In the days Steve “Nookie” Postal spent working at a World Central Kitchen (WCK) food production facility in Przemysl, Poland, just three miles from the Ukrainian border, life could look repetitive: five to six thousand sandwiches assembled each day, hours spent standing up performing the same task over and over and over again.
And then there were the tanks. Each day on his hour-long drive between the WCK facility and his Airbnb in Rzenzow, Postal passed massive tanks on trailers headed toward the Ukrainian border.
“It brings you back to — this is a war zone. I saw that same thing and I continued to see it every single day, whether it was tanks or missile launcher things or armored vehicles or the ones you see that are covered and when you lift off the cover they are filled with guns. You see it every day.”
The United Nations estimates that over 11 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine since the conflict began. About five million left for neighboring countries, while 6.5 million are displaced in Ukraine, according to the BBC. Poland alone has taken in nearly 3 million refugees, according to recent United Nations estimates.
Postal, who owns Cambridge’s Commonwealth and co-owns the mini cafe chain Revival Cafe & Kitchen, headed to Poland on April 1 to help WCK, the non-profit founded by chef José Andrés, with plans to stay 10 days.
His decision to join WCK’s work in Poland was catalyzed by what he considered the government’s lack of support for small restaurants here in the U.S. in the wake of the Covid pandemic.
“As I was wallowing, this war started and I said fuck it. Let me show those mother fuckers what’s its like to help people.”
WCK works to bring food to parts of the world facing crisis. When the Ukrainian conflict 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.
With multiple kitchens now set up across Poland and also Ukraine, the nonprofit has served millions of meals to refugees since Russia invaded Ukraine. On the ground since the first day of war, the organization says it’s served over 11 million meals so far.
“Everybody is there to help and because they want to be there because of what we are doing and how that feels.” The mood, he says, is electric.
Alongside volunteers from all over the world (Postal met people from “Spain, Portland, NYC, the Netherlands, Montana, Arizona, Nashville, Australia…the list is long”), Postal worked in a production kitchen that delivered meals to refugees at the border crossings. Thirteen chefs from France arrived for a few days; one of them may have been President Macron’s personal chef, he says. WCK has also hired Ukrainian refugees to work, he says.
“It is good to have people who speak Ukrainian and Polish. Because it isn’t just about the food; it’s about getting it where it needs to go.” The WCK workers and volunteers didn’t just cook: They were involved in logistics like driving, sourcing products, and more. “On the other end, it’s about getting it to the people.”
In WCK’s Przemysl facility, Postal estimates that they made about 10,000 meals each day. A giant pallet of beets arrived, so they cooked a volunteer’s grandmother’s borscht recipe, which yielded about 3,000 servings. They made goulash, lamb stews, chicken and rice, bread pudding out of day-old bread, and loads of hot chocolate and sandwiches. They cut and steamed pallets of apples and carrots for baby food.
The anger Postal felt about the government’s response to struggling restaurants was spurred by the Covid pandemic they had endured. It’s the reason he went to Poland — to help people struggling. In the end, Covid ended Postal’s work there. Fully vaccinated and boosted, Postal came down with Covid (he’s doing fine). He had to stop his work sooner than he wanted to, but he’s glad he went.
“I feel so bad for all these people who have nowhere to go, and only have what they could carry with them,” Postal says. “I spent a lot of time in the kitchen and met a bunch of amazing people and cooked so much food.”
Postal is raising funds for WCK through his Instagram account. At his Revival cafes, he is donating half of all sales of his biggest seller Plain Jane breakfast sandwich for the month of April.
To donate to World Central Kitchen, visit the website.