Meet the chefs feeding Ukrainian refugees across borders

Life Style


Chefs, actors, entrepreneurs and a host of others rallied across borders to feed the millions fleeing Ukraine over the past two months. Those at the forefront, have lessons to share

Chefs, actors, entrepreneurs and a host of others rallied to feed the millions fleeing Ukraine over the past two months. Those at the forefront, have lessons to share

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 4.6 million Ukrainians have fled their war-torn country since February 24, crossing borders into Poland, Hungary, Romania and the Republic of Moldova. Being forced to flee their homes and any semblance of their past lives can take a heavy toll and volunteers are doing what they can to at least provide a hot comforting meal at the end of the day.

The World Central Kitchen (WCK) started in 2010 by Spanish chef José Andrés, has been working on ground with partner restaurants to provide over nine million daily meals to the refugees. #ChefsforUkraine a culinary collective, has prepared over 3,00,000 of those meals, with chefs, many from across the Atlantic, bringing meals to hungry, homeless and weary families. 

One such chef is US-based Noah Sims. From a MasterChef US kitchen, to cooking comfort food at kitchens in Poland,  Sims made the transition quite easily. The American chef from Epworth, Georgia,  who took the number four spot in Season 10 of the culinary competition, is on the last leg of his second trip to cook for refugees at the WCK in Przemyśl, Poland. The team has been consistently making over 8,000 sandwiches a day, to go with meals of chicken stew, salad and tabouleh.  With a ‘10k Sandwiches for $10k’ fundraising event on April 12, the kitchen was brimming with energy.  American chef Marc Murphy, and actor Liev Schreiber are amongst a host of cooks who travelled to help, harnessing their collective social media weight for a successful ‘10k Tuesday’.

A range of meals packed and distributed by World Central Kitchen

The MasterChef finalist uses his learnings from similar humanitarian trips to the Bahamas, Brazil and India, where he has raised funds for a host of causes. His first trip to Poland with his father, from March 5 to March 14, set the tone for his return in April. “ What is happening in Ukraine is unacceptable in my eyes.  I couldn’t just sit idly by. So I made up my mind to take the next flight out to Poland, and my father wanted to join me,” he says.

Sims’ father, Richard, a septuagenarian, travelled via New York, to Warsaw and worked with a team from Medair to make the arrangements seamless and safe. Medair is a Swiss humanitarian aid organisation, helping  people affected by emergencies, natural disasters, displacement and conflict. Sims paid for the trip with his savings, and the team at Medair ensured his safe passage to Poland.

“We cooked in the wonderful kitchen of Albatros, a restaurant run by three brothers in Przemyśl,” says Sims, explaining that the team cooked for 12 to 14 hours a day, and stayed on premises to maximise productivity. He adds, “My dad kept up with me every step of the way, cooking up vats of borscht, making thousands of pierogies, slow roasted chicken, salads, herbed rice and a host of potato dishes. We cooked in a well-stocked kitchen, with 10-15 staff members, and then the food was sent to a World Central Kitchen unit for distribution.”

While the food was initially packed into mixed boxes, Ricardo, owner of the Albatros, eventually bought a food sealing machine, after which “we could pack 12 double portions into containers and put 32 airtight units per box,” Sims adds.

While the Albatros catered to large numbers, the chefs and staff would drive down to border towns as well, to distribute food packs. “At Medyka ,we saw a group of three friends using a  1976 Polish army soup kitchen trailer, cooking up four kinds of soup all day, providing warmth and comfort.” Sims had taken over a hundred hand warmers from the US, which “we gave to the children along with white teddy bears, and we could see them so relieved as they could enjoy some comfort from the biting cold and uncertainty around them.” 

Sims and Richard cooking with staff at Albatros, Poland,

Sims and Richard cooking with staff at Albatros, Poland,

While his first nine-day trip was equal parts exhausting and invigorating, Sims conducted culinary workshops at his local church to raise funds for the second trip. “Each ticket is around $5,000 and this time I flew in solo, as my mom isn’t too thrilled with the prospect of my dad doing another hectic trip.”

“ I try to pack bold flavours into the food and a whole lot of love, using ingredients from all over the world,” the chef adds excitedly, as  sponsors sent him boxes of knives and kitchen gadgets for his second mission. “ It’s important to be organised, have a plan and be positive throughout. That’s my most important learning,” Sims concludes.

Positivity and chutzpah are two attributes that Nita Bhasin has in abundance as well. The 55-year-old entrepreneur, who moved to Romania 17 years ago after living in Mumbai, Delhi, USA and Prague, caters to small events for the Indian community in Bucharest. As the invasion of Ukraine was underway, there was an exodus of Indian medical students into neighbouring countries, as they sought safe passage back into India. Bhasin mobilised the thousands-strong Indian diaspora in the Romanian capital, to provide meals and supplies to fleeing Indian students.

Nita Bhasin with her husband

Nita Bhasin with her husband

“I remember it was March 26, when I received a call about a few hundred Indian students coming to the local airport, and then the next day, a few hundred more came in. While the local Romanian government provided them with shelter, new bedding, toiletries etc, families made over 700 Indian meals — dal chawal, rotis and a few vegetables, so the students could taste the familiarity of home,” Bhasin explains. Local churches, schools and gymnasiums turned to shelters and Indian families brought in trunks full of water bottles, rotis, curries, till the end of February.

Always on the job

Logistics were complex, says Bhasin. “We would get calls — sometimes late at night — from different shelters or from the airport. Then we would fan out in different directions, taking medicines, food and other essentials across locations. It initially was a small group, that grew to about 20 volunteers who worked round the clock for a fortnight.”

Local restaurants in Bucharest, reeling from poor  business figures post the pandemic, were not able to provide free food in large numbers. “ We would take bags of food sometimes, there would be spills in the trunk, but we ran on enthusiasm and adrenaline those days,” adds Bhasin, “then we realised we would have to get organised and we started supplying meals from our family restaurant I’ladrino. We made over 2,000 packed meals with Indian, Italian, Mexican food, so volunteers could take these to the students. There were days when they would observe fasts, and we made satvik food for them as well.”

Manesh Wadhwani, who works with the sales division of a company specialising in IT services outsourcing, was part of the group that co-ordinated with Bhasin, “I helped with logistics and food wise, my family sponsored a meal for 150 students. I also helped pick up and deliver food twice, my wife helped a female student with some medicines, and we helped coordinate with the transfer of students from the shelter to the airport,” says Manesh.

Once all the students were back home, groups of transiting Indian families and sailors took their place. “It was a tough month, with less than four hours sleep on average and being constantly on the move,” concludes Bhasin, adding, “But the way our Indian community rallied around the students and families was admirable.”


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