By Christian Kallen
According to Google Earth, it’s over 6,000 miles from Kenwood to kyiv, via the Greenland Shortcut. But it’s a distance that Chuck Easley would happily cover again, as he did on a whim in late March of this year.
In the weeks following Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, the world watched the war unfold in newspapers, on television and on social media. Over time, the plight of refugees from Ukraine – a number that now stands at 5 million – has become increasingly worrying, and people everywhere have asked, “But what can I do?”
Though images of war are ubiquitous, the owner of La Rochelle Winery on Adobe Canyon Road isn’t one to delve into bad news. “I don’t watch the news very often because I just don’t like being bombarded with so much negativity,” Easley said. But he caught a story on CNN about a young Ukrainian boy who showed up at the Polish border with his mother’s phone number written on his arm – a message for anyone, anyone , calls him and tells him that the boy was safe.
It was followed by a tourist advertisement selling family cruise packages, with happy children frolicking in a swimming pool.
The juxtaposition struck a chord with Easley, 63, with two adult children. He thought, “You know, I’m really lucky here. I have it so well. Almost immediately, he went to the World Central Kitchen website (wck.org) and volunteered.
Spanish-born “celebrity chef” José Andrés started World Central Kitchen in Haiti after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010. Since then, Andrés and his colleagues, especially CEO Nate Mook, have been on the disaster recovery locations around the world – in Nicaragua, Zambia, Peru, Cuba, Uganda, Cambodia, even the United States. They responded to the floods in Australia and the attack on the New York subway, even as their operation in Ukraine was running at full speed.
“I think everyone asks, what can I do in the event of a disaster? What can I do to help? What he can do is provide food,” Easley said of Andrés and his global central kitchen. “The basic premise is that it’s not just a plate of food they’re giving away, it’s hope.”
As Andrés himself said, “There are many ways to wage war. We fight war the only way cooks know how, through food. We are food fighters.
Andrés taps into the resources, skills and common strengths of the global hospitality industry, but insists the not-for-profit non-governmental organization (NGO) has a small staff. Its success is due to its volunteers, who show up in times of crisis to provide support – logistical, physical, helping to make 10,000 sandwiches a day, or whatever is needed to meet the most immediate human need: hunger. .
Easley drew a direct parallel to his own experience in the fall of 2017, with the Nuns Fire. La Rochelle Winery on Adobe Canyon Road, where he lives, did not burn. But the road was blocked by the National Guard due to damage to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, and it had no water or power. After five weeks, he said: “I had passed my stage of coping with it, when two people came out of the bushes behind my house.”
It was John Burdick and Catherine Venturini Burdick of Kenwood’s Cuvée Wine Country Events, and the now closed Olive & Vine in Glen Ellen. “They snuck into the creek, walked past the National Guard, and brought me dinner,” Easley said. This gesture touched him deeply and he remembered it when he saw the situation of the Ukrainian refugees unfold.
“When you’re in a dire situation like this, moved, you have no idea where to go, who to turn to, having a stranger hand you food, just lets you know they care about you , it can change everything,” Easley said.
He took that life lesson, volunteered to help Ukraine, booked a flight, and left for Poland on March 28.
He ended up in Przemyśl (pronounced “chevizh”), the second oldest city in Poland after Krakow, in a room he had found online. He traveled to a warehouse with around 70 other volunteers from around the world to prepare food for distribution at the Ukrainian border, where up to 10,000 refugees were arriving every day.
“The work was laid out in front of us. All right, we have to make 10,000 sandwiches today. We have to make 10,000 servings of baby food, 10,000 servings of banana bread or bread pudding,” he said. “And people hang their heads and literally break their ass doing it. It was like no one wanted to let anyone else down.
Easley often found himself tasked with adding cheese to sandwiches and earned the nickname “Chuck E. Cheese”.
Naturally, the camaraderie developed within the small group of volunteers. One of them turned out to be a floor captain at Singlethread Farm, the three-star Michelin restaurant in Healdsburg, volunteering while the restaurant recovered from a fire in the kitchen. Easley also met a Palestinian and an Israeli who were collaborating on an ad hoc reception service at the border: Welcoming refugees, helping them find a place to stay or a ride to where they need to go, “ and just set their path.”
Inside the warehouse making sandwiches, the volunteers were in an “amazing little bubble (of) what the world should look like,” Easley said. But he also occasionally delivered food to border crossings, which had an altogether different impact – seeing refugees arrive straight from the shelling, almost all of them women and children.
“And you realize the reality of the situation and how awful it was… It was so difficult to deal with.”
Easley left after 10 days and returned to Kenwood on April 12. He is recovering from a bout of pneumonia (not COVID-19, much to his relief) contracted in neighborhoods close to the volunteer community. On the day we spoke, a Russian bomb hit L’viv for the first time, and among the injured were four members of a World Central Kitchen crew.
Chef Andrés noted that this was World Central Kitchen’s first operation in a war zone. “I always say that we are a young organization, barely 12 years old. We continue to learn every moment, but we felt that we had to be here next to the Ukrainian people. We cannot leave them alone. They are waging war on behalf of all of us around the world,” Andrés said. “We have to be here.”
That’s how Easley feels: “It’s not over. This thing is just warming up. His thoughts return to those 10 days spent in Poland, about three kilometers from the border, when he had the role of offering people a plate full of hope. “I have this incredible urge to go back. I feel like it’s the most important thing I can do right now.”
To donate, volunteer, or get more information about World Central Kitchen, visit wck.org.
The stand of World Central Kitchen which provides food to the refugee center in Przemyśl, Poland. The center was set up in a converted warehouse of major retailer Tesco, to provide services to refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of Poland.
Photo by Chuck Easley