Orinda Chef Sharon Girdlestone made a special trip this May, using her cooking skills to help Ukrainian refugees. She returned nine days later, after working in a commercial kitchen in Przemysl, directly on the Polish-Ukrainian border.
Originally from Northern England, Girdlestone has called Orinda her home since 2013. The chef explained she had time to go after selling her Lamorinda culinary business, My Sustainable Table, which also fed the unhoused in Concord for the last four years.
Visionary humanitarian Chef José Andrés, who founded the World Central Kitchen (WCK) in 2010, inspired Girdlestone.
“Every time there’s a crisis in any country, he has boots on the ground within days to feed people,” said Girdlestone. “The amount of people he and his team have fed is beyond amazing.”
She added, “I’ve always followed Chef José and was looking at WCK opportunities on LinkedIn. I found several opportunities, but I saw they had a great need in the kitchen in Poland. I decided I should go to where they really need the help.”
Girdlestone said there were about 35 chefs in the kitchen daily, and they hire celebrity chefs to run the program.
“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “Master Chef Noah Sims was our leader. He was very emotional, very outspoken, but also very inspiring and positive. That’s someone you want to be in charge in a place like that.”
Given the devastating war at hand, she had ideas of what the environment might feel like.
“I thought I was going to be upset at the scenes there, but the way that the WCK is set up, they don’t want you to turn up depressed and panicked about what’s going on down the highway. They make it very pleasant,” she said.
Girdlestone explained how they started making 2,000 sandwiches an hour using a production line, when they felt they could do more.
“Our team decided we could do 3,000 an hour, and we did it!” she said. “It was a nice bonding experience. It was a group effort and an amazing experience. We’re all still in touch daily, despite everyone being all over the world.”
Each day, WCK took food to the border-crossing town of Medyka and to a former grocery store, now turned humanitarian center. They also took food to a train station, which was greatly appreciated by arriving Ukrainians.
“Even when they were coming in on the train with nothing, they were smiling,” said Girdlestone. “They were grateful. Some hadn’t eaten in a few days.”
She said the experience was moving.
“I was impressed with the refugees’ resilience, the stories they told,” said Girdlestone. “WCK had Ukrainian and Polish women working in the kitchen with us and they were smiling and saying that, even in such a horrible situation, the world is on their side. They’re so resilient; I was shocked. There’s no moaning. No complaining. Just strong, compassionate people.”
She further explained one of the Ukrainian women said she has a brother fighting in the war and she sometimes sneaks across the border – as some other refugees do – to check on him.
In addition to her hands-on work, Girdlestone and her friends raised over $32,000 for the WCK, some of it, from Lamorinda donors.
“I’ve always been interested in charitable causes. I’m now working with the Sydney Paige Foundation, a local, women-owned company, that provides backpacks and supplies to underserved children, including here in Contra Costa County,” said Girdlestone.
She hopes to return to Poland and get back into that kitchen: “I’m just trying to figure out if my kids will let me go for a week.”
Want to help the WCK? Visit wck.org.
David Fonseca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.