Why the owner of Saul’s Deli dropped everything and went to Poland

Peter Levitt said that cooking for Ukrainian refugees was his way to fight back against Putin.

Peter Levitt, the co-owner of Saul’s Deli, working the food line in Przemyśl, Poland. Credit: Saul’s Deli/Instagram

World Central Kitchen, which sets up kitchens to feed people in disaster areas, war zones and areas affected by climate change, had some help recently from an East Bay chef.

Peter Levitt, co-owner of Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen in Berkeley, volunteered for two weeks in April feeding Ukrainian refugees in Przemyśl, a Polish city about 10 miles from the Ukraine border.

After he saw a fellow chef post on Facebook about his experience there, Levitt said it was a “no-brainer” that he would go, too — especially because of his heritage: his maternal line is from Krakow, Poland, and his father’s line from Lithuania.

“I find the whole thing so horrific that this happens at all,” Levitt, who was born in Botswana and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, said of the Russian invasion. “I consider it my own personal F-U to Putin. When I saw women and children leaving their men behind to face this massive army, illegally occupying them, it struck a nerve, and World Central Kitchen offered me a medium to do something about it.”

World Central Kitchen (WCK) was founded by Spanish chef José Andrés 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 in support of Ukrainian refugees. It is also supporting restaurants in Odessa, Kyiv and Lviv that are doing the same.

After he arrived in Przemyśl, at the foot of the Carpathian mountains in southeast Poland, Levitt started work in a warehouse that had been part of the city’s the Jewish ghetto before World War II, and was later inside a labor camp for Jewish inmates before they were transported to concentration and extermination camps.

Levitt said it was up to him to find his own accommodations in Przemyśl, which wasn’t easy because the city of 60,000 has become a major hub to provide services for the refugees. Numerous nongovernmental organizations are operating there, and Levitt said he saw volunteers from American Jewish World Service and several Israeli disaster relief groups.

For two weeks, he was part of a group of chefs and non-chefs — about 90 percent American, he said, with military veterans and retirees among its ranks — who assembled sandwiches, both hot and cold. On slow days, they made 4,000, on busy days, 8,000.

“The sandwiches were trucked out to wherever refugees were coming or going, every train station and bus depot,” he said. “World Central Kitchen set up tents near all of these places and we’d deliver to the tents. People could get a hot sandwich in the tent, and cold ones could be taken on the go, and many were trucked into Ukraine and taken to the front-line towns where there were hungry people.”

While assembling sandwiches is less labor-intensive than, say, baking a perfect croissant, preparing even the simplest dish in such massive amounts requires high-level logistics. As for the old adage about too many cooks in the kitchen, that both did and didn’t apply.

“There was a lot of chef ego in the group,” Levitt said. “You just have to be humble, put your head down and do the work. One day, I was the top bun, and I placed only the top half of the bun 4,000 times.”

Each sandwich also had to be wrapped and crated.

“If you have that [experience], you rise to the top over a retiree who has never worked in food before,” he said.

There was also a difference between the hot and cold kitchens, he said. The hot kitchens were mostly reserved for working chefs, many from Andrés’ restaurant network, who were paid for their work.

“You have to prove that you can move a paddle around 60 gallons of soup without burning yourself,” he said.

Levitt admits there was another personal reason he went, too.

With Saul’s Deli switching to a fast casual model during the pandemic, he did reconnaissance work at as many Polish milk bars as he could get to — observing how they were run and what they were serving. A leftover from the Communist era, milk bars offer cheap meals in a cafeteria-style setting (milk refers to the cheese cutlets that were often served).

“Jewish deli food is alive and well in Poland,” he reported. “This is great research for Saul’s.”


A version of this story first appeared on J., the Jewish News of Northern California. Reprinted with permission.  

Alix Wall has lived in Oakland since 2002, with some summers spent in Berkeley as a child, and has written for Berkeleyside since 2013. She writes mostly about food.