“If I can do my little part, I’m going to do it”: Toronto chef Jagger Gordon on his humanitarian trip to Ukraine

“If I can do my little part, I’m going to do it”: Toronto chef Jagger Gordon on his humanitarian trip to Ukraine

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In April, food philanthropist Jagger S. Gordon left Toronto for Ukraine, where he’s cooking for displaced people and members of the military. We spoke to him while he was meal-prepping in an ­apartment on the outskirts of Lviv 

How did you end up heading to the front?
In 2014, I founded an app called Feed it Forward, which helps people in need find free food. Because of that work, chef José Andrés’s non-profit, World Central Kitchen, asked me to speak at the premiere of his documentary, We Feed People, at Hot Docs this year. They’re active in Ukraine, so I offered my services and told them how my app could help Ukrainians. By April 10, I was at the border.

Did you bring any cooking equipment with you?
I brought all my spices. Basically, I’m lugging around 30 pounds of clothes, 42 pounds of bulletproof gear and 50 pounds of spices and toys to give away.

What was it like at the border?
Thousands upon thousands of women and children crossed into Poland every day. For every one of them, we had a hot meal, water, chai and coffee, as well as other supplies that they might need.

You’re now in Ukraine. How was the journey?
I travelled overnight by train with American ­medics, soldiers and civilians bringing provisions. Along the way, another train was hit by a Russian bomb. As a precaution, we stopped, the lights went out and we were told to put on our ­Kevlar and be ready to evacuate if needed. We sat in silence for an hour until 3:30 a.m., when the command was given that we could keep moving. I remember thinking, It’s okay, you can breathe again.

Walk us through a typical day on the ground in Ukraine.
My mornings start at 5 a.m.—or 3 a.m. if there’s an air raid. I gear up and have my coffee, and if everything’s clear, I make my way to one of the kitchens that have been provided to us. Sometimes they’re in restaurants, but more often they’re in people’s apartments. Then we prepare food for the community. One evening not long ago, we were looking to feed 32 people, so I recruited some Ukrainian adults and a couple of kids to help me cook.

What was on the menu?
A bunch of whole roasted chickens with fresh vegetables, salads, bread and triple-baked garlic mashed potatoes. We also made mushroom risotto for the older people who don’t have their dentures.

How does it feel to sit around someone’s apartment and share food like this?
It’s the most joyous feeling ever, knowing that we all made this food together, to feed each other. People are just trying to survive, and food is a vital part of that.

Have you been able to keep in touch with your family?
Yes, all day, all night. They keep checking in on me, and I keep them updated on where I am.

How did they feel about you going to Ukraine?
Valid question. They’re a little worried, but they know I have a lot of experience, and that I’ll be cool and calm. I specifically do not go into hot zones. I’m not here to play hero.

How are people responding to what you’re doing?
Well, the thing is, I’m kitted out in about $12,000 worth of the world’s best gear, including ballistic Kevlar. But I’m also covered in Canadian flags, so once we get past the fact that I look like a storm­trooper, people are just happy to know someone would come from a different country to help them.

Now that you’re in Ukraine, what’s next?
I’ve spent a few weeks on the ground to see with my own eyes where relief money goes and how I can help. I’m heading back home soon to put together a plan as to how I’ll continue this work in Ukraine. This isn’t a one-time thing. After a few weeks at home, I’ll be back. And next time, my 27-year-old daughter, who’s my best friend, will be coming with me.