Ksenia Amber, 38, is from Odesa, now one of the crucial locations in the Ukrainian war with Russia. Before the fighting began, she had a restaurant there, Slow Piggy, specializing in international cuisine but using local products. Since February, she has been traveling around Europe, promoting Ukrainian gastronomic culture and organizing dinners to raise funds for World Central Kitchen, which since the conflict started has been supporting families fleeing Ukraine and those left in the country by serving hot meals with the help of local restaurants.
As we sit down together at the Agenzia di Pollenzo, where the evening before she had held a dinner to support the Slow Food network in Ukraine, she wastes little time on small talk and instead starts talking immediately about those difficult first days in February.
“The restaurant was closed for rebranding, and together with my husband and our sous chef I was in Kyiv to teach a class on French cuisine. On February 24, my brother called me and—I still remember him shouting down the phone—told us to get back home because the bombing had started. We fled back to Odesa, driving for 12 hours, instead of the usual four. It was a journey I’ll never forget.”
And so began her own personal resistance, through cooking.
“We couldn’t just sit around doing nothing. Almost immediately I started cooking to help the soldiers and the people in need with a sort of home restaurant, but the supplies quickly ran out. So I decided to leave, not to escape but to be able to do something more: to carry a message to the world and help my community. I first reached a small village just over the Romanian border, then some volunteers organized a transfer to Bucharest, where I received a warm welcome. From there I came to Spain… but in reality I never stop. I’m going around Europe to bring a message of unity and to raise funds for those who have remained… and others.”
The emotion comes all of a sudden.
“All of my large family has stayed in Odesa. My husband is a lawyer and of military age, so he can’t leave. My parents never even considered the possibility. They continue to say that their life is there and that’s not going to change. Even my grandmother, a survivor of the Holocaust when she was a child, still cannot bring herself to believe what is happening, but she is firmly convinced of the need to resist. It is astounding how quickly people get used to terrible things: Now when the alarm sirens sound, they tell me they don’t even go down to the bunkers any more. Luckily they’re doing alright, though obviously I’m scared for them. The people want normality… and I’ve realized—or rather, I’ve strengthened my conviction—that normality comes also from food and the culinary traditions that characterize it. Odesa, in particular, is a melting pot of cultures and customs and it is really powerful to be able to transmit all of this diversity and culture in my dishes.”
Ksenia Amber shows how cooking can be a political act.
“The Slow Food Alliance cooks might have very different stories, kitchens and backgrounds, but they all share the commitment to protecting food biodiversity and safeguarding gastronomic knowledge and local cultures. The Alliance is a pact between cooks and producers that can really make a difference, particularly in the reconstruction of my country. Chefs must not back down. I hope that the conflict ends soon. We are of course tired and we want to rebuild, to go back to tasting our traditions with a new consciousness, an awareness of the resistance and pride of an entire people.”
Two Projects to Support Slow Food’s Ukrainian Network
- Save Ukrainian Biodiversity – A project to support those who even in times of war have not abandoned their farms and are instead risking their lives in impossible conditions to save the animal breeds, plant varieties and precious techniques that nourish the local community and will feed the future.
- Keeping Knowledge Alive – To create matching opportunities between Ukrainian Slow Food Community members and their counterparts throughout Europe, thus allowing for refugee farmers and food producers to be hosted by fellow producers to facilitate a meaningful opportunity for learning and exchange. Beekeepers to be matched with beekeepers, cheesemakers with cheesemakers, and so on. We believe this exchange will not only allow for Ukrainian food producers to keep practicing their trades in exile but will be a fruitful exchange of skills: skills which will be vital for the post-war reconstruction of the country.