One of Chicago’s biggest food events of the year was thrown together in mere weeks to support the Ukrainian victims of the Russian invasion. On Wednesday, March 16, more than 70 chefs will assemble at Navy Pier for a massive fundraiser called Chicago Chefs Cooks for Ukraine. It’s an effort to raise money for World Central Kitchen, the charity led by celebrity chef José Andrés, a past Nobel Peace Prize finalist.
More than 100,000 Ukrainian Americans live in Chicago, the second largest population for an American city. One of them is Johnny Clark, co-owner and chef of Wherewithall in Avondale (along with wife Beverly Kim, the Beard Award-winning couple also own Korean-American hit Parachute). Clark bears a tattoo of the Ukrainian national symbol, the now-familiar blue shield and gold trident. He says his grandmother, Annlie, was a driving force in his life as she shared stories of the Old World. She grew up in Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, about 20 miles from Russia and emigrated to America after World War II in the 1950s.
“Listening to some of the stories my grandmother would tell, it would give people nightmares,” says Clark, who adds: “I think people can kind of see the suffering, but I don’t think people understand the history behind the suffering. This isn’t anything new: Russia has been persecuting Ukraine for the last 100 years.”
Clark began serving a Ukrainian menu last week at Wherewithall to raise money for Razom For Ukraine, a non-profit supporting war victims. He says “food is always the gateway to people’s culture,” and can be used as a launching pad for deeper conversations. That’s worth more than any dollar amount a restaurant may raise, Clark says.
“There’s something like a spiritual connection, there’s a human connection — we’re all under one sky,” he adds. “Everyone sort of wants to be on the right side of history.”
Piccolo Sogno’s Tony Priolo shares that philosophy, saying he was stunned watching news footage of the invasion. It motivated him to form a coalition from the city’s most popular restaurants. Only a few participants, like Clark, Tryzub Ukrainian Kitchen, and celebrity chef Art Smith have direct ties to the Ukrainian community. Regardless, participants will provide one food item each for Wednesday’s event. Here are examples of what to expect:
- Demera, Tigist Reda: vegetarian messob (red lentil, cabbage)
- Eleven Eleven, Lamar Moore: white cheddar grits with blackened chicken and rich gravy
- Prairie Grass Cafe, Sarah Stegner: Amish blue cheese terrine with a concord grape reduction and kefir drizzle from sponsor Lifeway Foods
- Rose Mary, Joe Flamm: duck sausage with giardiniera and polenta
- Piccolo Sogno, Tony Priolo: seafood salad with fennel kefic sauce
- Verzenay Chicago, Arshiya Farheen: Kyiv-inspired macaron with hazelnut meringue chocolate, condensed buttercream and jam and sponge cake
Tapping into empathy might be the strongest way to grow support for the Ukrainian community, Clark says. Empathy is not in short supply for Tigist Reda, owner and chef of Demera Ethiopian Restaurant in Uptown. Reda quickly drew a parallel to the ongoing war in Tigray: “I feel their pain, not knowing if your family is going to live or die on a daily basis,” she says. “We’ve been going through it on a daily basis for a year and four months.”
Reda sees the outpouring of support for Ukraine and wishes she could build that type of awareness for Ethiopia as she’s held her own fundraisers. Priolo reassures her that he wants to see the chefs involved in Wednesday’s event mobilized for other causes: “We’re not done yet, don’t give up yet,” he tells Reda on a Zoom call with Eater.
Working with World Central Kitchen was a natural fit as Andrés has opened five restaurants in Chicago since 2019. Lamar Moore (Eleven Eleven) worked with WCK at the start of the pandemic when he split his time between Chicago and Las Vegas: “Everything was shut down, I didn’t know what to do,” Moore says. “I sat at home trying to figure out what was next, and that’s when WCK reached out to me.”
“A lot of people don’t understand as a chef, a cook, how important it is for us to feed people, whether it’s a bowl of soup and crackers… as much as we complain about gas prices behind high, [Ukrainians] can’t even put food on their tables or have a place to stay.”
Stegner’s experience with rallying support through her Green City Market connections (she’s a founding board member) has proven invaluable. For the fundraiser, the chefs are using Green City’s charity designation until they have time to form their own. That’s how they were able to secure space at Navy Pier and sponsors like Lifeway and Breakthru Beverage Group.
For Clark, the news has given him an opportunity to talk about Ukraine, and that’s something that he relishes. Last week, they raised $800. He’s shooting for $2,000 this week through donating $4 for every customer they serve at Wherewithall. Clark’s been dining at Ukrainian restaurants like Shokolad Pastry & Cafe, hoping to support those with family overseas. For Wednesday’s event at Navy Pier, he’ll supply borscht.
“My grandmother used to make it — it’s a very Ukrainian thing,” he says. “It’s about as Ukrainian as apple pie is American.”
Chicago Chefs Cook For Ukraine, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., Wednesday, March 16, at Navy Pier Ballroom, Tickets on sale online.