On Saturday, around noon Ukrainian time, a rocket hit that part of Kharkiv and Mook, executive director of World Central Kitchen, says Russian forces have once again attacked a civilian area. This time it was a restaurant that acted as an auxiliary kitchen with the support of WCK, the organization founded by chef and humanist José Andrés. Four employees at the ghost kitchen, part of the Yaposhka restaurant chain in Ukraine, have been hospitalized with burns, some severe.
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It is the first time in the 12 years since WCK was founded that one of its auxiliary kitchens has been attacked. It is also the first time WCK has operated in a war zone.
“As you can see, enormous damage. It’s still burning in the building over there,” Mook said via a video on his Twitter feed. “There is also a lot of damage in the kitchen.”
An update I hoped I’d never have to do. I’m with one @WCKitchen Restaurant in Kharkiv where I met your amazing team less than 24 hours ago. A rocket got stuck today. 4 employees were injured. That’s the reality here – cooking is a heroic act of bravery. #ChefsForUkraine 🇬🇧 pic.twitter.com/AyU4fUnA61
— Nate Mook (@natemook) April 16, 2022
“There are offices in this area. There are residences. People live here. People work here and cook here. And that’s it,” adds Mook, his outrage palpable. “I really don’t know what else to say. Just absolutely appalling brutality.”
Two days later, Mook is on the phone from Kharkiv, where the city is under almost constant fire from the Russians. He has visited the injured women in the hospital – he only knows their first names and is not sure if they want their full names released – and they are in good spirits. One has already been released. Another, Yulia, was hit the hardest, suffering burns to her hand and arm that Mook believes are third-degree burns.
The remaining three women are expected to be discharged from the hospital in the next day or two, Mook says.
I would like to introduce you to 3 courageous employees of @WCKitchen Restaurant Japoshka! Yulia, Liza and Yulia are in good spirits and recovering in the hospital after the rocket attack. Yulia – next to me – said she looks forward to returning to help feed thousands once her burns have healed. True heroes! 🇬🇧 pic.twitter.com/xqqJe4mjcw
— Nate Mook (@natemook) April 17, 2022
“The sad thing is that the hospital needs the beds because so many people are getting injured now,” he adds. “Even tonight, Russia just threw more shells downtown. They also struck downtown yesterday. A few days ago they came across a park where people were walking their dogs and sitting around. I mean it’s pretty brutal and violent.”
It could have been worse, says Mook. The missile appears to have hit the building opposite the restaurant. Around 30 to 35 people then worked to prepare the 3,000 to 4,000 meals that are prepared daily in this special Yaposhka kitchen. Most of the workers were well away from the windows facing the street.
“The kitchens are a bit off the street,” says Mook. “It’s kind of a miracle that more people didn’t get hurt or killed from the restaurant. Imagine if 10 staff members were on a smoke break and were standing right outside the door when the missile hit, all those people would be dead.”
All four workers were Yaposhka employees, not employees or volunteers at World Central Kitchen. WCK currently works with more than 400 restaurants, food trucks and caterers who collectively produce approximately 320,000 meals per day to feed the hungry in Ukraine. WCK does not allow its volunteers to work within Ukraine.
Typically, Mook says, WCK pays its partners a fixed price per meal, a price meant to cover not just ingredients but also rent, utilities, labor and more. Yaposhka, for example, was one of the first partners in Kharkiv, says Mook, “in the early days when it was very dangerous to be out here, not that it’s not dangerous now.”
José Andrés and his World Central Kitchen provide food for refugees from Ukraine
Yaposhka’s spirit kitchen was all but destroyed in the missile attack. walls crumbled. It looked as if “the hand of God had slammed against the front of the restaurant,” says Mook. Despite the destruction, however, workers were already moving serviceable equipment and supplies to a new location as of Sunday. They hoped to be back online on Tuesday.
Yaposhka’s founders, says Mook, “ask the employees what they want to do, and the employees said, ‘Let’s go. Let’s put another kitchen into operation. let’s cook People have to eat.” ”
Julia, the worker with severe burns on her arm and hand, is among those wanting to return.
Only a handful of WCK staff actually operate in Ukraine, including Mook and many days Andrés himself. Both men serve as both witness/reporters and support staff, and connect directly to information on the ground via their Twitter accounts. WCK also has a number of employees who spend a great deal of time gathering information from the military, civic leaders, journalists and the many residents remaining in Ukraine.
“Information is that the most valuable,” says Mook, “because that’s how you stay safe, or as safe as possible. You can’t stop a cruise missile here either Landing at a train station or outside of your restaurant.”
WCK was able to feed people in cities that suffered the brunt of the Russian attack. The organization has relied on trucks and trains to transport supplies and equipment to locations still under siege. For example, on the morning of the Japoshka missile attack, a truck removed rice cookers, induction cooktops and large pots from the kitchen.
The only place currently closed to WCK is Mariupol, the stricken port city where Russian and Ukrainian forces are still fighting for control.
“At this point, no one can really get in,” says Mook. “The tracks you were able to access within the last week or two have been cut off.”
Yesterday I was standing at the Kramatorsk train station as we planned to serve food and coffee to 1000 evacuees. Today we saw her murder – mothers. Children. People burned alive in their cars. But we are in shock @WCKitchen not running away – we must stand with the people of Ukraine against evil. pic.twitter.com/H3VUz6yGnm
— Nate Mook (@natemook) April 8, 2022
“Probably the people in Mariupol are starving,” he adds. “It’s really a terrible, terrible situation.”
Nearly two months into the war, Mook admits that dealing with the daily challenges can be exhausting. Sometimes he doesn’t even know what day it is.
“What keeps me going, what keeps José going, what keeps the team going, are the Ukrainians that surround us,” says Mook. “That’s what drives us: the spirit and the strength and resilience of the Ukrainians. We look at them and say, “Well, we’re here to stand by your side. They’re going through this and we need to be there to support them. ”