'Chopped' judge Marc Murphy on cooking for Ukrainian refugees in Poland: 'Giving people a little bit of dignity and a warm bowl of food'
As the world watched the Russian invasion of Ukraine begin on their television screens and social media feeds, Chef José Andrés' World Central Kitchen (WCK) was already getting to work, serving hot meals at eight border crossings within Poland with the help of volunteer chefs like Marc Murphy, a recurring Chopped judge and author of Season with Authority: Confident Home Cooking.
To date, WCK, whose mission is to be "first to the frontlines, providing meals in response to humanitarian, climate and community crises," has served over 3.5 million meals, distributed 2,000 tons of food across Ukraine and delivers 250,000 meals daily in Ukraine and its bordering countries. Murphy, who is currently cooking meals for Ukrainian refugees in Przemyśl, a city in southeastern Poland, says when José Andrés approached him and his fellow chefs in February at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival asking for help, he knew he had to get involved.
"José sort of unofficially called a meeting in the lobby of one of the hotels there and all of the chefs showed up from Guy Fieri to Tyler Florence," Murphy tells Yahoo Life, explaining Andrés was already looking toward the impending crisis between Ukraine and Russia and planning how WCK would respond. When the festival ended, Murphy says he continued to feel compelled to join him.
"I'm looking at the news and getting frustrated and I'm just like, geez, I need to get off my butt," Murphy recalls. "I can probably help." Murphy texted Andrés to let him know he was coming to Poland to volunteer. Shortly after, he landed in Poland, rented a car, found an Airbnb and showed up at a WCK relief kitchen to get to work.
Murphy says when he arrived at the Przemyśl WCK location where he'd be cooking, it felt like going to his first day of work all over again: Everyone was scurrying around to do their jobs and get the warehouse-sized kitchens set up. A little more than two weeks into the experience, however, things have started to click.
"What we're doing is we're cooking food and we're getting into [the needs at] the border," he says. "We're getting into train stations. We're getting into refugee centers. We're hopefully giving people a little bit of dignity, a warm bowl of food and something that is warming their heart and their soul."
From Murphy's assigned relief kitchen, teams can cook 100,000 meals per day utilizing 12 massive paella pans and 12 large ovens.
WCK is known for switching up recipes based on what's available at farmers' markets as a way to stimulate the local economy, according to Murphy, who recalls when Chef Andrés was visiting his site recently and the pair visited a local farmers market together. "We bought tons of things and we brought it back to the kitchen, and we're using the leeks and celery root that we buy, but we're also giving back to the community," Murphy says. "A lot of the people that are helping wash dishes or helping with logistics, those people are getting paid. We're giving people jobs. It's wonderful that we become part of the fabric of the community as well with World Central Kitchen."
Murphy's location also receives bulk donations from farms and businesses, both locally and in countries like Spain and Ireland. Lately, there's been an abundance of donated apples and bananas, which get turned into applesauce and banana bread, comforting foods Murphy says the Ukrainian people seem to appreciate. "We're just doing everything we can to make them feel good," says Murphy.
Another dish often served is beef stew, prepared in giant vats designed for industrial kitchens. Murphy explains taking a dish someone might make at home and turning it into a dish to feed thousands isn't as hard as it sounds: For an at-home dinner, someone might use a pound of beef and a few vegetables from the produce aisle to cook, but WCK chefs combine about 333 pounds of beef, 88 pounds of onion, 11 pounds of garlic and 66 pounds each of bell pepper and zucchini with starch and seasonings to create a comforting dish to feed the masses.
"It's just like anything else, it's just more of it," Murphy says. "Really, it's actually not as hard as it looks for people that know how to cook."
But there is one challenge to creating large vats of food — stirring the dish and getting the ingredients well-combined. Murphy says a big paddle-like spatula is his go-to tool for getting to the bottom of the vessels, adding that he ends up walking around the full circumference of the pots as he stirs to ensure everything is well-mixed.
Along with making banana bread and beef stew for thousands, Murphy has taken to social media channels like Facebook and Instagram to document his experience and raise funds for WCK. His philanthropic work started unintentionally, with a short video posted on the social media platforms along with a link to donate to WCK directly. Murphy says when he posted the video shortly before his shift one morning, he had no idea the impact it would have.
"I got home to my Airbnb [that night] and I was making myself dinner," he recalls. "I sat down and looked at my Instagram and I had sort of forgotten … but I think I had over 1,000 comments. I literally started scrolling and I couldn't read it because I was tearing up so much," he said.
Since March 27, Murphy has raised nearly $55,000 for WCK.
Besides raising money and serving others, Murphy shares the most rewarding part of his experience has been seeing the outpouring of love from WCK volunteers and staff. "The amount of people that are here helping, the amount of volunteers that are coming through our kitchen — beautiful people that traveled thousands of miles to dedicate their time to help — that is amazing to me," Murphy says,
Still, with any high comes lows, and for Murphy the hardest part of working alongside WCK has been visiting the border Ukraine shares with Poland. "Actually seeing these women and children crossing the border with their suitcases, it's heartbreaking," he says.
While Murphy has yet to decide how long he'll remain in Poland, he continues to raise funds for WCK through his social media accounts and says he has no plans of leaving any time soon. "I feel like they still need me here. I could still be useful," he says. "So I sort of canceled everything at home [and] I'm doing this. It's been really wonderful for me to be able to contribute."
"As a chef, we all want to help people. I mean, it's what we do, we feed people," he adds. "We want to nourish people and we want to help and every time there's a crisis we do a lot of fundraising. This time, I thought, you know, I just can't sit here and watch the news anymore. I'm going to go be part of this."
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