Food relief on the Ukrainian border
ICE alums Joncarl Lachman and Marc Murphy volunteered with World Central Kitchen to provide meals for Ukrainian refugees. This was their experience.
To the east of the Poland-Ukraine border, people are suffering unfathomable hardships due to the Russian invasion. On the other side of that very same border, those displaced by the violence are being greeted with kindness, compassion and lovingly-prepared meals. We caught up with ICE graduates Joncarl Lachman and Marc Murphy, who've both spent time in Poland recently working with World Central Kitchen to provide sustenance for Ukrainian refugees.
Both Chef Joncarl, formerly of Noord and current owner of Wenkel in Philadelphia, and Chef Marc, judge on "Chopped" and former restaurant owner, worked out of a town named Przemysl in eastern Poland. When Marc arrived, the site was still being built. He quickly found that he was able to put his organizational and managerial skills to use helping it all come together.
Marc said that the walk-in cooler was only halfway complete, and there were just three kettles in operation when he showed up at 8 a.m. on his first day. "It was just fever-pitch chaos trying to organize it all," he says. "So I was part of the team trying to get this thing up and running and it's been a pretty amazing life-changing experience for me."
Joncarl arrived to a more established infrastructure and had the benefit of being briefed by fellow Philadelphia chef Michael Strauss, chef and pitmaster at Mike's Barbecue, who had visited Przemysl about a week before he departed. Joncarl and his two traveling companions booked a tiny hut near a Polish ski resort close to Przemysl and went straight to the kitchen to sign up. While there weren't any available slots that day, they were able to join the effort the next morning. That effort consisted of peeling lots of potatoes and apples, as well as making baby food with what Joncarl describes as the "biggest immersion blenders I've ever seen."
Once the prep was done, Joncarl would accompany other volunteers to the border crossing to help distribute the food to refugees, who were being served from a giant cauldron on a wooden platform. Describing the scene, his voice cracked from emotion. "It's awful," he said, "Just awful."
Lachman was particularly moved by the teenage boys he saw coming over the border with their mothers.
"The hardest people to see for me were the 15- to 16-year old boys," he said. "You know, you're already kind of messed up anyway, and then this happens to you. They all had that same look on their face, where they're thinking: 'Do I take care of my mom? Do I go with her? Do I stay with my dad and fight?'"
Dining with Dignity
Aside from helping establish World Central Kitchen's infrastructure in Przemysl, Marc also had his own long days working on the line. He said the outpost would sometimes feed 10,000 to 15,000 people per day and he spent time working on a sandwich line that churned out between 5,000 and 8,000 sandwiches per day.
Both Marc and Joncarl said that the food they produced went to Ukrainians in a variety of situations. Some received hot chocolate and a meal to warm them upon crossing the border after standing in line in the bitter cold all night. Other food went to serve refugees in temporary housing stations, such as the one set up in a nearby abandoned Tesco market. Still more food was brought to local train stations to provide the displaced people food to take with them on their uncertain journey.
While the quantity of food the organization produces daily is impressive, Marc was quick to point out that the work he and the other volunteers did there wasn't just about quantity.
"In the refugee centers, we're really trying to get better at writing menus and rotating items," he says. "For example, there are a fair amount of vegetarians, so I started making a lot of tabbouleh salads because they're vegetarian and healthy." He says the organization also got panini presses which are now installed at the train stations so that volunteers can warm sandwiches, which he says has been very popular. He also talks about an area in one of the refugee centers where a dining area had been created using pallets, which transformed the space into something of a cafe.
"We're not just warming their bellies," he says, "We're bringing some dignity to the situation and trying to make it as restaurant-like as possible."
This has included tailoring the menu to suit the tastes of Ukrainians.
"We tried to purchase and make things that they are familiar with because we want to obviously please our customers," he adds. "I realized I was making pasta salad for a while, and I got word that people didn't know what pasta salad is. They'd never seen such a thing so they weren't really crazy about it. So we stopped, we started making a potato salad with pickled onions and mayonnaise, and they loved that."
Marc said the team is also now making borscht in a recipe-development process that includes teasing out the differences between the Polish and Ukrainian versions of the dish.
The Kindness of Others
Both chefs said they were most deeply moved in their experiences by the kindness of their fellow volunteers, the Poles and the other front-line workers.
"We went out to this wonderful small town," Joncarl says. "The Polish people were incredible, and a lot of the restaurants had signs saying if you're Ukrainian and you're here and you can't afford to eat, please come in and have dinner."
Marc echoed the sentiment, describing a dinner he had at a pub owned by a fellow volunteer’s parents. During that dinner, he says, the parents showed him pictures of the early days of the crisis and the way in which the Poles were out on the train tracks greeting people and providing them with food and clothing.
How Do You Leave?
The experience moved Marc and Joncarl so much that they intend to return.
Marc, who spent close to two months working in Przemysl, says that leaving was its own kind of challenge. "People that I talked to, including a friend of mine who's a doctor, said, ‘How do you leave this place? How do you leave people in need?’ It's hard."
The volunteers can build strong connections with the Ukrainian refugees. Joncarl found himself feeling attached to the families he met, despite his stay of just over a week.
"The last night we were there, we were up there at a tent doing the hot chocolate and Hershey's Kisses, and there was a beautiful blonde woman in her mid-40s who came across with her mother and her son, who was maybe 16 or 17,” he says. “He was a hip kid who had dyed blonde hair. They also had a dog, and inside of this woman's coat was a cat, and I like cats. We had dog and cat food at the tent. So at some point we were feeding them all. The boy was eating a sandwich, and we were feeding the dog and cat out of the same bowl. It was such a beautiful thing."
As the newly displaced group walked away, Joncarl says the volunteers were blowing the Ukrainians kisses and the boy turned and put his two fists up in the air, creating a moment that still brings the chef to tears and one he won't soon forget.