional holiday dinner replete with dressing and turkey gravy with enough salt to raise the dead. And I really wish it could, because it was in the cafeteria of Summerville High School that I met Louis Mulkey.

He was one of the fallen firefighters honored during Dine for the Charleston Nine, which surely ranks as one of the most successful charity events in the history of the city — preliminary reports put the figure raised at around $500,000. A tremendous effort put together courtesy of Mickey Bakst and the folks of Charleston Grill and Charleston Place, the gala elicited an outpouring of generous support from an audience clearly moved by the sacrifice of those nine courageous men. We should be proud of these culinary professionals in our city, whose generosity funds dozens of good causes, and in dark times, comes together to provide for those in need.

The food and beverage community laid a table around which Charleston could gather to honor its heroes and mourn their loss. Too many wine distributors to list were interspersed among every notable restaurant in town. Chef Anthony Gray of High Cotton spooned up quivering piles of short ribs braised in Palmetto Amber beer and perched atop a pile of Carolina rice. Cordavi brought scallops in a tuna broth. McCrady’s had piles of local heirloom tomatoes stacked with various ephemera and glistening through a nitrogen cloud of olive oil snow. Jason Houser from Muse was handing out “mussel shooters” full of the salty tang of preserved lemon. My favorite concoction of the night came from Chef Ken Vedrinski. I got so excited about his plate of raw yellowtail “crudo,” bedecked with baby octopus and beets, I ate three platefuls. They all put on a grand show, so much great food that one could almost forget for awhile just why we were all there.

There were auctions, a tear-jerking video tribute, and a few words from Chief Rusty Thomas, who talked about the fallen men but also the support of the Charleston community, about the little girl who set up a lemonade stand and delivered the $2.50 profit herself (a future restaurateur, no doubt), about the dedication of a city and a community that takes care of its own. He spoke of the heroism that personifies the loss of the nine, and I found myself casually eating local melons from Edisto Island draped with prosciutto, freshly sliced by Jacques Larson and the crew at Mercato. Above us all hung pictures of the nine. Louis Mulkey stared down on that ham and cantaloupe, his widow only a few steps away. I wished the melon could somehow become school cafeteria food, the crowd become kids, and that Coach Mulkey could come down off that wall to talk.

It’s amazing we ever met. Summerville High is a big place; I still don’t know everyone there and I never knew that Coach Mulkey was a volunteer, not a teacher — I just assumed that he worked there. In our few conversations, we talked only about the students. He knew them well, studied them, intervened, mentored, and demonstrated the kind of even-handed compassion that great teachers aspire to. I didn’t even really know his name, only a face and recognition that he was one of the “good” guys, the ones that really care, someone to find if you needed help. Louis Mulkey was a hero long before charging into a burning building. He didn’t even get paid to eat cafeteria food.

Mrs. Mulkey reportedly plans to establish a scholarship fund at Summerville with some of the many donations she will receive, and as the auction bids reached a fevered pitch, I realized that this money will go from the grand ballroom to that school cafeteria, to those kids whose lives might have been touched by Coach Mulkey. Dinner for ten at the McCrady’s chef table brought $6,000, Brett McKee tallied 10 grand, and I think I heard 52 weeks of Charleston dining go for $25,000 above the roar of the crowd. The Culinary Institute at Trident Tech and The Art Institute announced scholarships of their own. I could almost hear Coach Mulkey, pointing out a kid in the lunchtime crowd, explaining why they should get that scholarship, proud that he could help.

It’s strange how food seems to gather humanity. How in the wake of tragedy, we pile the sideboards of the grieved — how the ritual always includes the feast. It is a reminder of the elemental nature of sustenance, and how the shared meal connects us. This night, the lunchroom was manned by the best we have to offer. The efforts of those culinary professionals will allow the memory of those fallen nine to live on, to continue to help those in need, to never be forgotten.

For that, they should all be counted heroes.