“Kitchen life” is similar no matter where you go, says Nina Quincy. “You grab a cutting board, put on some gloves, peel potatoes, and suddenly, you’re standing at a table with four other people talking smack and trading stories,” she says.
And just weeks ago, Quincy, who serves as the director of operations for Underbelly Hospitality, the restaurant group helmed by Houston’s Chris Shepherd, found herself falling into that familiar rhythm while cooking just miles from the Ukrainian border.
For a short moment, World Central Kitchen’s Poland outpost full of volunteers cooking for refugees felt like normal “restaurant life,” but it was far from it, Quincy says.
Quincy recently spent a week volunteering in Poland with José Andrés’s organization, cooking and packaging food for tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens seeking safe haven as Russia launched attacks on its borders. “I saw the best of humanity and the worst of humanity,” says Quincy, who returned to Texas on March 17. Speaking with Eater, she calls her trip “equal parts awful and great.”
Quincy, who got her start as a cook at age 16, says she was inspired to volunteer for World Central Kitchen after admiring the organization’s efforts for years. She watched on and read the news stories about how Andrés and his team would step in, in the midst and aftermath of natural disasters, humanitarian crises, and government shutdowns.
When the Ukrainian crisis began, World Central Kitchen acted swiftly, and within days, had 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 and set up at eight border crossings within Poland. Even now, amid some of the deadliest attacks, a release states that the organization continues to work with Ukrainian restaurants, caterers, and food trucks to deliver meals to citizens and dried goods to restaurant partners in Ukraine to assist the strained food supply chain. To date, more than a million meals have been served.
And as restaurants within the Houston area, including Underbelly’s establishments, started their own campaigns, donating a portion of their proceeds to WCK, Quincy thought of how she could volunteer her own skills. So when WCK put out a call for volunteers in early March, Quincy began her game plan. Within five days, she was on a plane. “It was pretty immediate,” Quincy says. “They needed help.”
With stops in Chicago and Poland’s capital in Warsaw, Quincy arrived at a local airport more than 20 hours later and drove an hour to the border town of Przemysl. What she saw was astonishing.
There were hoards of people — one of the largest crowds she’s seen — huddled in freezing temperatures. Aside from those who were elderly and disabled, the crowd was largely women and children, many who had left behind husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, and friends in Ukraine who stayed behind to defend their country. Quincy says she watched in awe as Polish soldiers in full armor walked back and forth from the border, escorting people and their belongings to safety.
“It was story after story,” says Quincy, remembering one woman who had walked a day-and-a-half to the border with just her two toddlers and a suitcase. “One day they’re eating at their favorite restaurant and then, they have nothing.”
The first four hours of Quincy’s stay were spent prepping food alongside a group of eight volunteers that grew to around 30 by the time she left. People from all over the world — a handful from Texas and some who had never worked in a restaurant — had traveled to Poland on their own dime to help out, she says. And each day, they’d peel, cut, and cook tons of apples in large paella pans that they’d then puree and package for baby food. Quincy says in some ways she fell back into the hierarchy and habits of the kitchen.
“It was giving a sense of normalcy, even though things were not normal,” says Quincy, who notes that at least one bomb had been dropped at the border during her time there.
“I knew there was danger, but I didn’t really think about it or what was happening,” she says.
One of her earliest and most memorable interactions involved serving a woman hot chocolate, she says. While Quincy was bundled in layers, the woman — with bright red, chapped hands — hugged her and kissed her on the cheek. Taken aback by the woman’s gratitude amid the devastation, Quincy nearly started to cry, but a fellow volunteer from Ukraine stopped her.
“You’re not allowed to cry. This is not your tragedy,” Quincy recalls him reminding her. “We’re here to be strong,” Quincy says she returned to work, but the night she left Poland — after the adrenaline wore off — she was overwhelmed with emotion.
“I think the last few years with the division in the country and with the pandemic, everything almost felt like the world is on fire. It seemed like everything is bad, and before I got to Poland, I felt that way, too,” Quincy says. But the goodness and humanity she saw in Poland far outweighed it. “Everybody gave of themselves freely,” she says. “I hope that motivates people to do the same.”
In many ways it already has.
Back home, Underbelly Hospitality raised $9,846 from its three restaurant campaigns. Other Houston restaurants, including Phat Eatery and Pier 6 have similarly launched initiatives to raise money for the World Central Kitchen. Houston-based chef Aaron Bludorn and his team, Dallas chef Junior Borges, and the Texas Good and Wine Alliance together raised $11,500 by hosting a sold-out four-course dinner for 190 people, according to a release.
Quincy takes it all as a lesson. “There’s so much good,” she says. “And the good absolutely outshines bad. ... The amount that people care is immeasurable.”