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Local winemaker finds new calling at World Central Kitchen

Thankfulness takes on new meaning for winemaker Chuck Easley after feeding refugees fleeing Ukraine.|

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.”

“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.

Another of his favorites is an adaptation of a recipe from chef Daniel Boulud for a stuffed pumpkin that Easley fills with Sonoma County ingredients: bread from Gougette bakery in Santa Rosa, mushrooms from Mycopia in Sebastopol and grated cheese and cream from one of the local dairies. It bakes inside the pumpkin and transforms into one of the most sublime stuffings you’ll ever eat.

“I make wine, and I love to cook. And you study it to try to do it right. Technique, ingredients — all those are super important,” he said.

But he believes, whether it’s a cold cut sandwich made by volunteers or a stuffed pumpkin recipe from a celebrated chef, there’s one common ingredient.

“Love is a flavor. It’s what feeds us,” he said. “It’s not what’s in the stuffing. It’s what you put into the creation of it.”

This recipe is based on chef Daniel Boulud’s famous stuffed pumpkin recipe. Chuck Easley adapted it celebrate the great local bounty of ingredients available in Sonoma County, but feel free to use ingredients of your choice.

Sonoma Stuffed Pumpkin

Makes 8 to 10 servings

1 medium-size pumpkin, lid cut off and seeds and strings removed (Cinderella pumpkin works well)

1-2 cups pumpkin sliced from the lid and diced into ½-inch cubes

1 loaf sourdough bread from your favorite local bakery, cut into cubes

6 ounces Pancetta, cooked (use bacon as a substitute, or nuts for a vegetarian version)

1 pound mushrooms, sliced (black trumpet or mushroom of your choice)

1 tablespoon fresh thyme or sage (or a combination)

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 tablespoon olive oil (optional)

2 cups grated cheese (such as Cypress Grove Midnight Moon or Bellwether Farms Carmody)

1 cup Bellwether Farms basket ricotta

2-3 cups of cream or half and half

Nutmeg, freshly grated or jarred (optional)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

With a knife, cut out a circular cap from the pumpkin wide enough to easily stuff the pumpkin later. Scrape out any seeds and strings. Cut off some flesh from the lid and cut it into cubes, approximately a cup or 2, and set aside.

Cut the sourdough bread into ½- to ¾-inch cubes. Place on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 15 minutes until they begin to crisp. Remove from oven and set aside.

Heat a 10-inch saute pan over medium heat, add the pancetta or bacon and cook until crisp. Remove the pancetta to a paper towel-lined plate, leaving the oil in the pan.

Return the pan to medium heat, and add the mushrooms. Season with salt, pepper and fresh herbs. Saute until they release their liquid, then cook a few minutes longer until the liquid evaporates. Set mushrooms aside.

To stuff the pumpkin, rub the insides of the pumpkin with some olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Begin by layering in ⅓ of the toasted bread cubes, followed by ⅓ of the mushrooms, ⅓ of the pancetta, a handful of the cubed pumpkin, some dollops of ricotta and ⅓ of the cheese. Pour in approximately ¾ cup of cream, then season with salt and pepper and freshly grated nutmeg, if desired. Repeat these layers 2 more times until pumpkin is filled to the top. Finish with the remaining cream.

Place the cap on top of the pumpkin and place on a foil-lined baking sheet. Transfer to the oven and bake 2 to 3 hours, until you can easily pierce the flesh of the pumpkin with a knife.

Remove from oven. Remove the lid of the pumpkin and allow to cool for 5 to 10 minutes. Serve warm, scooping pumpkin from the sides along with the filling.

This recipe from La Rochelle Winery owner Chuck Easley is adapted from one his grandmother made. It uses a mix of peppers you can adapt to your own liking. If you prefer mild, use mainly bell peppers and poblanos. For a little extra heat, use a jalapeno or 2. For what his grandmother called “Hell cakes,” use mostly jalapeno with just a little poblano and bell pepper.

Granny Lou’s Pepper Cakes

Makes approximately 12 4-inch pepper cakes

1 large egg, beaten

3 cups chopped peppers (mix of bell, poblano and jalapeno)

1 medium yellow onion, diced

8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated

½ cup Bisquick, plus more if needed

Salt and pepper

Oil for frying

Beat egg in a large mixing bowl. Add peppers, onions and cheese and mix well. Sprinkle over ½ cup of Bisquick, a healthy pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Stir to combine. Allow to sit for a minute or 2. Mixture should come together in a spoonable batter that’s not too runny. If it is, sprinkle on another tablespoon or 2 of Bisquick and stir.

Heat a teaspoon of oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Drop batter by tablespoons onto the hot pan, being careful not to crowd the pan. Cook approximately 4 to 5 minutes until set and the bottoms are deep golden brown. Flip with a spatula and cook on the other side another 4 to 5 minutes. Remove to a platter and keep warm in a 200-degree oven. Repeat with remaining batter.

Note: Peppers and onions may be sauteed in a skillet and cooled slightly before adding to the bowl with the beaten egg mixture.

You can reach staff writer Jennifer Graue at jennifer.graue@pressdemocrat.com

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