This is the second blog in a 3-part series based on our conversation with celebrity chef Steve Cassarino, better known as Chef Roc. He has recently returned from a one-month stint as a volunteer chef for World Central Kitchen at a commissary facility near the Ukrainian border. You can read more about how he got involved with WCK, the 12-hour shifts to send out 23,000 meals a day to satellite kitchens, and his first-hand experience of the impact of the horrific war on the Ukrainian people in our recent blog post here.
Now back in the US, Chef Roc is continuing to pour his time, energy and talents into supporting the Ukrainian people from afar, spearheading the “Save the Children of Ukraine” fundraising campaign. More than anything, it was the time he spent with displaced Ukrainian children that has really stayed with him since his return home, and compels him to continue to do whatever he can to help.
Gifts for an Orphanage in Lviv
Chef Roc and several of his friends stayed on for two weeks after their work with WCK came to an end. They had purchased about $10,000 worth of gifts for the children, including things like art supplies and soft toys, and we shared in the previous blog how they were able to distribute some of these to refugee children at the train station once their shifts were over at the WCK commissary. At the end of his time in Poland, Chef Roc’s son joined him and together they continued to hand out gifts at the border, but they also sent a load of supplies with a group that was going to enter Ukraine to visit an orphanage in Lviv.
The group crossed the border and then travelled two hours by car to the town. They had arranged through a mutual connection to be collected from the border by an American, who drove them to the orphanage and back again, and only asked for money to cover the gas. As Chef Roc puts it, “The infrastructure that’s there is often by happenstance.” So much is only possible because of people coming together from all over, making connections, being available and willing, and asking for very little in return: “There’s a lot of that going on there, which is incredible.”
Just hours after they left the orphanage and returned to the border, missiles struck nearby– thankfully not the orphanage itself, but the surrounding area. It was another wake-up call about the dangers and the precariousness of the situation they were all in. It reminded Chef Roc that he and the other volunteers were there by choice; for the Ukrainian people – for the children at the orphanages, the train stations, the refugee centers – this was their only current reality:
“I was more frightened for the people that are still trying to make it out.”
— Steve Cassarino (aka Chef Roc)
A Visit to a Refugee Center in Poland
On his last day in Poland, a friend called and asked whether Chef Roc could take some of the gifts and supplies to a refugee center nearby organized by PolandWelcomes.org in Radymno, Poland, about 30 minutes north of where they were based. They estimated that there were about 100 kids at the center.
He and his son loaded up a taxi with gifts and headed off. The center was an old building, originally a university dorm, but it was in terrible shape. Chef Roc says, “When we arrived, I didn’t even think anyone was living there until we got to the front.” They were met by two Polish gentlemen, in their mid-thirties, who had created this refugee center by renting available buildings and fronting the whole thing themselves. At the time, the center housed about 500 people, mostly women and children, and it cost approximately $150,000 a month to keep it up and running. They don’t get much outside help, other than a British media contact who helps them to promote the facility.
Chef Roc and his son began to hand out their gifts to the children. He says, “They were so polite and thankful, and the older kids helped to hand out gifts to the younger ones.” They then took a tour of the center, and the Polish men explained that they were seriously in need of more exposure. Looking Chef Roc in the eye, they said, “We need help.”
“When I saw their faces, I knew that would be my next project – giving back again to people that need it more than me.”
— Steve Cassarino (aka Chef Roc)
“Save the Children of Ukraine”
With all the will and motivation in the world, it’s not always easy to know how to help and where to start. For Chef Roc, a fortuitous encounter during his time with WCK in Poland opened the door to ongoing opportunities to do his bit once he got home. While working in the commissary kitchen, he was joined by the well-known celebrity chef – Rachel Ray – who was there with a few other new faces. This group included Andriy Futey, Vice President of Ukrainian World Congress. Chef Roc says, “We started talking and hanging out and Andriy asked me about doing a fundraiser in San Diego. He said, ‘If anybody can pull it off, you can. There’s a large contingency of Ukrainians there and I’ll help you out.’ So I said, ‘Let’s do it.’” Once Chef Roc returned home, he got to work.
On July 23, 2022, Chef Roc hosted the fundraiser on the Hidden Oaks movie ranch in California, where he is a partner. They had all kinds of delicious foods, including his famous Borscht, as well as champagne donated by Wilson Creek wineries. King’s Hawaiian donated some of their delicious sweet bread, and there was music and a silent auction.
They partnered with volunteers from House of Ukraine, a Ukrainian cultural museum in San Diego’s Balboa Park. Chef Roc says, “It was really cool. They were very helpful. They brought refugees with them – some people that departed from Ukraine and are staying in the United States for the time being.”
The proceeds from this fundraising event were donated to support Poland Welcomes, the refugee center that Chef Roc visited, as well as Family Home Pokrova, the orphanage in Lviv, Ukraine. He has also set up a GoFundMe page so that the Save The Children of Ukraine fundraising campaign continues beyond the event itself.
And he’s not stopping there! Chef Roc is also using his Trio TV company to collaborate on a music video project using footage from his WCK experience: “It’s not the gory stuff, you know. It’s more the people and the humanitarian side.” Clark Datchler is re-making the video to the song “Shattered Dreams”, which was a 1987 hit worldwide for the British group Johnny Hates Jazz. Datchler, the lead singer and songwriter for Johnny Hates Jazz, has been collaborating with Chef Roc on a project for Trio TV. In their conversations, they brainstormed the idea of setting the song to some of the on-the-ground video footage Chef Roc, his son, and others, had accumulated from Poland and Ukraine during the time he was at the border, and then using the proceeds to raise more funds for organizations providing support to Ukrainians. Clark then got in touch with the award-winning producer behind many of his music videos, and he agreed to do the whole project pro bono. So, in the middle of the heatwave in London, they began shooting and re-recording “Shattered Dreams”, with a full orchestra. As Chef Roc says, “It’s taken on a new life of its own.” The video will be released later this year.
The Need Isn’t Going Anywhere
Chef Roc is all too aware that, although he is now back home, the need in Ukraine and Poland, in the orphanages and refugee centers, is only increasing at this point: “I spoke to Andriy Futey about Poland Welcomes and was told that the number of people there has not dwindled. For the most part, they still have about 500 people. The organizers also feel that they may get a boom of people coming back at some point.” Through the ongoing fundraising campaign and the international release of the song and music video, Chef Roc hopes to be able to help them continue their work providing such invaluable support and refuge, and to prepare for what’s to come.
During our interview, Chef Roc was incredibly humble about the volunteer work that he’s been doing when he remarked, “That’s all any of us can do, isn’t it?” He also reinforced that people should realize that every little bit of support – in whatever form it takes and even the smallest donations – of money, time, skills or advocacy – can add up to a world of difference.
For more information about the Save The Children of Ukraine fundraising campaign and to donate, please visit here.