In Poland, the chef of Saul’s Deli works on the food chain for Ukrainian refugees – J.
World Central Kitchen, which is setting up kitchens to feed people in disaster areas, war zones and areas affected by climate change, recently received help from a Bay Area chef.
Peter Levitt, co-owner of Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen in Berkeley, volunteered for two weeks in April to feed Ukrainian refugees in Przemyśl, a Polish town about 10 miles from the Ukrainian border.
After seeing a fellow chef post on Facebook about his experience there, Levitt said it was “a no-brainer” that he would go too – particularly because of his heritage: his maternal line is from Krakow, Poland, and his father’s line. from Lithuania.
“I find it all so horrific to happen,” Levitt, who was born in Botswana and grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, said of the Russian invasion. “I consider it my own personal FU to Putin. When I saw women and children leaving their men behind to face this massive army, illegally occupying them, it struck a chord, and World Central Kitchen offered me a way to do something about it.
World Central Kitchen was founded by Spanish chef José Andrés (who is often credited with introducing the concept of small plate dining to the United States) after a 7.0 earthquake in Haiti in 2010.
According to its website, WCK has served more than 37 million meals at eight border crossings to support Ukrainian refugees. It also supports restaurants in Odessa, Kyiv and Lviv that do the same.
After arriving in Przemyśl, at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains in southeastern Poland, Levitt began working in a warehouse where soup and sandwiches were assembled. The building, he said, was first part of the Jewish ghetto and then inside a labor camp for Jewish inmates before they were transported to concentration and extermination camps. (Before World War II, the area was nearly 40 percent Jewish, according to YIVO’s online encyclopedia.)
Levitt said it was up to him to find his own accommodation in Przemyśl, which was not easy as the town of 60,000 people became a major hub for providing services to refugees. Many nongovernmental organizations operate there, and Levitt said he saw volunteers from the American Jewish World Service and several Israeli disaster relief groups.
While in Krakow, he learned that 200 Roma families from Ukraine were staying at the JCC. “They were housing and feeding them because no one would come near Ukrainian Roma,” Levitt said.
For two weeks, he was part of a group of chefs and non-chefs (about 90% American, he says) putting together hot and cold sandwiches. On calm days, they did 4,000, on busy days, 8,000.
“The sandwiches were trucked to wherever the refugees were going or coming from, to all train stations and bus stations,” he said. “World Central Kitchen set up tents near all of these locations and we were delivering to the tents. People could grab a hot sandwich from the tent, and cold sandwiches could be taken on the go, and many were trucked into Ukraine and taken to frontline towns where there were starving people.
Levitt said the volunteers were a mix of chiefs, veterans and retirees.
As for the old adage that too many cooks in the kitchen, it applied and it didn’t.
Just be humble, put your head down and do the work. One day I was the top bun and only put the top half of the bun up 4,000 times.
Although there isn’t a lot of skill involved in assembling sandwiches, doing it in such large quantities requires high-level logistics.
“There was a lot of leader ego in the band,” he said. “You just have to be humble, put your head down and get the job done. One day I was the top bun and only put the top half of the bun up 4,000 times.
Each sandwich also had to be wrapped and crated.
“If you have this [experience]you rise to the top of a retiree who has never worked in food before,” he said.
There was also a difference between hot and cold kitchens, he said. The hot kitchens were mainly reserved for working chefs, many of whom belonged to Andrés’ network of restaurants, who were paid for their work.
“You have to prove that you can move a paddle of about 60 gallons of soup without getting burned,” he said.
Levitt admits there was another personal reason he was there too.
With Saul’s Deli shifting to a fast-casual model during the Covid pandemic, he did reconnaissance work at as many Polish milk bars as he could – observing how they were run and what they served . Remnants of the communist era, milk bars offer inexpensive meals in a cafeteria-style setting (milk refers to the cheese cutlets that were often served).
“Jewish charcuterie is alive and well in Poland,” he said. “This is excellent research for Saul.”