EDWINS founder spends birthday serving food in Ukraine, living in war, getting James Beard nod

Last Tuesday, Jan. 24, EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute founder Brandon Chrostowksi was driving to Chicago, on is way to catch a flight to Ukraine. For the second time since the war started, the chef and entrepreneur has heard the calling to help Ukrainians affected by the war with Russia.

In April, Chrostowski traveled to Przemysl, Poland to cook for Ukrainian refugees with World Central Kitchen. This month, the urge to help hit him again—this time going to Kyiv for 10 days to work with Ievgen Klopotenko, known as “Ukraine’s most famous chef” and is acclaimed for reviving dishes from the Soviet era and serving them to a fashionable crowd at his restaurant.

However, Klopotenko’s mission shifted to feeding those in need during the war. He converted his Kyiv restaurant into a bomb shelter to feed those on the front lines.

“This is his work,” Chrostowski says of Klopotenko’s mission. “He’s not fighting with rifles, he’s fighting with food. He’s doing great things—he’s in the thick of it. He’s not taking volunteers because it’s a safety issue, but this is his home. It’s not only his country, it’s his family.”

This week, Chrostowski and Klopotenko have been combining knife skills to cook for and serve soldiers and children at nearby hospitals in Lviv and Kyiv. Late last week, the pair prepared traditional Ukrainian dishes at Klopotenko’s Lviv restaurant, Ihwi, where they served more than 300 people displaced from the war and living in makeshift government housing Chrostowski described the housing as resembling mini storage containers with cardboard box floors.

Chrostowski says that after visiting in April last year, he wanted to return and help by doing what he knows best—cooking. “The first time, I was in Poland and there was definitely a need,” he says. “It’s the same idea this time, but I’m going closer to where things are a little less well-off.”

With this birthday this week, helping in Ukraine is how Chrostowski chose to celebrate. “My birthday is coming up and I decided what I wanted: To raise visibility in Ukraine,” he says. He was successful in raising visibility—working with the United Ukrainian Organizations of Ohio and the Chef’s Garden in Huron to bring supplies, produce, and seeds to Lviv.

The trip has been bittersweet, to say the least. Last Wednesday, Chrostowski learned he was named a James Beard 2023 semifinalist for outstanding restauranteur.  “I am honored,” said in a statement.

But the next morning, he awoke to the sounds of missiles and tanks, and a message from Klopotenko: “Brandon, morning. Now in city air alarm, so you have to go to coverture. And we can meet only after that.”

Chrostowski wasn’t defeated by the delay, saying, ““I just feel a deep call to be here, to deliver supplies, to cook food for others, and just be a part of making life a touch better in an awful situation.” He is scheduled to travel home today.

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.