Together against war: meet Ukrainian Olia Hercules and Russian Alissa Timoshkina, Champions of Change

Laura Price - 20/05/2022

As the conflict continues between their home countries, long-time friends Olia Hercules and Alissa Timoshkina have joined forces to raise more than £1m for relief efforts in Ukraine via the #CookforUkraine initiative. 50 Best meets the London-based friends, cooks and writers to find out how they are using food as a platform for peace

One is Russian, the other Ukrainian – not what one would consider a contemporary natural pairing. But not only do Alissa Timoshkina and Olia Hercules have a deep connection, a shared love of cooking and a lifelong friendship, they also share a mutual cause – one so powerful it led them to start a movement on day one of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

When Russia invaded its neighbour on Thursday 24th February, Hercules and Timoshkina met outside the UK Prime Minister’s office to join a protest against the war. In the run-up to that day, the two cooks had been in touch to share their concerns, including worries about Hercules’ family back in Ukraine, and emotions were running high. But as soon as the war started, they found the strength to take action, heading straight to London’s Downing St.

“Being there was an extremely emotional but also very powerful experience for us both,” says Timoshkina, a freelance food writer, chef, podcast host and curator who met Hercules almost 20 years ago when they were both studying in London. “We immediately knew we were going to come together and use the medium of food to speak out against the war and to help the people in Ukraine.”
The #CookforUkraine initiative raises money in support of people in need across the country

Later that night, they brainstormed ways to use their combined skills and knowledge, arriving at the idea for Cook for Ukraine, inspired by the Cook for Syria campaign founded by social media influencer Clerkenwell Boy in 2016. Using the same model as Cook for Syria, which both women had been involved with, the initiative has three main pillars to raise funds for Unicef UK’s Ukraine appeal, which has been supporting children and families with access to clean water, nutritious food and healthcare since the conflict first began in 2014.

First, people cook Ukrainian dishes and share them with the hashtag #CookforUkraine to encourage donations; second, they host supper clubs, bake sales and other food-related events to raise money. The third part of the initiative is where restaurants come in, adding a voluntary £1 donation to the end of each bill or creating a special Ukraine-related dish for their menu. In London, Nieves Barragán-Mohacho of Sabor teamed up with the Tayer & Elementary bar team for a special #CookforUkraine evening, while Ikoyi, Fallow and Sucre among others have all added donations to their bills. In the three months since the campaign began in collaboration with Clerkenwell Boy and his team, Cook for Ukraine has already raised £1m.

“I am very proud of what we've done,” says Hercules, who has been promoting Ukrainian food culture for many years via her cookbooks and articles. “It has been amazing to see people cook and comment. They have been writing letters and saying that they're learning about Ukrainian culture, and the campaign really has put a human face on Ukraine.”

Fighting for Ukraine’s culinary culture

While their fundraising supports people immediately affected by the war in Ukraine, Timoshkina and Hercules want to make sure their initiative carries on way beyond the end of the conflict, whenever that may be. With the Champions of Change donation they will receive from 50 Best, they plan to create a space in London where they will train Ukrainian refugees to work in hospitality, as well as offering cookery classes and inviting people from all over the world to learn about the country’s cuisine. They hope that while helping vulnerable people to earn a living, the project will also help keep Ukraine’s food traditions alive, highlighting dishes such as borscht and the sorts of homemade dumplings that Hercules grew up eating.

Find out more about Olia Hercules and Alissa Timoshkina:

“As heart-breaking as it is, [the war] gave us a really strong realisation that much more work needs to be done to educate people,” says Timoshkina. “Ukraine’s history and identity have been so misrepresented and misunderstood and we wanted to do something about that. We would like to start off with a creative and educational space where we host cooking classes and people learn more about Ukrainian cuisine, but also offer training courses and an employment scheme for refugees to work in the food industry here, with a café where people can go and have authentic, seasonal Ukrainian food.”

The café will also offer arts and crafts, another area they are championing under the hashtag #MakeforUkraine, and they would love to follow in Cook for Syria’s footsteps with a Cook for Ukraine recipe book. Further into the future, the friends would like build a food and culture hub in Hercules’ home country similar to the one they plan to create in London.

“I want to help build Ukrainian communities from within, in my own hometown in the south of Ukraine as soon as it's liberated, and also in western Ukraine, where I have connections with friends and fellow activists,” says Hercules, who was born in Kakhovka. “I want to help make communities stronger and to help people thrive once it's all over.”

But Hercules is realistic that a return to her home country won’t be possible for some time. While her parents have fled for Germany, her brother has remained in Ukraine to fight in the war. Her 13-year-old niece, Aysa, is now living as a refugee in London with Hercules and her two children.

“My parents have been going through a horrific time because my part of Ukraine is now occupied by Russian forces,” says Hercules, who left her hometown for Cyprus when she was 12 before living in Italy, then settling in the UK. “There have been kidnappings and threats and I eventually convinced them to leave.” Her mother and father are good friends with Timoshkina’s parents, who share similar political views and left Russia for Montenegro in 2015.

Champions of Change: Olia Hercules and Alissa Timoshkina in a nutshell
Cause: Supporting Ukrainian families and children affected by the war

Effect: A hashtag-driven campaign urging people to learn about Ukrainian cuisine, cook recipes, stage events and donate to Unicef UK’s Ukraine appeal
Achievement: £1 million and counting raised for Unicef, and heightened awareness of Ukrainian cuisine

What’s next: A food and education hub for refugees in London, a similar hub in Ukraine, ongoing promotion of Ukrainian cuisine and a possible cookbook
Final word: “My big, big dream is to set up a small cookery school in my hometown in Kakhovka in the south of Ukraine, whenever we’re able to go back” (Olia Hercules)

Interwoven identities

While Hercules and Timoshkina have the support and infrastructure of the Cook for Syria fundraising model, the two women already had all the right ingredients to make an impact, starting with a deep and complex connection spanning back generations. While Hercules is Ukrainian and Timoshkina is Russian, neither is 100% tied to one single identity. Timoshkina’s family comes from Siberia, but her great grandmother was Jewish-Ukrainian, so she feels a deep affinity with Ukraine’s culture and its people. Meanwhile, one of Hercules’ grandmothers was from Siberia, making their identities deeply interwoven. Both women have lived in the UK for almost 20 years.

When they met during their Masters degrees at Queen Mary University of London, Hercules was studying Russian language and English-to-Russian translation, while Timoshkina read film studies and Russian cultural history. They bonded over their family ties and a shared love of food, with Timoshkina’s great grandmother having worked as a cook, and Hercules coming from a family of great cooks and food lovers. Already firm friends, they went on to work for a Russian cultural foundation in London together.

It was during the global financial crisis of 2008 that Hercules began to question her job as a journalist and decided to turn her love of food into a profession. She retrained as a chef, working in restaurants such as Ottolenghi before bringing out her first cookbook, Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine and beyond, in 2015.
The pair met in London while studying at university and became friends thanks to their mutual love of food

Around the time of Hercules’ career change, Timoshkina also turned her passion into a profession. While working on a PhD in Holocaust and Soviet cinema, an interest sparked by her own family’s expulsion from Ukraine during the Holocaust, she started a supper club called KinoVino, pairing food with cinema by picking dishes that would go with a particular film. She welcomed strangers into her home to eat food cooked by Hercules, her first guest chef, who at the time was raising money for Ukraine in response to the conflict in Crimea.

While Hercules went on to write more cookbooks, Timoshkina started catering for private events while exploring her interest in Russian cuisine and delving deep into fermentation, a building block of Eastern European and Russian cuisine. In 2019, she wrote her own cookbook, Salt & Time: Recipes from a Russian Kitchen, and in 2020, after having her first child, she launched a podcast called MotherFood, exploring “the seminal importance of food in our lives and its ability to nourish and look after ourselves and to bring us pleasure and comfort”. When the war in Ukraine began earlier this year, Timoshkina was planning a trans-Siberian culinary journey to interview people for her latest cookbook, but the conflict has put a hold on the project.

“The idea was to travel through Russia, collecting recipes from my family and relatives, then updating them and giving them my own spin,” she says. “It will be a kind of anthropological study as well as meeting people in different regions, learning more about their origin, their family roots, what kind of foods they grew up eating. It was a super exciting moment of falling in love with Russia and its culinary culture again. Then, of course, 24th February happened, and all of that changed completely.” Some of the people she planned to interview for her cookbook have now fled Russia after opposing the war, but she hopes to resume the project at some point.
Hercules and Timoshkina lead cooking classes to teach people about Ukrainian cuisine

Giving a voice to underrepresented cuisines

While Hercules is suffering from grief, Timoshkina is also grappling with complex emotions, feeling “deeply ashamed” of Russia while being “so proud” of the Ukrainian people and even questioning her Russian identity.

“I feel very conflicted about projecting an unproblematic, positive image of Russia right now,” she says, referring to her cookbook project. “But at the same time, I want to give a voice to those amazing people who are affected by the regime in this war, who also losing their lives as they know it. They have incredible stories. There are so many ethnicities within Russia that are not being given enough voice to, as well as languages that are not acknowledged. And of course, the cuisine reflects that as well, so I want to talk about that.”
Borscht is a traditional Ukrainian dish made with beetroots and root vegetables

For now, the focus is on promoting Ukrainian cuisine to help support people in Hercules’ war-torn home country as best they can, at the same time as looking after their own families and each other. While the war could have torn a hole in their friendship, it seems to have only made their unbreakable bond stronger, proving that love – and food – can conquer all.

“What we're doing with the Cook for Ukraine campaign has brought us probably even closer than before,” says Timoshkina. “We've never felt so aligned with what we want to do and how we're using our knowledge and experience of food, but also our knowledge of history and culture, to come together and speak out against the war and raise funds.”

Visit Cook for Ukraine to donate and find out how to support the cause.

Champions of Change recognises and celebrates unsung heroes of the hospitality sector who are driving meaningful action and creating blueprints for a better world. It is part of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022 awards programme, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, and the evolving 50 Best for Recovery initiative.

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