Chef’s viral videos raises awareness about Russia-Ukraine war
Chef Jamie “The Bear” McDonald took a break from running his chain of U.S.-based BBQ restaurants earlier this year to travel to Manitoba and take photos of polar produces and the Northern Lights.
He hit out on the polar produces — he did capture the Northern Lights — but the journey unexpectedly led him to his next mission. To cook for Ukranian refugees escaping their war-torn country amid Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
And videos McDonald has been sharing of his experiences on Facebook have garnered tens of thousands of interaction — helping to bring awareness to the realities of war.
In fact, it was social media that brought McDonald overseas in the first place.
After seeing a post from some chef friends participating in World Central Kitchen — an international collective of cooks providing food during humanitarian crises — he decided to join the effort.
In early March he arrived in Medyka, near the Ukraine-Poland border, a site of refugee crossings.
McDonald, who only speaks English, was thrust into a kitchen of international cooks and chefs tirelessly working to satisfy refugees. He was up for the challenge though, after all he attained his nickname “The Bear” at a young age because he was tough and always loved learning and trying new things.
“(There were people) from pretty much every continent in the world. From China and Japan, from the Middle East, all over Europe, (in addition as) America, Mexico, you name it,” McDonald told the Star, adding the group could see tens of thousands of refugees each day.
Despite the language barriers, McDonald said that food — as it often is — became a way to connect.
“Everyone understands food and a good meal. That’s really kind of an international language,” he said.
Before becoming the founder of the Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ chain, McDonald also had an extreme connection to food as a pro-competitive eater, placing third to record-holder Takeru Kobayashi, at a pizza eating contest in Barrie, Ont., in 2013, eating 32 slices in 10 minutes.
While his competitive eating days are long behind him, McDonald said food remains a central part of what drives him — this time in his goal to aid Ukranian refugees.
“We had one guy come up afterwards who said, ‘That’s the best borscht I’ve ever had.’ And that’s it for me,” McDonald shared. “The most important part is if you can make these people’s lives better for a minute or five minutes while they’re eating, then you know you did your job for sure.”
Despite these small moments of relief, McDonald is pained by what he saw people going by. He recalled seeing children left to fend for themselves.
“These kids that have lost everything, the trauma that they’re experiencing will be with them for the rest of their lives,” said McDonald, who is a father of two.
A moment that stuck out in particular was seeing an elderly man who had recently crossed over the border lying down on a bench. It wasn’t until later, when his wife told another cook, who then told McDonald, that McDonald learned the man had passed away — right after succeeding in his goal of bringing his wife across the border.
“Pretty much the minute that they did … within an hour of them crossing the border, he passed away,” McDonald said.
McDonald, who lives in Hartford, Connecticut, also brought his 24-year-old son — who also works at the family restaurant chain — to cook and serve meals with him at the border.
He wanted his son to see first-hand the “horror of the war” and also “experience the act of service.”
One of the biggest take-aways for McDonald has been seeing how people came together at this time. Whether by donations from neighbouring countries and farmers — including thousands of apples which were turned into apple cakes and baby food — or by the global community, outside of the war area, paying attention and showing solidarity online.
In early March, McDonald set up a fundraiser for World Central Kitchen on his personal Facebook. Within two weeks, nearly $50,000 had been raised. As of Friday, the fundraiser surpassed $100,000.
“We are trying to just do anything we can to make their lives a little easier at that moment,” he said.
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