In February 25, Tony Priolo got up early to work out on his elliptical machine. Pumping his arms and legs, he flicked on the TV and couldn’t believe his eyes. Bombs. Gunfire. Convoys of armored vehicles. Russia had invaded Ukraine. 

“As my heart rate was going up, I thought, What could I do?” says Priolo, the chef and owner of Piccolo Sogno in the West Loop. He recalled a former Ukrainian employee, a young woman who had worked one summer as a hostess before returning home. Where was she now? He moved his legs back and forth more vigorously as he turned up the resistance. He thought of the pandemic, when so many chefs had banded together to help each other. 

Priolo, 52, began composing a letter in his head. Later that day he sent it to his network of Chicago chefs. He wanted to hold an event to raise money for the people affected by the war. “I’ll do all the legwork,” he promised. The chefs just needed to cook.

Less than three weeks later, on March 16, chefs representing 70 restaurants from around the city dished out bites to a crowd of 2,000 in the Aon Grand Ballroom at Navy Pier. The event generated more than $600,000 for World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit founded by chef José Andrés to feed people displaced by war and natural disasters. 

Priolo, though, wasn’t done helping. He tracked down his former employee on Instagram. “Are you okay?” he messaged during the first wave of bombardments. “Not really,” she responded. “My mom and my dog and I are hiding in the subway.” 

That exchange provided the extra push for Priolo to keep going. Along with chefs Giuseppe Tentori of Boka Catering Group and Paul Kahan of One Off Hospitality, he traveled to Przemysl, Poland, in April to help World Central Kitchen feed the 20,000 to 30,000 Ukrainian refugees who had massed along the border. During his week there, he saw kids covered in dirt and older couples lugging suitcases stuffed with their belongings. One woman in line for food, lacking the words to express her gratitude, simply bowed. “I don’t know how many times I had to go into a corner and cry,” Priolo says.

He has stayed in touch with the young woman who used to work for him. Still messaging on Instagram, he let her know he had gone to Poland. She texted back: “I had such a yummy soup from World Central Kitchen. It made me smile.”

Video by Ross Feighery.