We recently had the opportunity to talk with Steve Cassarino, the celebrity chef better known as Chef Roc, about his work as a volunteer with World Central Kitchen. This incredible humanitarian organization provides meals on the frontlines, and you can find out more about their work in our previous blog post.
There is so much that we want to share with you from this conversation that we will be posting a series of blogs off the back of our interview, so look out for more to come. But let’s start with this: how did a celebrity TV chef from the US end up volunteering at a commissary kitchen in Poland, 7 miles from the Ukrainian border?
Deciding To Go
Having trained in London and Paris, as well as the US, Chef Roc has been a professional chef for over three decades. He quickly made a name for himself as one half of the Clever Cleaver Brothers duo; for over 25 years they appeared in over 125 live TV show segments each year on shows such as “The Tonight Show starring Jay Leno,” “Live! With Regis,” “Fox & Friends,” “CNN Headline News,” and “Entertainment Tonight”. In fact, one such segment happened to be a twice weekly appearance on “Good Morning Ukraine”. But it wasn’t any personal connection with Ukraine that moved him to get involved in such a hands-on, all-in capacity. It was simply a feeling of helplessness in the face of such human suffering. A few weeks into the invasion, he found himself unable to sleep:
“I was thinking, ‘Man, those poor people need our help and I’m over here, you know, just wondering if I’m going to go to the pool…’. I felt that I had to go.”
— Steve Cassarino (aka Chef Roc)
Getting Involved With WCK
Along with a good friend from high school, Jim Webb, Chef Roc signed up for WCK and was accepted based on his credentials and experience as a fully trained chef. WCK needs qualified and highly trained chefs in order to hit the ground running from day 1 when they arrive. After applying, Chef Roc had to look out for job postings in the 10 different satellite kitchens that were already up and running. He explains that WCK puts all donation money towards providing food, so the chefs have to sort out their own travel and accommodation. There is no sponsorship or salary for volunteer chefs. Once you get accepted for a post, you have to hit the ground running. As he puts it, “When you’re accepted, you have to kind of pull the trigger and just go.”
The facility was an impressive warehouse on the outskirts of a Polish town, and the location was kept secret as much as possible, to avoid becoming a Russian target. From day one, they put on their chef gear, took a cab to the facility, and got to work. Chef Roc says, “We were excited to help, and everyone else was – the chefs from all around the world.”
The Day to Day
The commissary kitchen provided meals for WCK satellite kitchens in various different locations. The food would be prepared, packaged, and sent out to be provided to refugees at train stations, refugee centers, and other satellite outlets. The chefs worked 12-hour shifts, dividing into a “hot food” team and a “cold food” team.
The “hot” team of about 20 chefs would make hundreds of gallons of stew, thousands of pounds of chicken and rice, cakes, cookies, and whatever else was on the meal plan. Over on the cold side, Chef Roc and 40 or so others would be involved in prepping and chopping several thousands of pounds of vegetables for salads and sandwiches. He says, “The best part was the sandwich making. It was an assembly line. 250 at a time. And we would make 8,000 sandwiches a day!” And that’s not to mention the gallons and gallons of homemade sauces and salad dressings.
As you can imagine, it was a finely tuned operation, and on a larger scale than anything Chef Roc had experienced in his 30+ years as a professional chef and caterer – “We worked 12 hour shifts and pushed out 23,000 meals a day. I did the math and, since the war started, just out of that one kitchen, they made 3 million meals. Just out of that kitchen! When you’re feeding thousands of people a day, that is organization.”
In such an intense environment of teamwork and collaboration, it’s not surprising to hear Chef Roc talk about the camaraderie that developed between the chefs. He explains that they had come from all over – Japan, Australia, UK, Ireland, and even Ukraine itself.
With such long and demanding shifts, there wasn’t a lot of time for anything else, but the chefs did sometimes find an opportunity to gather at the bar in the center of town, and the connection they forged during their time with WCK has bonded them beyond borders – “There’s probably 40 chefs that spent time in different places and at different time periods, and we’re all on a WhatsApp group. So we drop notes to each other. Some of them are still there. They’re staying until the end.”
The Humans At The Heart Of It
If the day-to-day work in the kitchen began to feel somewhat routine – albeit on a massive scale – it was the face to face encounters with the recipients of the food packages that really brought the reality of the situation home to Chef Roc.
He and his friend, Jim, would sometimes go to the nearby train station in the evening, after their shift, where one of the WCK satellite kitchens was serving meals to refugees who were crossing the border from Ukraine.
He says, “We would watch the train come in at about 9 PM. The poor people… If they were lucky, they had one suitcase packed. For some of these people, it was the first meal they had in 26 hours. And even water for that matter.”
It was all women, children, and elderly people. He describes the children as looking “lost in their eyes” as they sat in the station after going through customs. They didn’t know where to go or what was next. He and Jim had brought stuffed animals, Spider-Man art supplies, and other comforting “gifts” for the children, but they seemed reluctant to accept these gifts. He realized that the Ukrainians were a proud people: “I was blown away. In the United States, most kids would go ahead and take the gift. These children were very polite and would just say, ‘No, thank-you.’” It was only when their moms said it was okay that the children would take the items and light up with excitement.
Similarly, he visited one of the satellite kitchens at a refugee center that had been set up in an old Tesco department store building. As he puts it, “Imagine living inside a Target store or a Walmart. And that was your home.” There were over a thousand people housed inside this empty department store, and he describes the surreal scene of a man playing the piano as others walked around aimlessly: “It was unreal. I mean, it was hard for me to comprehend that people are just uprooted, you know? These folks are there just to survive because they don’t know what the next step is going to be. Where do they go from there?” He was struck by the fact that what they really want is to go back. They just want to go home, despite the destruction and despair that was likely waiting.
The Power Of Personal Stories
We’re all seeing the news reports and the scale of the destruction in Ukraine. But coming face to face with the people – the families, the children – who are paying the highest price for this war, that’s something different altogether.
“What’s on the news, you know, it’s fast. You might see a few short interviews with some people, but mostly you’re seeing destruction and the bombings and the death toll, and all that. But when you actually meet the people who ran away from it, your heart goes out and you just want to help as much as you can.”
— Steve Cassarino (aka Chef Roc)
This is why personal storytelling is at the core of Spotlight Ukraine. It’s impossible to imagine how it feels to have your home destroyed and your family killed, and to carry nothing more than a suitcase – if even that. To not know if or when you might be able to go home. We’re creating a forum for story sharing so that people aren’t reduced to statistics, and also to hear from those who are helping on the frontlines.
When we talked about this with Chef Roc, he was anxious to recognize and applaud the relentless efforts and energies of the Polish people in that particular town – their compassion, their proactivity, and their endless organization. He says, “I was blown away and they kept going and going… I said one Polish gentleman, ‘How long can you guys hold out?’ And he responded, ‘You know, whatever it takes.’”
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the very worst of humanity can also bring out some of the best?
Watching the news, it’s easy to feel hopeless. But these stories of goodness and kindness give all of us some hope for a better tomorrow. Maybe good can conquer evil.
After his work at WCK, Chef Roc stayed on for an additional two weeks and visited another refugee center in Poland. We will share more about his experiences there in the next blog. Now back in the US, he says, “I’ll just keep plugging away, whatever little I can do to help.” But Chef Roc is doing much more than just a little. He’s back in the United States helping to spearhead the Save The Children of Ukraine fundraising campaign. He recently hosted a fundraising event and continues efforts to raise money for Poland Welcomes, a refugee center near the Ukraine border that is housing, on average, 500 refugees at a time. His fundraising efforts are also supporting an orphanage in Lviv, Ukraine. Chef Roc explained that there were approximately 50 orphaned children at the orphanage when he first got to WCK and by the time he left, the orphans totalled about 80. We’ll be covering these fundraising efforts in our next blog, but you can also click here to learn more and donate to Chef Roc’s Save The Children of Ukraine Fundraising Campaign.
Support World Central Kitchen
By the end of July, World Central Kitchen reached an important milestone with 100 million meals served to support the people of Ukraine. WCK’s work – together with the help of volunteers like Chef Roc – is invaluable. Ukraine is no longer the lead story in the US news headlines, but the devastation and destruction is worse than ever. WCK needs help to keep feeding Ukrainians.
Spotlight Ukraine is currently raising funds to support the work of WCK – please click here to donate to the Spotlight Ukraine fundraising campaign for World Central Kitchen.