Along the way, Andrés has recruited others to join the cause. In the early days, he would be the one to get the ball rolling and mobilize fellow chefs and restaurateurs. Now, it’s a more organic process—something he credits, in part, to the pandemic. It was a time when foodservice united to help one another and the communities they serve.
“It’s not just me anymore. At this point, we all call each other,” Andrés says. “This creates, over the years, a network. Not only in emergencies, but in the good times, right? You go to other cities and you always know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody else.”
In its dozen-odd years of operation, World Central Kitchen has generally arrived in the aftermath of hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. Ukraine, however, presented a different challenge altogether. Initially, the nonprofit installed itself at the Polish border to help refugees fleeing the country. But as the conflict stretched out, WCK moved into Ukraine, mostly in the southern provinces.
“Ukraine is the war that shouldn’t be happening. And that’s why we’re here,” Andrés said.
The chef said that sometimes he felt foolish wearing a bulletproof vest.
“I do it so if the insurance people see me, at least they don’t raise my insurance,” he joked. In truth, the reason for feeling foolish is two-fold. For starters, he’s serving people who don’t have such protective gear. Secondly, he’s not near the active conflict zones, though on this point, there’s a strong argument that the violence can quickly escalate and spill into cities and towns across the country.
In April, one of WCK’s partner restaurants, Yaposhka, was bombed during airstrikes in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Nearly 20 people, including three WCK volunteers, were injured and two killed in the airstrikes. Andrés recalls how one volunteer was eager for her burns to heal enough that she could return to WCK.
The chef recognizes the impact his own celebrity has in not only bringing media attention to these humanitarian crises, but also galvanizing more chefs and foodservice professionals to join in his cause. And though Ukraine has not been at the forefront of the news the way it was in the spring, Andrés and WCK’s efforts are one way to keep the war in the spotlight. Last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy honored him with the Order of Merit for his work; as of November, WCK had served 180 million since the invasion began.
Andrés plans to return to Ukraine in January. A so-called “helicopter” mentality, wherein aid groups drop ready-to-eat meals and consider it a job well done. Instead, Andrés brings a chef’s mentality to humanitarian aid: continuing to serve and to do so at an exceptional level.
“You go one day and you show up the day after and you show up the third day and the fourth and the fifth. In the process, you see how locally there are enough resources and people that can help you provide aid,” Andrés said. “This is a great way to lift up the communities after a catastrophe.”