Michelin-starred chef criticises response of UN and EU to Ukraine refugee crisis

A chef and humanitarian who has been serving millions of meals to Ukrainians has accused the UN and the EU of a lack of leadership in response to the refugee crisis, warning of a “huge humanitarian emergency at the doorstep of Europe”.

Speaking from Lviv in Ukraine, José Andrés, a two-Michelin-starred Spanish-American chef who runs not-for-profit World Central Kitchen (WCK) claimed the UN and the EU do not have enough “boots on the ground” to care for the refugees. WCK has served more than 3m meals in the region since the start of Russia’s invasion.

“We need to be expecting more from the big organisations. If not, my question is what do we have them for? What do we spend the millions for?” he said. “We are lacking that leadership.”

While he praised the work of the Polish government, he said looking after the refugees’ basic needs is a “gigantic undertaking” that needs more support.

The crisis has displaced more than 10 million people, according to UN figures. At least 3.7 million people have left Ukraine – 2.2 million of whom are in Poland – and an estimated 6.5 million are displaced within the country.

WCK, which responds to natural disasters and humanitarian crises around the world, arrived at the Medyka border crossing in Poland within hours of the invasion and almost immediately started feeding refugees fleeing Ukraine. Its network of more than 200 staff and volunteers is now supplying about 180,000 meals a day across Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Moldova and Romania.

Andrés’s comments came as Nato and G7 leaders gathered in Brussels on Thursday for emergency meetings about the Ukraine crisis.

Instead of making speeches and watching the situation worsen from a distance, Andrés said, leaders should be implementing systems to help refugees find safety and to better protect women and children from going missing.

The restaurant community across Ukraine has united to help provide food – even under heavy Russian bombardment, occupation and siege. WCK is working with more than 150 restaurants and chefs in Ukraine who are providing meals.

In Mariupol, Andrés said, chefs have managed to hunt for deer and make stews, despite being under siege, and many are cooking in bunkers. “Chefs they are heroes. They are cooking in bunkers, they’re cooking under shelling, and they’re gathering food any way they can,” he added. “It’s this kind of moment where everybody does what they can with whatever they have at hand.”

Karla Hoyos, the chef leading WCK’s kitchen near the border in Przemyśl, Poland, flew there on a one-way ticket from Miami four days after the start of the invasion, researching Ukrainian comfort food on the plane. In six days they built the kitchen from scratch in an empty warehouse, where they now produce between 10,000 and 12,000 meals a day including borscht, chicken stew and cups of hot chocolate and broth.

Aftermath image of the Drama Theatre in the encircled Ukrainian port city of Mariupol where hundreds of civilians were sheltering on Wednesday March 16, 2022 after Russian forces dropped two powerful bombs on it
Mariupol, where chefs have hunted for deer to make stews and are cooking in bunkers. Photograph: EyePress News/Rex/Shutterstock

“We’re sending a message when we give food. We’re sending a message of dignity, of hope – that you’re not alone and we’re here for you. We want to make sure they have a dignified meal that is made with thought, with love,” she said, “this is comfort for you and we’re going to make sure we do our best to give them that.”

While they were building the kitchen, Hoyos’s team went to the border to distribute hot drinks, and she was overwhelmed at the number of children and mothers. “I remember this lady, she was carrying a lot of luggage, she was pushing a wheelchair with her mother in,” she said. “In 2022, why are people going through this? It’s hard to accept this is going on.”

In Lviv, at WCK’s Ukraine headquarters, they are stocking up on supplies which they can then distribute around the country, and working with people from across Ukraine to work out how best to support chefs who are cooking for their communities.

Tim Kilcoyne, WCK director of relief and special operations, said: “There are so many restaurants and small brasseries that are continuing to cook, and many restaurants with basement kitchens that are cooking and doing what they can to support shelters, orphanages and hospitals.”

The UNHCR said mobilising within Ukraine has “proved challenging, as many of our colleagues have themselves been displaced by the war and are working under enormous security constraints”.

A UNHCR spokesperson said: “Governments, with the support of local partners, are leading the emergency response inside Ukraine and in neighbouring countries. Our objective is to support and complement these efforts wherever gaps are identified and where our assistance can have the biggest impact.”

He added: “We are extremely grateful for the incredible support NGOs and local actors, including WCK (with whom we are collaborating), have offered to refugees fleeing Ukraine.”Citing the EU civil protection mechanism providing aid and a €500m (£415m) emergency support package, a European Commission spokesperson said it had “mobilised the EU’s largest-ever aid response for Ukraine and is working on all fronts to support the country and its people with emergency assistance, including neighbouring countries receiving people fleeing the invasion”. But, they said, humanitarian access has made it difficult for aid to get to some areas.