Special project 16:12 27 Jul 2022

"If I didn't have small children, I would go to war": how a volunteer changed entrepreneurship to a field kitchen

How a field kitchen works, why it is a kind of therapy, and how to turn a fifteen-kilogram dumpling into bilashy for the military.

"Kitchen volunteering" has become a pretty common phenomenon since the times of the Maidan and the beginning of the russian-Ukrainian war. The field kitchen fed the fighters against the criminal regime during the Revolution of Dignity, and the restaurant kitchens worked in Kyiv after February 24, 2022, providing free hot food to the Armed Forces, Territorial defense, the retired, and other Kyiv residents. Hundreds of women have established culinary units by region since 2014 and are still supporting the fighting spirit of our soldiers with various homemade dishes — from borscht to baked goodies.

Working in a field kitchen requires a lot of skill and endurance: wood-burning stoves, the temperature of which is challenging to regulate, forty-liter pots, large volumes of products that need to be cleaned, cut, and processed, as well as hundreds of portions that need to be calculated and delivered on time. It is what the daily activities of the B-50 Field Kitchen, which cooks for the military, look like. Iryna Makuha is like a fish in water in this: having started with peeling potatoes, the woman is now responsible for the work of three shifts of cooks.

Rubryka for the Faces of Ukrainian Defense project spoke with a volunteer about the peculiarities of the field kitchen operation, which dishes became the favorites of our defenders, and how volunteer work helps to overcome the trauma of war.


A double escape from war

Ірина Макуха

Iryna Makuha fled the war twice. First, she had to leave Crimea, where the woman lived for many years and had a business manufacturing hair accessories. Before the annexation, the products of their family business were sold all over the southern coast of the Crimean Peninsula.

"When the russian military entered, and their checkpoints appeared, my husband and I decided to leave. We packed up some of our things and equipment and sent it via Nova Poshta while it was open. Everything else had to be abandoned: the developed customer base, employees, the house," Iryna recalls.

Then there was a forced move to Nova Kakhovka in the Kherson region, which Iryna considers her second home. There, we had to start everything from scratch because the market had changed. In 2014-15, the couple provided for the needs of the military: they sewed sleeping bags, knee pads, buffs, and balaclavas. When the situation with the support of the military improved, Iryna and her husband refocused on sports goods, organized a sports club with the largest hand-to-hand combat section in Nova Kakhovka, and bought bread shops and a bakery where they made their own pastries. And on February 24, 2022, the war came to the Kherson region.

"At five in the morning, we woke up to the fact that missiles were flying at us, and at eleven o'clock, Nova Kakhovka was occupied, and it was already dangerous to leave. We didn't even have time to wake up. They sat in the basements for two weeks. By that time, there were already the first killings, the first news about executions. Problems with food began, panic raged, in some stores, there were goods leftovers, and in some, they raised prices twice. I withdrew the remaining money and bought a lot of flour. We started processing this flour. We kneaded the dough at home, baked bread at night, and I was already selling it in the morning. This way, we could earn money for food and save money to be able to leave," says Iryna Makuha.

"If there is need to cook for 1,000 people — we will get organized in a day"

польова кухня

After arriving in Kyiv, Iryna immediately started looking for a job and found information about the B-50 Field Kitchen on Facebook. The woman had cooking experience in field conditions: before the full-scale war, she was fond of historical reconstruction.

"We arrived in Kyiv on May 9, and I came to work on the 10th. At first, I helped peel potatoes. Soon I offered my services and have been working as a cook for a month and a half. I don't receive a salary in money, only food aid and charity items: clothes and shoes," explains Iryna Makuha.

As Iryna says, the primary "consumers" of the dishes of the B-50 Field Kitchen are the military: the food is cooked for them first. If food is left over, volunteers feed the "social sphere": they provide a free hot food distribution point, where mainly the elderly and staff of one of the hospitals come.

"Now I cook for 350 people for one meal. People eat 2-3 times a day, that is approximately 1000 servings. When I first came, we cooked much more. For example, there was 600 military, and now there are only 120," says the volunteer.

Currently, as the woman says, the focus has shifted to the "social sphere." But it can change at any moment: everything will depend on the needs of the military.

According to Iryna, the difference between cooking food for ten people and a hundred people is tiny. Differs only the equipment and the assistants, as well as the organization of the processes, for which Victoria Yermakova and Kostyantyn Ovcharenko, the founders of the B-50 Field Kitchen, are responsible:

"Some people are engaged in washing the dishes; others bring and unload water, chop firewood, ship goods, make menus and distribute food. If we need to cook for a thousand people, we can organize this process in one day. In fact, this kitchen is a ready-made working enterprise. Two hundred people work here for free, in a coordinated and high-quality manner."

польова кухня Б-50

Her entrepreneurial experience also helped Iryna in managing processes in the kitchen.

"If you can organize everything in the kitchen, then you can organize both at the car service and in the store. I was an entrepreneur for many years, and in our country, entrepreneurs are versatile people who can organize anything. If you survive in Ukraine, you can work in any country in the world," the woman is confident.

From pancakes to borscht: culinary secrets of the field kitchen

Iryna works from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. But the cooks in the field kitchen work three shifts, including the night shift. The people who give out food at 7 a.m. cook at night, and the first and second shifts prepare lunches and dinners, respectively. Iryna prepares the menu for the next day in advance and writes it to the other cooks so that the first and second shifts can also prepare for tomorrow.

"We serve porridge with meat and salad for breakfast. For lunch, I offer pea soup, borscht, or pickle soup. The second is usually potatoes with meat, meatballs, cutlets, salad, and compote. For dinner, we give pilaf, navy-style pasta, and salads. "Cookies are a must for dessert," the woman elaborates.

"We had such a story when 12 boxes of dumplings were brought to us. They were normal according to the expiration date but thawed and refroze. As a result, each box contained one large 15-kilogram dumpling. We cut them into pieces, rolled them in flour, fried them in oil, and they turned out bilyashy, which the fighters ate with great appetite. They also brought us Korean-style carrots, which were normal for consumption, but the person who prepared them added too much vinegar. We washed it and added it to soups that require a lot of acids, such as borscht or pickle soup," Iryna Makuha shares her culinary secrets.

The volunteer says that she learned to cook almost everything in the conditions of the field kitchen, even baking pancakes.

"I have never had someone say that something is tasteless. Despite the high temperatures, even borscht can be made red, not "overboiled" pale. And what kind of potatoes and meat I cook!" Iryna Makuha proudly exclaims.

польова кухня

According to the woman, the soldiers often help in the field kitchen peel potatoes and chop firewood. Commanders also send soldiers to cooks for training: there is a shortage of field kitchen operators at the front.

Working in the kitchen as a therapy

There is also a shortage of cooks at the B-50 field kitchen: among the 22 kitchen workers, the majority are novice cooks, musicians, and retirees. Therefore, it is difficult for Iryna to fall out of her work schedule:

"I arrange my weekend 2-3 days in advance with all the boys and girls so that there is someone to take my shift."

When there are not enough hands in the field kitchen, her children come to Iryna's aid. She has four of them.

"I have independent children: they can cook, warm up, wash or dress themselves, go for a walk on the playground near the house. They even come to my kitchen. For example, when we needed to peel a lot of potatoes and didn't have time, my children came and helped peel those potatoes," says the volunteer.

When asked why she volunteers and why in the kitchen, Iryna answers that it helped her overcome her own war-related psychological traumas:

"When we left the occupation, I could not sleep. I lay and waited for some sounds. Then I went to the doctor, and he prescribed antidepressants. They helped. But it became like therapy for me when I started working in the kitchen. It is hard physical work, and there are a lot of tasks, people, and many things to remember. I think this job saved my mental health."

In addition, volunteering became for Iryna the means where she could apply all her energy and be useful to the country.

"If I didn't have small children, I would go to war. But I have obligations to them, and the field kitchen is an opportunity to direct my anger, which gives me strength, in the right direction," the volunteer is convinced.


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