Ukraine’s most famous chef, the ebullient Ievgen Klopotenko, is acclaimed for reviving old recipes from before the Soviet era and serving them up to a fashionable crowd in his award-winning Kyiv restaurant, 100 Rokiv. His signature dish is Borsch – the hearty vegetable soup that’s enjoyed across Eastern Europe and Russia, but which Klopotenko asserts originated in Ukraine.
In February, before his country went to war, Klopotenko explained to correspondent Holly Williams that Ukraine and Russia, while they have shared history, are moving in very different directions. “Yeah, we are running,” he said. “We want to show to the world that we are Ukrainians. We are not Russians.”
“Yeah, we’re different, totally different.”
But even then, more than 100,000 Russian troops had massed menacingly along Ukraine’s frontier. “It’s our territory and it’s, like, they will never let us go, never let us go,” Klopotenko said.
Just nine days later, Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered his army across the border. Part of Putin’s justification for the carnage was that Ukraine didn’t really exist as a nation.
100 Rokiv closed for just three days, before re-opening as a military canteen.
By July, Klopotenko’s restaurant was back in business. Russia’s army had failed to capture Kyiv, and this past summer, there was a strange peace in the Ukrainian capital. Life looked surprisingly normal.
Klopotenko told Williams, “You don’t know very well when you will be dead, because rockets can fly in every second. So, you have to live your life and you have to do the best what you can.”
“Live for the moment?”
“Yeah. Trust in the army and do the best what you can.”
Klopotenko was just as frenetic as before – and he’d kept busy with another project. He succeeded in lobbying the United Nations to list Ukrainian Borsch as an endangered cultural tradition. “This Borsch means that we are fighting back,” he said. “It’s not the Borsch of the Russian Federation; it’s only ours, Ukrainian Borsch.”
He gave Williams a lesson in how to make it, starting with blood-red beets.
“You have to have passion!” Klopotenko said.
Williams laughed, “I’ve got passion for eating!”
One of the great ironies of Putin’s invasion is that it’s made many Ukrainians more certain of their national identity, more adamant that they are not Russian.
And the war’s made Ievgen Klopotenko a roving cultural ambassador, travelling the world to promote Ukrainian food, including at an international culinary fair in Paris. It’s not a role that he aspired to before, but he told Williams it’s his way of defending his country.
“If soldiers will come back from the war and there will be nothing, for what they’re fighting?” he said. “They’re fighting for the good life.”
“You’re fighting for your identity.”
“Yeah, that’s it. We feel that we are different. We are strong, we have our music, we have our religion, and we have our food. And that means that we are Ukrainian.”
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Story produced by Erin Lyall. Editor: Mark Ludlow.
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