How International Chefs Are Banding Together to Help Ukraine

One Chicago fundraiser helped raise $500,000 for World Central Kitchen.

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World Central Kitchen tent with free food in Ukraine
Photo: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto (Getty Images)

By now you’d have to live under a rock not to know anything about World Central Kitchen.

Founded by Spanish-American chef José Andrés in 2010, the nonprofit seeks to provide as many meals as possible to those in disaster areas around the globe. And now, World Central Kitchen has served 3 million meals to refugees in the month since Russia began attacking Ukraine.

The number of people fleeing Ukraine continues to skyrocket: As of March 24, the United Nations says more than 3.7 million refugees have evacuated. World Central Kitchen’s feeding effort, which began as making 500 sandwiches a day, has turned into a “full scale operation” of 10,000 sandwiches a day, as well as 16,000 hot meals in Lviv, Ukraine, according to the nonprofit’s website.

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“It’s one of the best sandwich operations in the world,” says Andrés in a video about the meals he and his team are making for Ukrainian people with fresh cucumbers, cheese, ham, and sausages.

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“We are doing the best we can to be everywhere, anywhere,” he says. And many in the chef community are banding together with #ChefsForUkraine fundraisers across the United States.

In Washington, D.C., Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate, an organization founded by chefs Kevin Tien and Tim Ma to stop violence against Asian American Pacific Islanders, hosted a March 21 fundraising dinner at Moon Rabbit.

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In California, Michelle Polzine, former chef-owner of San Francisco’s shuttered 20th Century Cake Café, raised $17,000 in Ukrainian aid with her Russian honey cake fundraiser.

In Chicago, 70 chefs came together for the “Chicago Chefs Cook for Ukraine presented by Lifeway Foods” fundraiser on March 16 at Navy Pier. The 1,600 tickets for the event sold in less than a week and a half, and a spokesperson for the event confirmed that it raised half a million dollars in aid.

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“It’s heartwarming to see the outpouring of support,” says Myron Lewyckyj, owner of Tryzub Ukrainian Kitchen, a restaurant located in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood. “Every little bit helps, whether it’s humanitarian, emotional, or financial.”

Lewyckyj’s parents are from Lviv and his wife’s parents are still in Ukraine. His mother-in-law calls at three o’clock in the morning, Lewyckyj says, while the air sirens are going off. His wife’s sister crossed the Ukrainian border with her five-year-old and is living in a friend’s house “but doesn’t know what she’s going to do tomorrow,” he says.

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“What we are seeing, this is way beyond any sort of war scenario,” says Lewyckyj. “This is a genocidal attack against civilians.”

Maggie Pelka of Chicago attended the World Central Kitchen fundraiser because she loves how Chef Andrés “brings food to help with any kind of national crisis that’s happening anywhere in the world.”

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“People need food in any type of crisis—isn’t that the best way to show love?” Pelka says.

Dan Raskin, fourth-generation owner-operator of Manny’s, a Chicago deli, says when an employee mentioned the fundraiser, it was important to him on a personal level.

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“It’s obviously a very important cause,” Raskin says. “But the money that’s benefiting World Central Kitchen is very important to me, specifically.”

During the pandemic, Manny’s, a well-known Chicago deli that’s been open since 1942, was on the brink of closing.

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“My goal during the pandemic was to keep my staff working, and World Central Kitchen purchased meals from us and distributed them throughout Chicago,” Raskin says. “Now it’s come full cycle. When you see what’s going on across the world and there is something we can do like this from Chicago, it’s the least we could do.”

Giuseppe Tentori, chef and owner of GT Fish and Oyster, GT Prime Steakhouse, and Boka Catering Group, echoed those sentiments. Still, he said, getting so many chefs together in such a short amount of time was unusual even for the events-focused hospitality industry.

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“I’ve never seen anything like this in my lifetime,” Tentori says. “In two weeks so many people came together and no one said no.”

To get others involved, World Central Kitchen’s website showcases a fundraiser toolkit to help individuals create a fundraiser for their birthday, a fitness challenge, or a special occasion like a wedding or graduation.

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Many in the food industry have joined in including Uncommon Threads Chef Apparel, which is running a fundraiser on World Central Kitchen to raise $25,000 to help Ukrainian refugees.

“Ukrainians need so much help,” Tentori says. “If there’s a shot we can feed people, it’s in our DNA to do something.”

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