Chicago's top chefs to host fundraiser to feed Ukrainian refugees

Tony Priolo was on his elliptical machine Thursday morning when another round of images of the war in Ukraine came on the television and his heart couldn’t take it anymore. He needed to do something.

So Priolo, chef and co-owner of Piccolo Sogno, one of the city’s most renowned Italian restaurants, sent an email to about 40 other chefs and restaurateurs that floated the idea of a chef-driven fundraiser to help the people of Ukraine.

"Sarah Stegner, owner of Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook, was first to reply and she said ‘Let’s do this,’" Priolo said.

What followed was a mass mobilization of industry resources and friends who came together to organize an event taking place March 16 at the Navy Pier ballroom in which more than 70 chefs plan to cook for 1,000 people.

General admission tickets to the chef-curated tasting, dubbed Chicago Cooks for Ukraine, cost $150.

Money raised will go to World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that’s feeding thousands of Ukrainians who are trying to flee their homeland with little more than what they can carry.

Giuseppe Tentori was the second chef to sign on. He’s the owner of GT Fish & Oyster, GT Prime Steakhouse, and Boka Catering Group.


A who’s who of award-winning Chicago chefs followed.

Jason Hammel, chef and owner of Lula Cafe, got in touch with Priolo about a company that would make a perfect sponsor: Lifeway Foods.

The Morton Grove-based company was founded by Michael Smolyansky, who defected from Ukraine in 1976 when it was part of the Soviet Union.

"My father just hated communism," said Julie Smolyansky, who runs her late father’s company. "He was a young guy in his 20s with a wife and an infant daughter and he was just so pissed that everything was controlled and he could even get locked up for listening to his Beatles or Led Zeppelin albums."

The family was granted asylum and came to Chicago with $176 and little else.

"When he got to Chicago, my father, an engineer by trade, scoured Chicago alleys looking for electronics he could fix and sell," she said.

He later founded Lifeway, which makes kefir. Many of its 200 or so employees are from Eastern European countries, including Ukraine.

"What’s happening right now over there is my parents’ worst nightmare. To see everything unwind and go backwards is tragic," she said.

Smolyansky said the effort spearheaded by the chef community was "heartwarming."

Priolo said the offers to help have been nonstop, and he’s thankful his wife is so wonderful and patient.

The day after he sent the email that seeded the fundraiser, the two went on a vacation to mark their wedding anniversary.

"We went to Miami Beach. We went to the beach. But I spent every minute of it on the phone," he said.

"She understands 100%. I’m very lucky to have her. She just wishes I won’t have a heart attack," he said.