John Messer’s drive to help people in need is so intense and all-consuming, a few major logistical hurdles won’t stop him for a minute.

Consider that when he left his home in Falmouth at the beginning of April to help feed Ukrainian war refugees in a Polish border town, Messer hadn’t yet secured a volunteer position with World Central Kitchen, or any other aid organization. He didn’t even know where or how he’d be helping once he landed after his 25-hour trip.

“When the war started, I was feeling like, I need to go, I need to go, I need to go,” Messer, 70, recalled at a talk he gave recently to the World Affairs Council of Maine at the Falmouth Memorial Library. “I bought a one-way ticket to Warsaw and thought, well, I’ll figure it out. There’s something there for me to do.”

He’d hoped to volunteer for World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit group headed by Washington D.C. star chef Jose Andres. Yarmouth chef Christian Hayes spent two weeks on the Ukraine border in March to help the organization, paying his own way, like Messer and many other volunteers did. But as of the day Messer flew to Poland, the group didn’t have room for more helpers.

Once he was on the ground in the town of Przemysl, Poland, the same town where Hayes had worked, Messer connected with a World Central Kitchen manager and snagged a volunteer position that had just opened in their industrial kitchen. This was his preferred mode of service, cooking from scratch, rather than distributing cooked meals from food trucks or tents.

“There was a huge need for people who understand how a professional kitchen works, people with knife skills,” Messer said. “This work was my highest value to them.”


Should you want to make A LOT of banana bread…This is the recipe used by the World Central Kitchen to feed Ukrainian refugees after the Russians attacked their country. Photo courtesy of John Messer

Originally a tax accountant, Messer worked in South Florida for 25 years as a partner of an international accounting and management consulting firm before retiring 10 years ago, resolving to pursue his passions. He spent the last 15 summers at his Down East camp, though he now lives in Maine full-time. For three years straight, he took six-week trips to Paris in order to earn a diploma from the renowned Paris cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu, through its intensive program.

Messer may be one of the few Cordon Bleu graduates to use his fine-tuned kitchen skills exclusively to feed hungry people around the world, all for free. “I’ve never earned a dime working as a chef,” Messer said.

Since the 1990s, as an avid cook without formal training, Messer has catered fundraisers around the country for the Texas-based orphan assistance group Miracle Foundation, and he travelled to India several times to volunteer on foundation work projects. In the last five years alone, Messer has helped feed hungry refugees in the Balkans, Greece and now Poland. A Maine resident after moving from Florida he’s also a board member of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, and in June, he’ll cook for an event hosted by Hope Acts, the Portland non-profit group devoted to helping immigrants and asylum seekers.

“Cooking food sustains people’s lives, and that’s very joyful for me. If people don’t have food, everything else is secondary,” Messer said, trying to explain what inspires him to volunteer. Regarding his two weeks in Ukraine, he said he was moved in part by “rage.”

“Going over to help cook was just something I could do, rather than sitting at home being pissed off,” Messer said.

Volunteers feeding Ukrainian refugees as part of the nonprofit World Central Kitchen pause from making 5,000 sandwiches. Photo courtesy of John Messer



“He spends his days thinking how to help the marginalized and try to make their lives less difficult,” said Messer’s husband, Stephen Peck. “It’s probably one of the things that attracted me to him in the first place.”

“Everybody should be lucky enough to know a John Messer. He has (people in need) in the center of his heart with every decision he makes,” said Caroline Boudreaux, founder of Miracle Foundation, where Messer is a board member. “People who have struggled understand struggle.”

Messer said he grew up in poverty in eastern Tennessee. “I lived on the margins. I think that has something to do with my motivation. And I’m lucky enough to have the energy of a 20-year-old.”

He certainly needed the energy for the 12-hour World Central Kitchen work shifts, as well as moving around town to sleep in a new room almost every night. In an email he sent to friends while he was in Ukraine, Messer wrote, “I am so exhausted when I get to my apartment at night, I can barely get the beer to my mouth before I fall asleep. But every morning I awake with all the energy in the world. I can’t remember such a sustained “high” in my life. I feel like pinching myself. Here I am with about 100 strangers, and suddenly everyone is best friends, cooperating and working towards a common goal to feed cold, traumatized, displaced persons from Ukraine.”

Messer worked in empty warehouse that the nonprofit had transformed on the fly. “In four days, they’d turned it into a state-of-the art kitchen, with a walk-in freezer bigger than this room,” he told the dozen people gathered for his talk in a spacious library meeting room.

One of Messer’s first tasks with his work team was to core and slice an actual ton of apples and make 5,000 sandwiches. “No matter where you go in the world, everybody loves a sandwich,” he said.


Volunteer extraordinaire John Messer stirs the pot, the very large pot. Photo courtesy of John Messer


Messer showed photos he took of volunteers stirring stew in 8-foot by 3-foot paella pans with long paddles, pureeing cooked fruit for baby food with immersion blenders the size of weed whackers, and preparing a banana bread recipe that starts with 1,000 bananas and 390 eggs.

“It was such a bonding experience,” agreed Lucy Woodward, a professional musician living in Holland who volunteered for the World Central Kitchen while Messer was there. “I’m not a cook. And they put me side-by-side with John chopping vegetables for borscht. He had this steadfast way of chopping everything very precisely, all the same size. To watch him working on something he loves, he’s very focused and composed. And everyone was like, ‘Just follow John.’ He was such a comfort and a mentor for me.”

Another World Central Kitchen volunteer, Rachel Vaughn, a private chef in Montana, said she bonded with Messer outside the kitchen as well. He helped her find somewhere in town to donate the charity funds she’d raised before flying to Poland.

“It’s difficult to put into words the connection you feel with these folks,” she said. “John is so warm and funny, and he brought so much humor to the kitchen. I made a very close friend in him.”

Messer said he’d worked in volunteer kitchens abroad where “it was horrifying how unsafe the practices were.” He’d seen food that would be served the next day left out overnight at room temperature for lack of refrigeration.


This wasn’t the case with World Central Kitchen. “You were a volunteer, but you were treated like an employee,” he said of the kitchen he worked in, where Marc Murphy, a New York City chef and a judge on the cooking competition show “Chopped,” served as head chef. “You were expected to always be on time, never leave early. It was a tight ship. I’d never worked in a kitchen this professional.

“We took great pride in the food. Nothing was ever slopped together,” Messer continued. “It was important to us that it looked good when people ate it. It was our way of saying, I love you.”

Messer talks about his experience volunteering with the World Central Kitchen to a crowd at the Falmouth Memorial Library. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


Messer also said in other refugee camps where he’s cooked, the food isn’t always culturally sensitive. “So 33 percent of it gets thrown in the trash. Here the food was culturally sensitive.” He cited the borscht and a Polish sour rye soup called zurek among examples of dishes the World Central Kitchen put together specifically to appeal to the palates of the region.

With a photo of a bowl of the lemon- and egg-laced zurek up on the screen at the Falmouth library, Messer’s eyes grew wide and his voice lowered in reverence as he told the audience, “The food was delicious. The bread pudding alone was so good, it was like your Bubbie’s bread pudding.”

Chef Christian Hayes spent the last few days of his Ukraine trip in quarantine for a COVID infection, but said he’d gladly return to help the World Central Kitchen if the opportunity arose.

“I’d go back in a heartbeat, immediately,” he said. “I think about it all the time.”

Messer understands the strong pull. He said he’ll return to Ukraine for more volunteer work this summer if the war is still on and the need remains, though he’d prefer for the sake of the Ukrainians that those two conditions have changed by then. “I hope I don’t have the chance to go back,” he said.

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