Serving a plateful of hope: Kenwood winemaker’s journey to Ukraine
By Christian Kallen
It’s over 6,000 miles from Kenwood to Kiev, according to Google Earth, by way of the shortcut over Greenland. But it’s a distance Chuck Easley would gladly travel again, as he did on an impulse at the end of March this year.
In the weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the world watched the war play out in the newspapers, on television, and in social media reports. As time passed, the plight of the refugees from Ukraine — a number that now reaches 5 million — became ever more disturbing, and people everywhere asked, “But what can I do?”
Though images of the war were everywhere, the owner of La Rochelle Winery on Adobe Canyon Road is not one to immerse himself in bad news. “I don’t watch the news very often because I just don’t like being bombarded with so much negativity,” said Easley. But he did catch 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 someone, anyone to call and tell her the boy had made it to safety.
It was followed by a tourism ad selling family cruise packages, with happy kids frolicking in a swimming pool.
The juxtaposition struck a chord in Easley, 63, with two grown children. He thought, “You know, I’m pretty damn lucky here. I’ve got it so good.” 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 following the 7.0 magnitude earthquake there in 2010. Since that time Andrés and his colleagues, especially CEO Nate Mook, have been at the scene of disaster recovery around the world — in Nicaragua, Zambia, Peru, Cuba, Uganda, Cambodia, even the United States. They have re- sponded to flooding in Australia and to the subway attack in New York City, even while their Ukraine operation was in full operation.
“I think everybody asks, what can I do when there’s a disaster? What can I do to help? What he can do is provide food,” said Easley of Andrés and his World Central Kitchen. “The basic principle is it’s not just a plate of food that they’re giving, it’s hope.”
As Andrés himself has said, “There’s many ways to fight the war. We are fighting the war the only way cooks know, through food. We are food fighters.”
Andrés harnesses the common resources, skills, and strengths of the global hospitality industry, but insists that the nonprofit nongovernmental organization (NGO) have a small staff. Its success is thanks to its volunteers, who show up in times of crisis to provide support — logistical, physical, pitching in to help make 10,000 sandwiches a day, or whatever else is needed to provide for the most immediate of human needs: hunger.
Easley drew a direct parallel to his own experience during fall 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 at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, and he had no water and no power. After five weeks, he said, “I was past my point of being able to deal with it, when two people come walking out of the bushes behind my house.”
It was John Burdick and Catherine Venturini Burdick of Cuvée Wine Country Events of Kenwood, and of the now-closed Olive & Vine in Glen Ellen. “They snuck up the creek, snuck past the National Guard, and brought me dinner,” Easley said. The gesture touched him profoundly, and he remembered it when he saw the Ukraine refugee situation unfolding.
“When you’re in a catastrophic situation like that, displaced, don’t have any idea where to go, who to turn to, the fact that a stranger hands you some food, just lets you know that they care about you, it can turn everything around,” Easley said.
He took that life lesson, volunteered to help Ukraine, booked a flight, and left for Poland on March 28.
He found himself in Przemyśl (pronounced “chevizh,”), Poland’s second oldest city after Krakow, staying in a room he’d found online. He reported to a warehouse with about 70 other volunteers from all over the world to prepare food for distribution at the Ukraine border, where up to 10,000 refugees were arriving every day.
“The job was laid in front of us. Alright, we gotta 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 just put their heads down and literally busted their ass to get it done. It was like nobody wanted to let anybody else down.”
Easley often found himself tasked with adding cheese to the sandwiches, and earned the nickname “Chuck E. Cheese.”
Naturally, camaraderie developed among the small group of volunteers. One of them turned out to be a floor captain from Singlethread Farm, the three-Michelin starred restaurant in Healdsburg, volunteering while the restaurant recovered from a kitchen fire. Easley also met a Palestinian and an Israeli who were collaborating on an ad hoc hospitality service at the border: Greet refugees, help them locate a place to stay or a ride to where they need to go, “and just kind of set up their path.”
Inside the warehouse making sandwiches, the volunteers were in an “amazing little bubble (of) what the world should be like,” said Easley. But he also sometimes delivered food to the border crossings, which had a different impact altogether — seeing the refugees arrive directly from the bombing, almost all of them women and children.
“And you realize the reality of the situation and just how horrible it was … It was just so hard to deal with.”
Easley left after 10 days, and got back to Kenwood on April 12. He is recovering from a bout of pneumonia (not COVID-19, to his relief) picked up in the close quarters of the volunteer community. The day we spoke, a Russian bomb struck L’viv for the first time, and among the injured were four members of a World Central Kitchen team.
Chef Andrés noted it was World Central Kitchen’s first operation in a war zone. “I always say that we are a young organization, barely 12 years. We keep learning in every moment, but we felt we had to be here next to the people of Ukraine. We cannot leave them alone. They are fighting the war on behalf of all of us around the world,” said Andrés. “We have to be here.”
That’s how Easley feels: “It’s not over. This thing is just getting warmed up.” His thoughts return to those 10 days in Poland, about two miles from the border, when he had a role in offering people a plateful of hope. “I have this incredible desire to go back. I feel like it’s the most important thing I can do right now.”
To donate, volunteer, or find out more information about World Central Kitchen, visit wck.org.