Ever since the Euromaidan revolution in 2014, which toppled the corrupt and Russia-leaning government of Viktor Yanukovych, the business and gastronomic culture in Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv has been booming. The number of new restaurants, cafes, bars, and coffee shops grew all over the country by the day, it seemed, and a new generation of local chefs was reinventing Ukrainian cuisine, reinvigorated in part by the fall of the corrupt political regime and the common struggle away from Russia and toward the West. And — most importantly for a country very much used to home cooking — Ukrainians started to dine out.
In late 2021, even with the COVID-19 pandemic, the first wave of fine dining, chef-led restaurants opened in Kyiv. Volodymyr Yaroslavskyy’s Chef’s Table, a high-concept, open-kitchen restaurant, saw Yaroslavskyy channeling art through gastronomy, a vision he shares with his fellow chef Eleonora Baranova. Mirali Dilbazi’s Mirali only used local and seasonal ingredients produced in Ukraine, and strived for a no-waste approach. Those restaurants joined other hotspots like the Kyiv Food Market, a buzzy food hall that debuted in 2019, and Ramen vs Marketing, a local chain of ramen shops launched in 2016.
The brutal and unprovoked Russia-waged war, which started on February 24, put that growing scene to a sudden stop. Occupying forces are encircling Ukrainian cities, bombing residential buildings, maternity wards, and churches; more than 2.8 million Ukrainians have fled the country thus far, with thousands of civilian casualites. For many Kyiv citizens, it’s all about survival now, and chefs and line cooks are among the residents being recruited into a citizens’ army. And they are determined to fight.
“The only thing that matters now is to stay alive and safeguard our land,” says Yaroslavskyy, speaking on the phone from his other restaurant, Lucky Restaurant Vinoteque, which his team has reorganized into a volunteer hub. Every day, Yaroslavskyy’s team of five or six cooks prepares food for 150 to 200 people, working with volunteers from other Kyiv restaurants to provide hot meals for those in need. Teams at Ramen vs Marketing and the Kyiv Food Market are also cooking for military and volunteer groups, churning out tonnes of meals a day. If you’re in Kyiv and not drafted at this point, you try to be useful in any way you can. For chefs, it’s feeding the military and the emergency services.
Just 10 days prior to the Russian invasion, Yaroslavskyy was cooking a Chef’s Table dinner he described as “special” and “really close to his heart.” For years Yaroslavskyy, a longtime judge on the Ukrainian MasterChef, has been at the top of the local restaurant industry: He co-founded Lucky back in 2015 and he has a massive TV and social media following.
The special dinner was the first in a series of art-inspired meals, and every single dish on this kick-off menu would represent a certain style of ballet, starting with classical and ending with contemporary. Neoclassical ballet inspired a minimalist twist on cannoli; the Russian ballet of Soviet times was playfully expressed with creamy mashed potatoes and black caviar, all inside of a burnt whole potato served on a piece of coal-looking wood. Contemporary ballet was represented by dessert of handmade ice cream, apples, fermented cabbage, and dill.
When I speak to Yaroslavskyy not even two weeks later, that dinner seems like a distant dream, another life even. Gone are Chef’s Table’s fancy concepts and ingredients; Ukrainian kitchens that provide food for servicemen and volunteers work as brigades now, with life-and-death consequences, and a strict vertical chain of command. Yaroslavskyy says that the war makes him appreciate the proper education he got in Poltava, where he worked at the cafeteria for the massive Turbo-Mechanical plant. “They had this huge canteen there that served 7,000 people back in the day. I did not serve that many of course, it was more like 2,000 people in my time. But that was a great practice for this moment,” he remembers.
Zhenya Mykhailenko, the founder of Ramen vs Marketing, came back to Ukraine from the U.S. on February 18, 2014, a date that marked the start of the bloodiest period of Euromaidan protests that took lives of 107 protesters, now known collectively as the Heavenly Hundred. “I came back, went straight to Maidan [Kyiv central square], saw all the corpses and the flames there. That was some tough shit,” remembers Mykhailenko.
For six years in the U.S., Mykhailenko kept himself busy, working at “probably 20 to 25” different restaurants in the Los Angeles area, but he knew he had to go back to Ukraine when the revolution started in late 2013. In the six years since Euromaidan, he managed to open a ramen shop that set the standard for Kyiv food scene and scaled it up to six restaurants all over the city. But then Russian invasion destroyed the system Mykhailenko’s team of investors built, literally overnight.
“This situation now is almost exactly the same as the one when I decided to come back to Ukraine,” he says. “It’s reinforced actually. Because now we have even more things that we have to fight for. We also have this incredible vibe and unity in the whole population.”
Mykhailenko lets out a strong laugh when I ask him about the first day of the Russian invasion. “First couple of days everyone was panicking, everyone was running around, trying to help everyone. And that crazy volume of wanting to help created a huge mess. So I had to make everyone stop. At one point I said that we’re not gonna do a single delivery today, we’re just gonna breathe.”
After a few days sheltering in one of his restaurants, Mykhailenko decided that the only way for his team to help was to work with the Ukrainian army. “I was just trying to look for stability. And the best place you can find stability is the military,” he says. For the two weeks of war, he has been living 24/7 at one of his restaurants, now fully reorganized as the chain’s volunteer headquarters. The name of the center is Dumbledore’s Army, “the Harry Potter reference, but more about fighting Putin’s Voldemort,” he laughs. For security reasons Mykhailenko can’t go into specifics, but he says he’s proud to serve Ukrainian special forces, developing a menu using the American army’s special operation forces nutrition guide as a reference. There’s borsch and Ukrainian pork fat salo on the menu. His team is working with tonnes of food supplies now; his ex-wife back in the U.S. has organized a FundRazr campaign to support the work.
“I feel absolutely no difference between being a chef and supplying the military. Because it’s basically the same groundwork for restaurants to work in wartime and in peace. The only difference I feel — and the one that really bugs me — is that you really have to sacrifice quality, you have to sacrifice everything that makes your dishes pretty to volume and calories,” Mykhailenko says. He pauses. “But then I see how happy the soldiers are when I feed them, and it’s okay.”
For Alex Cooper, co-founder of the Kyiv Food Market along with Mykhaylo Beilin, his space is uniquely attuned to the moment. The food hall is a spacious, cathedral-like place in the building that used to belong to Kyiv Arsenal, which started manufacturing weapons in the 18th century. For the last couple of years the industrial site was being redeveloped and revitalized, but now, it works in wartime capacity again. These days the market portion of it serves 10,000 dishes per day to support Ukraine’s military, hospitals, police and security forces — with capacity to double these figures soon. “That’s like seven or eight tonnes of food a day. And we only have like 44 cooks now,” Cooper says.
What Cooper is planning next is way bigger: He has a goal of providing 1 million meals a day for Ukraine’s army and emergency services, setting up industrial-level kitchen equipment to optimize the production line. Cooper and his partners Beilin and Andrii Rodiontsev have already bought four trucks to deliver food and supplies, and they’re also looking into expanding into canteens and hotels, places that are designed to feed large groups of people.
On March 7, Cooper’s team delivered crabs and lobsters to Ukrainian servicemen; the seafood bistro at Kyiv Food Market had some shellfish in stock, so out they went to boost soldiers’ morale. “Crabs and buckwheat, that’s not bad, huh?” Wartime rationing can wait for now. “We just had a big hummus supply so tomorrow soldiers will eat hummus bowls. We’ve also heard that there’s a warehouse near Kyiv that has a shitload of cod. That’s settled for the next day then,” Cooper says. He adds that he’s been amazed by Ukrainian society’s response to Russia’s invasion. “The number of people volunteering in Kyiv now is astonishing. It’s not only us, everyone is trying to make a difference. It goes to show the lengths we’re willing to go to defend our land.”
Mirali Dilbazi never had a chance to say goodbye to the eponymous restaurant he was building for the last two years. He had to flee Kyiv abruptly, and only later came the realization that everything he worked for the last decade had been lost. “It was a six-hour trip in a cold, cold train. You try to look through the window but what you see is your whole life that flashes before your eyes. For me it was the restaurant opening, some precious moments with my team. And it’s all gone now,” Dilbazi says as his voice cracks.
An Azerbaijan native who’s lived in Ukraine since he was five, Dilbazi would be the first to admit that his restaurant is at the very end of the priorities list in times of war. When he launched Mirali in November 2021, it marked the biggest opening of the year in Ukraine’s restaurant industry.
“It’s all gone now,” Dilbazi tells me in early March, mere four months after he opened the restaurant’s doors. He reminisces about what the spring menu was supposed to be: perch tartare with black caviar, black currants, and green currants; pumpkin fettuccine; chawanmushi; Black Sea sturgeon served with sea buckthorn, fermented asparagus, and pear. The last service was on February 23, in the early stages of the spring menu launch. “We were planning to develop this new dish the next day, it was actually a twist on blood sausage, deconstructed in a form of parfait. My cook named it ‘Bloody Cheesecake,’” he recalls. Putin’s bloody war on Ukraine makes it all seem quite surreal.
It feels distant now, yet Dilbazi, currently safe in western Ukraine, is determined to help the best way he can — using gastronomy. Mirali and Elena Lisitskaya, the restaurant’s chief of guest experience, are organizing a series of dinners in European restaurants to try and raise awareness and money for Ukrainian humanitarian efforts. They’ll start with a number of collaborations with Berlin restaurants, Michelin-starred Nobelhart & Schmutzig and a joint dinner with Billy Wagner being the first. “Billy was the first one to confirm. His support means the world to us. He’s also contacted chefs all over Germany to join,” Lisitskaya says. They also reached out to Matt Orlando at Amass, where Dilbazi interned, so the next city will hopefully be Copenhagen. “We’re glad to be of any help, it would be great to raise awareness by doing the things we know how to do best,” adds Lisitskaya.
Dilbazi and Lisitskaya have also sent an open letter to the 50 Best Restaurants team, supporting its decision to ban Russia and move the 2022 ceremony from Moscow to London. At the same time Dilbazi says that he was struck by the lack of reaction of the international gastronomic community to the Russia-waged war — and not only from Russia-based chefs. “I’m done with reaching out to Russian chefs, we never got any basic human decency from them. But I’ve seen a lot of chefs from Europe saying it’s all politics.” It’s not politics, it’s human lives we’re talking about here, he adds.
I keep going back to Yaroslavskyy’s ballet-themed dinner, which I attended; the running joke of the evening at our table was that ballet was a telling sign of things to come. Back in 1991 when the USSR was about to collapse, the Soviet regime put out the Swan Lake ballet broadcast on national television. It was supposed to calm down the nations all over the “prison of peoples,” as the Soviet Union is widely known in Ukraine. But it actually registered as the last act of desperation by the Evil Empire. Is there any chance Yaroslavskyy’s ballet dinner might be a sign of the next iteration of the Russian Empire falling? “Yeah, that would be great, but in the meantime, we have to defend our land,” he says matter-of-factly.
The war negates the progress Ukrainian chefs had made, and forces them to adjust their goals: For chefs like Dilbazi and Yaroslavskyy, their prewar goals were to revolutionize Ukrainian cuisine. “Sadly I believe that there would be no need for something like Chef’s Table in Ukraine for the next few years,” Yaroslavskyy says. “We’ve had some trouble explaining why a dinner in Kyiv might cost 100 euros then, and it would be even more of a struggle after the war. At least for a couple of years,” he says. No lobster salads for now, Yaroslavskyy instead shares with his Instagram followers recipes for homemade bread.
“Best-case scenario — we’ve lost a year or two because of this war,” Dilbazi says. Dilbazi opines that Georgia is a good example of a country overcoming Russian invasion and opening itself to the world, using gastronomy specifically. “It will get back to normal, there’s no other way. But we will have to start over after the war,” he adds calmly.
Zhenya Mykhailenko also sees a lot of positives for Ukraine when the war ends. “Everybody understands that Ukraine is not Russia now, which used to piss me off so bad. For about six years when I lived in the States, when I told people that I was Ukrainian they replied: ‘Oh, you’re from Russia!’ And I said: ‘No, I’m from Ukraine, you prick!’ And now I won’t ever have to use that reply again.” There’s only one problem on the way: “Now all we have to do is destroy this fucking Russian army.”
Yaroslav Druziuk is deputy editor-in-chief at The Village Ukraine. He’s been covering the Kyiv food scene and Ukrainian restaurant business for the last five years.