11.7 C
London
Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Russian chef joins forces with Ukrainian best friend to serve food across frontiers | Ukraine

Alissa Timoshkina was brought up on a “beautiful diet” of Ukrainian and Russian dishes. Growing up, she remembers her great-grandmother – a Ukrainian Holocaust survivor who emigrated to Siberia following the second world war – pounding lard and frying vegetables to make a hearty beetroot borscht (Ukrainian soup).

Now the Russian chef has joined forces with her Ukrainian best friend, Olia Hercules, in a show of unity in the face of war. The London-based pair, both 37, are the force behind Cook for Ukraine, an initiative that uses food to raise awareness about the conflict and funds to support the humanitarian effort.

Modelled on Cook For Syria, the charity culinary movement that went global in 2016, the campaign encourages everyone to celebrate Ukrainian and eastern European culture by cooking traditional meals, and possibly donating to a JustGiving page.

The hope is that over cabbage pie, varenyky dumplings or Ukrainian challah bread, diners will be more likely to discuss the latest developments. They might be inspired, in turn, to donate to the relief effort.

It seems to be working so far: Cook for Ukraine’s JustGiving page has raised more than £75,000 in donations in just over a week, with the money going to Unicef to support children and families impacted by the fighting.

Top chefs and restaurants have signed up to offer support, with many choosing to add a Ukrainian special to their menu and donate some or all of the proceeds to the appeal. Soho House, for example, has added a Ukrainian dish at all restaurants globally, while Burger & Lobster is donating £2 from every bill throughout March. Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli-born chef, is also offering support.

“Restaurants I love and chefs I deeply respect have come on board, which has been amazing,” Timoshkina said.

The inspiration for Cook for Ukraine came the day after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Timoshkina and Hercules – who have been close friends since they met while studying at Queen Mary University in 2005 – were at the first protest outside Downing Street against the invasion.

“I felt quite ashamed: maybe it’s going to be completely inappropriate for a Russian to do this. To the world right now, we are the equivalent of Nazi Germany,” said Timoshkina, who has lived in the UK for 23 years.

“But Olia said, ‘Please stop being embarrassed. Stop equating Russians to Putin.’ It was really, really helpful to hear her say that.”

Papushka’s borscht by Olia Hercules.
Papushka’s borscht by Olia Hercules. Photograph: Louise Hagger/The Observer

That night, Timoshkina had a lightbulb moment. She called Hercules with the idea for Cook for Ukraine, and then contacted Clerkenwell Boy, the anonymous Instagram celebrity chef who launched Cook For Syria.

“I asked for some tips on how he started it but he said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll support you throughout. Let’s just do it.’ The donations started flooding in immediately.”

The friends hope the initiative will help keep attention on Ukraine in the weeks to come, even if the news agenda begins to move on. “We’re so oversaturated with news of various conflicts, and people’s attention spans are so short,” Timoshkina said. “Sadly, in 10 days, people might not care as much.

“When you put a relatable message forward with human faces and things people can physically relate to, like food, we’re really hoping the message will be a lot more long-lived and people will sustain their interest. It’s an aim to get really close to people’s hearts and stomachs.”

That the initiative is led by a Russian and Ukrainian together is “really important” for the world to see, she said. “In a way we are symbolising the two sides of the war. But we are hugging and smiling and, for us, there is no conflict, just love, food and community,” she said. “Food is a symbol of people coming together. The idea of breaking bread: there’s nothing more beautiful and peaceful than that.”

Latest news

Related news