By July 18th and the time Tommy wrapped up his 3rd week in Przemyśl, Poland, World Central Kitchen had provided 100 million meals from several kitchens in Ukraine and bordering countries. In Przemyśl, Poland, the largest World Central Kitchen in Europe came together just days after the invasion started and ran the last week of July, 2022.
I had the pleasure of working alongside Tommy for one of the three weeks he volunteered July in Przemyśl. Beyond making, wrapping and serving over 32,000 sandwiches that week, the chefs in the kitchen created massive quantities of hot meals to be served at breakfast, lunch and dinner at the four distribution sites in town. In the kitchen, we volunteers had a blast cranking out food alongside some Ukrainian nationals who had also become volunteers for the mission of serving refugees. During a lunch break, Tommy and I stole away a few minutes to chat about what brought Tommy to WCK and how his skills have been crucial to the mission.
Tommy is a professional pizza maker from New Zealand who ran several pizza shops and two fried chicken shops back home for 10 years. At the beginning of Spring, it was time for a transition, and he made the business decision to close his pizza shops Tommy Millions. The timing of this newfound freedom was right as the War in Ukraine was beginning and Tommy, committed volunteerism back home, knew he could offer his skills to help. As a longtime fan of Jose Andres, he had heard of WCK and believed in the mission. So he, like mostly everyone who volunteered in Przemyśl, Poland, found a volunteer signup sheet within the WCK volunteer portal site and, with a minimal amount of information about the kitchen outside of the date and location, he made a plan to help.
In the World Central Kitchen food disaster relief kitchen, non-chefs and unexperienced people are welcome. Most volunteers start by making sandwiches, a simple task that is perfected into an assembly line process with the aim of packaging up the greatest number of sandwiches and meals for those in need. Tommy worked one week on the sandwich line but his pizza making know-how was discovered and he was plucked from the cold side of the kitchen to work on the hot side. It’s here that he decided to play with some dough and started making daily focaccia pizza to feed the volunteers who worked with him in the kitchen.
Tommy admits, pizza is a simple food, “basically bread and cheese,” but each day, he stopped by the supermarket early in the morning, on his way to the kitchen and picked up new ingredients to experiment with for the daily focaccia pizza. As a volunteer in the kitchen that week, I can say, I waited for his lunchtime treat each day, as a reward for the morning hours working on the sandwich assembly line. While he worked on other foods for the refugees like cakes, stewed vegetables, meats and soups, he also balanced the kneading and rising of the dough so it was ready on time for lunch each day for the volunteers.
Tommy says he is motivated by sharing the food he makes with others and was really impacted by the time he spent at the distribution site at the Tesco Market refugee center. He really believes working at distribution sites is essential for volunteers. “All volunteers, and from what I can see they all do or have, should spend some time at the distribution sites because it really closes the loop on the work we’re doing. If you lose site of the end consumer of the product, you may start to cut corners on the production of it and you make decisions that you wouldn’t have if you were preparing it for a family or loved one or someone you’re going to sit down with. So, going and serving - this is the closest equivalent that we have in this context of sitting down and sharing a meal with said people - so it’s essential.”
For this WCK site, volunteer jobs were split between kitchen shift work, or distribution sites, but on many occasions, kitchen volunteers were needed to work at distribution sites in the evenings to help cover the thousands of people coming through each week and within the refugee center at Tesco Market, which housed around 2,000 during the week when we served together. Serving at Tesco Market meant standing in the World Central Kitchen food court-like dining room to heat up sandwiches and dish up hot meals to refugees staying in the center and volunteers working there. “Of course, it’s not easy – you see refugee centers on the news and you see all the border crossings and to be there in person… and to see the abject misery and the reality of life these folks who have been there for several months, some of them with no end in sight - it’s just so confronting to think about what’s next for them.”
No doubt, this trip left an impact on Tommy as much as it did every volunteer coming through this World Central Kitchen in Przemyśl. After long days in the kitchen at distribution sites, the evenings were spent unwinding at local restaurants resting from the day of work and processing the power of volunteerism - of handing out hope with each meal.
When asked if he would volunteer again with WCK, Tommy says, “One hundred percent. I’d like to do it as often as I can manage.”
Like many who served at this kitchen site, Tommy extended his initial week of volunteer time once he had arrived, the work was fulfilling, the mission contagious, and the joy in helping Ukrainian refugees by giving hot meals was palpable. Tommy says, “We should all see that and come and do something like this. It’s not a one and done and go home feel good and tell your friends about how you’re saving the world… it’s an ongoing life’s work. I think anybody that can afford this privilege, enough to afford the time or the resources to come… they should.”