Local winemaker finds new calling at World Central Kitchen
How much love and care can be expressed in a simple cold cut sandwich? A lot, it turns out. Just ask Chuck Easley.
That’s one of the many lessons the proprietor and winemaker at La Rochelle Winery in Kenwood learned this year while volunteering to feed Ukrainian refugees in Poland and victims of Hurricane Ian in Florida. Easley spent about a month with World Central Kitchen, an organization led by celebrity chef José Andrés that goes to the front lines to provide meals to communities in crisis.
On a recent sunny, crisp autumn afternoon on the patio of his home surround by grapevines and an unruly herb garden, Easley shared stories about his experiences and how they’ve changed his perspective on gratitude this Thanksgiving while he prepared two dishes he makes each year.
Within five weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Easley had signed up to volunteer on the website of World Central Kitchen, booked a flight to Poland and made his way to Przemysl, a small city on the Ukrainian border that welcomed a flood of refugees.
“It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Easley said.
Food communicates hope
Easley and his fellow volunteers soon were installed on the World Central Kitchen sandwich line, where they got instructions on how to make a sandwich — a pretty simple task.
It’s what they were told next that Easley called “a ‘Harvard Business Review’ lesson in how to run a business.
“We are here to provide hope for these people,” the volunteers were told. “These sandwiches need to communicate that. So if you see anything that doesn’t express love and hope, fix it. You have the power to fix it.”
Easley and other volunteers took that to heart. They started making 6,000 sandwiches a day, finding ways to be more efficient. One day they made 10,000 sandwiches — a record.
He also got a refresher in gratitude while delivering sandwiches to women and children as they arrived at the Przemsyl train station.
“To see their eyes light up when you hand a sandwich to a kid who hasn’t eaten for days and you look in the mother’s eyes and she starts to cry — oh, my God,” he said. “You go back into the kitchen the next day and you work 10 times harder.”
It’s a light Easley recognized. Five years ago, he was on the receiving end of a plate of food that changed his outlook.
He’d stayed behind on his property on Adobe Canyon Road after the Nun’s Fire swept through, spending five weeks relying on a neighbor for power and water because he had none. He didn’t want to leave because he knew he wouldn’t be able to get back through the National Guard barricade.
“I’d lost hope and (was) thinking, is this thing ever going to end?” Easley said.
Around that time, a neighbor snuck up a creek bed past the National Guard and brought him a dinner of fried chicken, salad and brownies.
The memory of his gratitude drove him to volunteer in Poland, initially for two weeks. The experience was so fulfilling he returned for a week in July, then went to Florida in October to cook for those displaced by Hurricane Ian.
He learned about making borscht, Ukrainian honey cake and banana bread from a recipe that starts with 1,000 bananas. In Florida, he stirred a vat of rice, beef and peppers until his arms ached.
“My arms are still tired from stirring the rice,” he said, laughing. “It makes punch downs at the winery feel like stirring a cocktail.”
Secret ingredient transforms food
For Easley, the past year has put into stark relief the transformative power of food. It’s also transformed him.
He plans to spend Thanksgiving volunteering somewhere cooking for others.
“I’ve done it in Ukraine and Poland, why not do it in Sonoma?” he said. “I think I’ve found my calling.”
What hasn’t changed are the dishes he loves to make at Thanksgiving. One is a recipe for pepper cakes from his late grandmother, “Granny Lou.”
“She was a great, down-home cook,” he said. “(She was like) seeing love in the kitchen. It was her being. It just oozed out of her.”
The pepper cakes aren’t fancy. They’re a mix of peppers, mild and spicy, bound together with egg, cheese and Bisquick, then fried a deep golden brown. Easley makes a big batch and serves them all day long through football games, the big feast and, finally, in turkey sandwiches after Thanksgiving.