One week following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, chef Mike Strauss — owner of the popular South Philly barbecue restaurant Mike’s BBQ — bought a plane ticket to Poland. “I was literally just sitting on the couch with my wife, and we were watching CNN and I looked over at her and I was like, ‘I’ve gotta go to Poland,’” Strauss explained by phone on Saturday, March 12. “She was like, ‘Yeah, I get it.’” After watching hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians flee their homes, Strauss knew that he had to do something to help.
Strauss signed up to volunteer with World Central Kitchen (WCK), chef José Andrés’s food relief nonprofit. He arrived in Poland after a nearly two-day journey from Philly to Newark to Munich to Kraków, driving to Przemyśl — where WCK is stationed — three-and-a-half hours in the middle of the night. After a week of 12-hour shifts feeding Ukrainians crossing the border, Strauss talked to Eater by phone from Poland about what he saw, who he met, and what motivated him to leave his restaurant behind to make the world a better place.
Eater: You set up at the border crossing at Medyka, near Przemyśl, Poland, where World Central Kitchen is cooking meals. What was the first day like?
Strauss: There was really nothing there the first day that I arrived. That first day, all these things were just coming in, all their ovens were coming in, they started building a walk-in [refrigerator]. They had one paella pan that they were using to cook on at the time. Today, if you look at it, there are 12 paella pans, there are ovens, there are more volunteers — everyone is helping.
It’s weird. My viewpoint of why I was going there in the beginning, you see all these people and you’re like, “I just want to go there and help them.” My whole family is from Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, that area. I wanted to go help these people, they’re my people. Even if they weren’t, I’d probably still go. And then when you’re here and you’re seeing this operation that World Central Kitchen is doing, your focus changes. You’re like, well I wanna try to help raise as much money as I can so they can continue to keep doing what they’re doing.
Is World Central Kitchen set up in a few different places?
Przemyśl is the only place that they’re personally cooking food. During the pandemic, they readjusted their model where they’re supporting local kitchens, giving them money, giving them materials to use, so that they can cook food right there on the front lines. I visited a transitional area of the border where WCK doesn’t have a setup. They have all their signs up but everyone cooking owns restaurants in Poland. They’re there cooking the food that they would serve in their restaurant and serving it to the refugees. They already have the manpower, they already have the cooks. It’s very easy to get them up and running. [WCK] checks in with them every few days to make sure that the meals they’re serving are to their guidelines. They have to be nourishing meals.
What kind of food are you cooking for everyone?
The majority of it is usually a borscht. It’s going to be beef or chicken with cabbage and pickles. They make it a little extra soupy so it’s a little bit easier for [the refugees] to eat. Then, hot cocoa and lots of fruits, vegetables, candies for the children. Yesterday we made baby food from apples that were donated from Spain.
Are you having conversations with people crossing the border? What is the scene like to witness?
The conversations aren’t very deep because most of the Ukrainians crossing the border don’t speak English and I don’t speak any Ukrainian, so it’s usually just handing them some food and you get a nice warm smile. Most of these people have traveled six, eight, sometimes 12 hours.
Has your cooking expertise come in handy?
Sort of — yesterday, we must have cut like a thousand pounds of apples, so there are people there that aren’t cooks. They’re computer engineers, so I’m like “Hey, this is a much easier way to cut your apple.” But the head chef — Karla Hoyos — she’s the one who pretty much directs what they’re going to be making, how they’re going to be making it, what the recipes are going to be. Everyone else puts all the food together.
Every day is 12 hours. The shifts that I signed up for were only four-hour shifts. But once you’re there, you’re not going to leave. I traveled all the way around the world. I’m not going to work for four hours. The warehouse is open from eight in the morning until eight at night. Then the people [who] are serving food at the borders, there’s always someone there 24 hours a day. The people are always coming. Even at 2 o’clock in the morning there are people crossing the border. A lot of people feel it’s a little bit safer to be moving at night. It’s freezing. It’s cold as shit here at night. I’ve got three layers of clothes on.
What are the other volunteers like? Are they also cooks and chefs?
They’re from every country you can imagine. There are people who own IT companies that are here, you name it — they’re here helping out in any way that they can. They need people to cook and clean. They don’t have a dishwasher like in a restaurant. They need drivers. People come here and they actually use their rental cars to bring food back and forth. Everyone is chipping in in any way possible. It’s a weird balance. You’re seeing the best of people and the worst of people all in the same lens.
When you say you’re seeing the worst of people, do you mean you’re seeing people in a true state of despair?
Exactly. You’re seeing them at their absolute worst. The kids are all smiling, they’re happy, they’re joking with each other. It’s amazing. Children are always just children and they’re just going along with this ride. When you’re looking in their parents’ eyes, you can see that they just don’t know what tomorrow is going to be.
Have you met José Andrés?
Yeah, he came the day before yesterday. He came to the border crossing and he thanked everyone. He shook everyone’s hands. He talked to a lot of reporters. He literally left and went right over the border to Ukraine. He spends time at the train station in Lviv; there’s no fighting in Lviv [city] yet and there’s a train station where people are coming from other parts of Ukraine, so they’re serving food there. The food they’re serving there is being supported by him, but [also] they’re local restaurants.
Was it a challenge to leave behind the restaurant for a week?
My wife, Eylonah, is there. She’s kind of the boss anyway. I have all these people who I can reach out to to come in and work shifts for me. I have full faith and trust in everyone there to do what they normally do.
Have you inspired any other Philly chefs to travel to Poland as well?
Joncarl [Lachman of Winkel] and Olga [Sorzano of Baba’s Brew] are coming here on Monday. I gave Joncarl the rundown and Olga reached out to me and I put the two of them together. They’re all going to travel together. Olga speaks fluent Russian and a lot of the Ukrainians speak Russian. Joncarl has the best smile in the city, so he’s a charmer.
If you had to look at the whole week you’ve been there and think about the impact it’s had, how would you describe it?
It’s tough because, personally you feel like you’re this tiny little cog in this giant wheel. You’re just like, if I didn’t come, the food still would have gotten served, so am I just coming for myself? Am I really coming for these people? It’s a tough one to answer. I feel good about the people who I served food to. When you see them smiling when you hand them a hot cocoa or a warm bowl of soup, it makes you feel good that they’re feeling good. But you don’t want to be like, “This is about me.” It’s about them.
It’s hard to quantitate. My view of the entire world has probably changed a little bit. I’ll probably just be a nicer person to the people I interact with. [I’ll] also be more grateful for the things that I have. Two weeks ago, these people were just living normal lives, going to work, going to school, going out to restaurants. All the things that you take for granted, they were doing, and now they can’t. I wish I could put it in better words.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.