Usually, when Rob Berman volunteers to feed people in need, he just goes down the hill to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Montclair and its food ministry, Toni’s Kitchen. But last month, Berman traveled thousands of miles from Verona to the border of Poland and Ukraine to spend a week helping World Central Kitchen feed people displaced by Russia’s brutal, unprovoked war.
“We made 37,000 sandwiches in seven days,” says Berman of his assigned crew.
José Andrés, a Spanish-born chef with a long career in fine dining, started World Central Kitchen in 2010 after seeing a huge earthquake devastate Haiti. Since then, his non-profit has fed tens of thousands of people after disasters in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Zambia, Peru, Cuba, Uganda, Cambodia and, most recently, on Poland’s border with Ukraine. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, it fed healthcare workers and people who had lost their jobs in New Jersey and New York.
World Central kitchen relies on volunteers like Berman to prep and distribute food, and trains culinary students and foodservice professionals to feed large groups of people after a disaster. When Berman stepped into the food warehouse-turned-kitchen in Przemyśl, Poland, he found the celebrity cook and food business entrepreneur Rachel Ray cooking there.
At Toni’s Kitchen, where he has volunteered for more than seven years, it is usually Berman doing the cooking, making 75 or more full meals for a Sunday dinner. And he admits that he is not a food professional. “Before volunteering at Toni’s, I had never cooked in my life,” he says. (His business, Berman Home Systems, installs custom electronics for security, audio, home theater and more.)
At World Central Kitchen, he worked from 9 a.m. to sometimes 6 p.m. chopping what needed to be chopped for the giant vats of soup it cooked up and layering meat and cheese onto rolls for grab-and-go meals. Berman says volunteers would bring the sandwiches over to the Polish city’s train station, where they were handed out to Ukrainian refugees coming into Poland, and people going back to reclaim their homes and lives. “We ran out every day,” he says.
The pace of the work was tough, but Berman and his fellow volunteers did find time to get together for a meal or a drink after their shift. “I’m not the most social person, but it helped to meet people this way,” he says. “You’re all working on a common cause.”
World Central Kitchen volunteers have to provide their own transportation to the place where they are needed, and their own housing. Berman used airline points for the flight into Kraków, Poland. From there, he took a train to the border city, where his daughter had found him a room. Every day, he walked three-quarters of a mile down to the warehouse kitchen. “It was located in a part of town that had been the Jewish ghetto during World War II,” he says. Some 22,000 Jewish people from Przemyśl were later killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp. “It was a site of evil and now there’s all this good that is happening there,” Berman adds.
Berman says that most of his fellow volunteers were Americans, and that more than a few flew home–only to come right back to the Polish kitchen. He couldn’t do that, but he says he will try make one or two of his future yearly vacations a volunteer vacation with World Central Kitchen.
“I have been so lucky in life,” Berman says. “I have four healthy kids and a wonderful wife. I felt like giving back.”