Just a month ago, 100 років тому вперед (100 years ago in the future) was one of the most coveted jewels of Kyiv’s culinary scene, a forward-thinking restaurant with room for just 30 guests.
Its owner and head chef, Ievgen Klopotenko, former MasterChef winner and member of the Slow Food Cooks’ Alliance, was busy redrafting the nation’s idea of what traditional Ukrainian gastronomy is and could be.
But in the space of just a few days in late February, when the armed forces of the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine and besieged the capital, everything was quickly turned on its head.
Ievgen has stayed in the city, and transformed his restaurant into a canteen to feed the soldiers defending the capital and the refugees sheltering from bombs. So what is he feeding them?
“Every day is different now. It’s hard to understand what products you’ll be able to have from day to day, what you’ll be able to cook. Our suppliers bring us what they can,” Ievgen explains. “Today they brought us 50 kilograms of buckwheat and 100 kilograms of chicken, for example. Yesterday it was 300 kilograms of beets and 20 kilograms of pork. We decide what to cook according to what we can get.
“The food distributors and factories around Kyiv are doing what they can. They understand that people need to be fed, that our army needs to be fed, because otherwise they won’t be able to defend the city. But the situation varies from place to place: in one half of the city it may be hard to find milk, in the other half it may be hard to find meat. In other cities there are problems getting bread. Flour and other cereals like buckwheat, millet and oatmeal are in short supply across the country; they’ve been bought up in large quantities because of their long shelf life.”
It’s an idea which Ievgen comes back to often: doing everything you can, according to your circumstances. “We are trying to feed as many people as we can, but of course it depends on how much food we have available to cook from one day to the next. Some days we manage to feed 900 people, other days it might be as many as 1500, if we have enough supplies. That’s the only limit. There’s no shortage of people in need.”
The motivations and the priorities may have changed, but the basic formula is the same: it’s just a question of scale. “When you cook, you feel something inside, you feel useful, and you know you’re doing something to help people. While a lot of people have left the city, the guys who are left in my team are doing the best work they’ve ever done, better than in peacetime, because we’re all united in our goal: we’re cooking as part of a very real fight for our future.
“And the food we’re making is the same as when we were doing “fine dining”, just with larger portions! In normal times we’d cook a simple but filling meal for all the staff before the start of each service; now we’re essentially doing that all day, without the service. That doesn’t mean the food is boring: we try to keep it interesting with the spices and sauces we have, being inventive with the supplies we get… we’re making the best food we can.”
And what of the other chefs in the Slow Food Cooks’ Alliance around Ukraine? Ievgen is in touch with many of his fellow chefs across the country, and they’re all doing the same thing. “What I’m doing is nothing unique. I know chefs in Odessa doing the same thing for the refugees arriving, and in Lviv too. There are some guys in Kherson1, members of Slow Food, they are holding out and cooking for people even under occupation. Kharkiv is the most problematic place, the chefs I know there are just sitting in shelters under bombardment. They can’t physically operate a restaurant kitchen right now. And if the bombing continues there won’t be a city left to feed. But I have a friend there who is just baking bread at home, as much as he can, and giving it to the people in his neighborhood who are still there.”
Cooking for Ukraine
In a recent Instagram post, Ievgen asked the world to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people by cooking Ukrainian dishes, including Kvas-baked pork ribs, Tovchanka and Lviv cheesecake. But the most famous Ukrainian dish of all is borscht2, which Ievgen is promoting together with other Ukrainian chefs as part of an initiative called Make Borscht Not War3, which encourages chefs to cook borscht in their restaurants and donate the proceeds to helping Ukrainians. But why borscht? “Borscht is our soul, it connects us no matter where we are. Whether you’re fighting on the front, sheltering from bombs, or struggling to survive in some distant city where you’ve escaped… when you eat borscht you feel as if you are being held in your mother’s arms. Every sip of borscht makes you feel that Ukraine is united, that everything will be alright. It’s hard to explain, but it represents our unity, and our connection to our land.”
Despite the supply issues and the constant stress of war, Ievgen is optimistic and determined. “When the first bombs fall you’re afraid, but you quickly realize that the only way to live is to keep going. We have to fight to ensure a future for our families, just as our ancestors did. We’re all united in this effort, and that feeling of togetherness and solidarity is everywhere.”
“War changes your outlook; you understand the importance of family and the insignificance of fashion. What you’re wearing doesn’t matter, as long as you’re warm. You learn not to panic every time you hear an alarm, but just to follow the safety procedures. You learn the names of different military vehicles and airplanes, you learn the names of small towns you’d never thought about before which are suddenly on the front line. As a matter of fact, you learn the map of your country in great detail. But it’s not true to say that war changes everything. We have just taken everything we had deep within our souls and brought it to the surface, out of necessity. We’re doing everything we can to ensure the survival of country. That’s all there is to it: either we win, or there’ll be no Ukraine. So there’s only one way. We will win.”
Slow Food expresses its sympathies with all peoples affected by the war. The hope of thee association is that an immediate ceasefire agreement can be reached, and that this war finishes: for the good of the Ukrainian and Russian people, and for the entire world.
Together for slow food communities in Ukraine
Slow Food Communities in Ukraine need our help. They don’t want to abandon their lands and their animals; it would mean losing some of the best agricultural terrain in the country. The productivity of these lands—and their biodiversity—will be crucial for the nation’s eventual reconstruction. That’s why we’re mobilizing our network to raise funds for our Communities in Ukraine, as well as for those who have had to leave the country.
1 Occupied by the Russian military at time of writing – ed.
2Ievgen Klopotenko was also behind a drive last year to nominate borscht to a UNESCO list of the intangible cultural heritage of Ukraine, which in itself is a cause for tension with Russia, who also lay claim to it.
3As with the similar Cook for Ukraine initiative, Make Borscht Not War is a spontaneous, grassroots effort to show solidarity and raise money for people in need: both Ukrainian refugees abroad and people still in the country. There is, at time of writing, no official website for Make Borscht Not War, but the concept is simple enough: cooking borscht, and donating the money raised from selling it to groups working to help Ukrainians both inside and outside the country.