Working on the border of Ukraine and Poland, Erik Bruner-Yang was living his values. The D.C. chef and restaurateur — known for his ethos of giving back — was part of World Central Kitchen’s Chefs for Ukraine, a volunteer-led effort to serve hot, around-the-clock meals to refugees. Launched in February just days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the initiative is helping feed thousands of refugees at eight different Polish border crossings, and stations across Moldova, Romania and Hungary.
An immigrant himself, Bruner-Yang felt convinced to help.
“I just had this calling,” Bruner-Yang says. “I called chef José Andrés, [founder of WCK], and got on board.”
On March 1, Bruner-Yang flew abroad to join Chefs for Ukraine. Together with two other volunteers, he set up a satellite food station in Medyka, the busiest border crossing between Poland and Ukraine. At the time, more than 5,000 Ukrainian refugees passed through Medyka daily.
Over the course of the week, Bruner-Yang worked daily shifts serving meals to refugees, providing hot dishes like Polish Żurek soup to help combat the cold.
Now back in D.C., he is still processing the experience.
“I definitely left feeling I didn’t accomplish much — there’s so much to do,” Bruner-Yang says. “I’ve [struggled with some] guilt. The needs never stop.”
The Power of 10
While Chefs for Ukraine is Bruner-Yang’s first war relief effort it is far from his first community service experience. Bruner-Yang joined the WCK initiative on the heels of launching his own community response initiative, The Power of 10.
Started just one week after the Covid-19 shutdown, The Power of 10 helped mobilize the D.C. area to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on the restaurant industry. Bruner-Yang and his nonprofit team worked to raise $10,000 weekly to subsidize 10 full-time jobs for laid-off restaurant workers and provide 1,000 meals to frontline workers.
The Power of 10 also prioritizes sustainability: The program is structured as a model any neighborhood can follow — and as a potential blueprint for local governments.
“We wanted to model a strategy of mobilizing resilient restaurant workers,” Bruner-Yang says. “It allowed our community to play a vital role in addressing the pandemic’s damage.”
To date, The Power of 10 has supported 65 restaurants nationwide, provided more than 350,000 meals and disbursed $1.2 million in aid.
He’s continued The Power of 10 as an initiative primarily fighting food insecurity, a critical problem extending well past the pandemic. Staff still deliver weekly meals to nonprofit partners, with ambitions of growing the program with a slew of new restaurant partners.
“The pandemic highlighted the fact any of us could suffer [from food insecurity],” Bruner-Yang says. “Many we served during Covid struggled with food insecurity well before the pandemic.”
A Mantra of Service
Bruner-Yang’s recent acts of service illustrate his fundamental leadership philosophy: give back. As a leading local chef and restaurateur, he’s run nearly a dozen D.C. establishments since 2011, Bruner-Yang builds his businesses around helping others.
“That’s always been an internal mantra, something part of the fabric of each restaurant,” he says. “The Power of 10, for example, is an outward expression of this.”
Currently the owner of H Street’s Taiwanese-Cambodian café Maketto, Yoko & Kota and Shopkeepers, Bruner-Yang remains highly conscious of his restaurants’ locations. Most of his businesses have opened on the H Street Corridor, an area facing increasingly high levels of gentrification.
Bruner-Yang endeavors to intentionally integrate into H Street’s existing culture — and attract other businesses with the same values.
“[I want to make sure] both the businesses and I are fully integrated into what happens in our neighborhood,” he says. “When new spots like [Indian curry restaurant] Daru chose to open on H Street, I hope places like Maketto helped make it happen.”
Giving with Gratitude
Bruner-Yang is staying focused on growing his businesses and The Power of 10 — and keeping in touch with his WCK team in Poland. As the war continues — BBC estimates nearly six million refugees to date, half of which crossed into Poland — he’s attuned to other potential service opportunities with Chefs for Ukraine.
In D.C., he’s also focused on “keeping it small.” Pre-pandemic, he operated seven restaurants, a commitment demanding many management hours (and much less sleep). Today, he’s scaled back to three.
As a changemaker of D.C.’s dining scene, Bruner-Yang embraces his servant-leadership. A self-identified “old guard of D.C. dining” — he’s experienced and learned a lot over the past decade — he’s grateful for the chance to help guide up-and-comers.
“I feel like we were able to lay a framework across D.C. to set other chefs and restaurant owners up for success,” Bruner-Yang says. “Helping other people achieve what they want to achieve: That’s my way of making change.”
For more on World Central Kitchen and Chefs for Ukraine, visit wck.org/relief/activation-chefs-for-ukraine. Follow Bruner-Yang at @erikbruneryang and the Power of 10 Initiative at
@powerof10initiative on Instagram.
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