Potomac chef Guy Brandt could barely believe his eyes when he looked around the Polish warehouse where he and other volunteers would be cooking for refugees from the war in Ukraine.
People were preparing food in pans the size of a kid’s swimming pool, he noticed, and an entire wall of self-cleaning ovens stood on one side of the kitchen. The walk-in refrigerator alone seemed bigger than his entire restaurant, Brooklyn’s Deli.
“It’s crazy. It’s like a military operation, as well as a kitchen,” said Brandt, who flew home last week after spending about 14 days cooking in Przemysl, Poland, with World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit founded by celebrity chef and Bethesda resident José Andrés.
Brandt, who has spent about three decades as a chef, said he worked harder during those two weeks than he had since opening his restaurant on Seven Locks Road in 2004. In just one week, the group churned out 750,000 meals, he said.
Giving back has always been important to Brandt, he said. He’s often cooked Thanksgiving dinners for people experiencing homelessness and dedicates the proceeds from selling an omelet on his restaurant menu to the humanitarian aid organization Save the Children.
But showing up in Ukraine held special meaning for him, he says. His grandparents were native to the country, and he remembers his grandmother always being busy in the kitchen when he was a kid, making stuffed cabbage and other food from her homeland.
Based in Washington, D.C., World Central Kitchen mobilizes teams of volunteers to provide meals in response to humanitarian, climate and community crises, according to its website. The nonprofit accepts volunteers without restaurant experience, but since Brandt is a professional, he was assigned to do skilled work such as trimming pork tenderloins and other meat cuts. Chefs from around the world — France, Ukraine, Spain — worked side by side to prepare meals of meat, rice, borscht and vegetables to feed the refugees flowing into Poland.
Brandt said he also volunteered to serve food at the train station in the evenings, offering warm meals to Ukrainians who had just fled their homes.
Refugees streamed off the trains loaded down with suitcases, leading their young children and sometimes their dogs forward onto the platform, he said. Some would continue their journey, while others would end up in nearby refugee housing sites, where Andrés’ organization would also drop off food.
Brandt said he dropped by one of these refugee housing facilities — a massive warehouse stuffed with cots — and left shaken by the experience.
“I had to go out to go sit in the car. I couldn’t get it together. For about a half an hour, I was crying my eyes out,” he said. “You can read about it and show pictures and all that, but when you see it, it’s just very, very devastating.”
Brandt said he was able to meet and speak with a few of the Ukrainian refugees who knew English. He snapped a photo with a young boy who smiled and gave the camera a thumbs up. He spent nearly 30 minutes talking with a woman on the train platform and, unbeknownst to her, tucked some cash into her pocket before she walked away.
He spoke with a refugee who went back to her home country to deliver a car to her parents so they could escape in an emergency. The woman sat in the car for six days, waiting in line at the border before she was able to cross into Ukraine, he said.
On one of his free days, Brandt was also able to walk over the border into Ukraine to visit Stryj, the riverside town where his grandparents had once lived. He passed the ruins of a 150-year-old synagogue and wondered if his grandparents had ever walked through it.
The streets were quiet and empty, he said, but the signs of war were unmistakable.
In Lviv, a nearby city, people had stacked sandbags around the town’s beautiful stone statues to protect them from missile strikes, and Ukrainian soldiers stood around with machine guns looped around their necks.
“The Ukrainians are pushing back. They’re not going to give up,” he said. “And they’re the type of people that are going to fight to the end.”
Brandt said it was tough for him to leave the volunteer work behind when his time volunteering for World Central Kitchen was up. In the days since he’s gotten back, he’s already been looking for ways to return.
Bethany Rodgers is a freelance writer who formerly covered schools and development for Bethesda Beat.