Bayou Bakery’s David Guas started the day the way he starts many days — before dawn with a table full of biscuit dough. This Friday morning, though, the New Orleans-native stood in a kitchen in Poland — far from his Arlington, Virginia, cafe — baking big, fluffy biscuits that would become breakfast for 65 volunteers working with José Andrés’s organization World Central Kitchen (WCK).
Guas is spending two weeks volunteering in Poland with WCK, cooking and packaging food for the tens of thousands streaming in from Ukraine around the clock while Russia attacks their home country.
“Everyone works without a break; they hardly stop to eat,” Guas told his wife, publicist Simone Rathlé, this week.
When the Ukrainian crisis began, WCK quickly set up an outpost in Poland with a walk-in refrigerator, eight full cooking stations, and prepping areas with 12 massive paella pans and 12 large ovens, according to a release. Within hours of the invasion, the organization began serving hot meals at pedestrian border crossings to people fleeing the violence in Ukraine. Andrés says WCK has served over 4 million meals to refugees since Russia invaded Ukraine over a month ago.
For Guas, the crisis in Ukraine dredged up the frustration he felt when Hurricane Katrina devastated his hometown. He had watched that unfold on television as well, feeling helplessly far away as his parents, residents of the New Orleans Lakeview neighborhood at the time, and many friends lost everything.
“I was so frustrated because ... here I am tied to a job and I couldn’t leave town. I kind of beat myself up about not being able to physically be there.” By now, Bayou Bakery runs like a well-oiled machine. Guas has a team he can count on, and some things — like Bayou Bakery’s new patio furniture sitting in boxes — can wait.
When he found himself yelling at the television again one recent night while watching a news report about the destruction in Ukraine, Rathlé suggested he do something if he was “really serious about his frustration.”
“Some people lobby Congress. When I’m frustrated, I do what I know how to do, which is to feed people,” he says.
Four days later, he boarded the first leg of his flight to Poland to help WCK just eight miles from its border with Ukraine, carrying with him necessities: a pocket knife to open boxes, layers of clothes for cold weather, extra aprons, comfortable shoes, and coloring books and crayons for children.
“I just hope I can hold it together because I am a gushy dude. Any type of pain you can see on people’s faces will just strike me like a lightening bolt,” he told Eater D.C. the night before he left. “If I can put a smile on any kid’s face for 30 seconds — that is my ‘selfish’ I’ll have in my back pocket.”
In Przemyśl, where Guas is now, there are about 50 volunteers, both professional chefs and home cooks from around the world — London, Scotland, Puerto Rico, New York, Maine, South Carolina, Virginia, D.C., and more. They come from all walks of life: Guas has met a JetBlue pilot and television actors who are also volunteering.
For about ten hours every day, the team cooks colossal portions of food — 500 pounds of braised beef cheeks, and banana bread made with 400 eggs (it took one person 40 minutes to crack all 400). He also cooks carrots for baby food — food options aren’t one size fits all.
He’s not the only big name chef to join WCK’s work near the Ukraine border. D.C. chef Eric Bruner-Yang spent time helping WCK in Poland a few weeks ago. Celebrity chef Hugh Acheson recently left his base in Atlanta, where he was overseeing the debut of his latest Atlanta restaurant Mount Royal, to coordinate food distribution efforts for WCK in Romania. Meanwhile Houston restaurant veteran Nina Quincy recently arrived back from Poland, where she says she saw the “best and worst of humanity.”
Guas has also reunited with Marc Murphy, who judged an episode of the Food Network’s Chopped with him, in Poland, and John Malik, restaurateur and novelist from Greenville, South Carolina.
It can seem odd that so many big name chefs are leaving their businesses to feed refugees. Their level of expertise probably isn’t necessary, but recognized names carry weight. That, in turn, helps the big name chefs rally people around the cause and secure donations to support the work.
Community Spoon, the initiative Guas launched in 2021 to aid Afghan refugees in Northern Virginia with meals and groceries, is raising money to support the humanitarian efforts of WCK and to alleviate some of the travel expenses in order for him to lend a hand in Poland.
Andrés started WCK in 2010 after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti. It has grown into a massive operation providing “meals in response to humanitarian, climate, and community crises while working to build resilient food systems with locally led solutions,” according to the WCK website. WCF has distributed over 60 million fresh meals to people in need after natural and social disasters.
The United Nations estimates that about 3.8 million Ukrainians have already been displaced as a result of the Russian invasion. Ukrainian refugees will need food, clothing, shelter, and possibly “formal pathways to legal status,” education, and healthcare, among many other needs as well, according to Vox. Over the past month, Poland has taken in 2.3 million refugees, more than any other European country, according to Politico.
“There are language barriers and cultural barriers. When you put a hot meal in front of someone, from any walk of life, people come together.”
To donate to Community Spoon’s efforts to help Ukrainians and WCK, click here.
- This Chef Fed New Orleans After Katrina. Now He’s Taking Care of Those Affected by Coronavirus Crisis [Inside Edition]
- How Many Ukrainians Have Fled Their Homes and Where Have They Gone? [BBC]
- José Andrés Says World Central Kitchen has Provided More Than 4 Million Meals to Ukrainian Refugees [The Hill]