Olia Hercules’ kitchen is usually a sanctuary, a place where the Ukrainian chef and author tests recipes, writes award-winning cookbooks and feeds her children. Today it’s chaotic: toys underfoot, Ukrainian tablecloths scattered on the sofa, huge houseplants that need watering… but her priority is lunch.
She rolls out an oval of pasta dough – it’s perfect, silky and supple – and cuts it into ribbons, just enough for two. Given what she’s going through I’m amazed she can cook, let alone cook for guests. She offers the pasta, dressed with tomato sauce. ‘I have to make myself eat,’ she says firmly. ‘And if you eat, I will eat.’
Hercules was born in south Ukraine but has lived in the UK since she came here, aged 18, to study Italian and international relations. She became a chef – partly because cooking helped keep her connected to her home and family – and eventually a food writer and teacher.
In her books, particularly Mamushka and Summer Kitchens, she encourages us to appreciate Ukraine through food and stories. Her Instagram has always pulsed with colour – the pink-green stripy Ukrainian tomatoes she picks with her mother in the summer, jars of preserved beets, meals eaten beneath canopies of greenery. She posts short videos of her cooking too, always wearing one of her trademark Ukrainian scarves round her head.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, Hercules became more than a food writer, she became an activist, a warrior. That day she posted old black-and-white photographs of her maternal grandmother, who had been put on a cattle train in the 1930s and transported to Siberia, and her paternal grandmother, whose father – a cobbler – had been shot by Bolsheviks.
They then took his cow and his house and left his family with nothing. ‘You may be rattling your sabre,’ Hercules wrote, in the accompanying post, ‘but we have a million cloaked ghosts behind us, sharpening their scythes, waiting for you. These are my ghosts. They may be dead, but their spirit is within me… If they managed to overcome these horrors, trust me, we will resist your psychopathic tsarist ambitions.’
My spine tingled. I marvelled at this strength and started to check her posts several times a day. It felt as if she was on the frontline, even though she was in east London.
Hercules, 38, is stunningly beautiful, and usually has the most perfect red lips. Today she looks exhausted, and cries intermittently.
‘We really didn’t expect Putin to invade,’ she says, ‘it was a huge shock.’ She stops to take a breath and holds her head in her hands. ‘Despite what happened in Crimea, we didn’t see it coming. I mean, what is the justification for invading a country where people are just going about their daily lives?’ The sheer shock floored her.
Her parents were in Ukraine – her home town is Kakhovka, 80 miles from Crimea – together with her brother and endless aunts, uncles and cousins. ‘As I watched what was happening and talked to my parents every day I didn’t know how to live, how to exist with this horror. I could hear gunfire in the background when we talked. Sometimes I just shouted and cried. I told my husband I didn’t want to go on. At other times I felt the strongest I have ever felt in my life.’
She believes Ukrainians live with the trauma of their past: ‘Ukraine has always been attacked. It’s a corridor between Asia and Europe, it’s vulnerable. My whole life I’ve suffered from some kind of anxiety or other. It’s as if Ukrainians are born with this and hold on to it as a way of preparing themselves to cope. I get very anxious about small things, but I seem to have reserves for the big things. Do you know the word znyschyty? It means to crush a country. That’s what some Russians have been trying to do for years, to obliterate our culture and our language. We lived through Stalin, and we will get through this. In a sense I was ready. I’ve been preparing for this all my life.’
She plugged into these reserves, pushed aside the shock and replaced it with defiant energy. Her brother, Sasha, joined the civilian army to fight in Kyiv but had, like most Ukrainian men, no equipment except a rifle, and no training. ‘One week people were on their laptops drinking lattes. Sasha was working on his start-up. The next my cousins were making Molotov cocktails. My brother thought he could fight in jeans and track shoes. They needed vests, boots, helmets and radios,’ says Hercules. ‘I didn’t even stop to think about it, there was work to be done and that was that.’
Hercules didn’t set up a charity to raise money, she put the details of a PayPal account on her Instagram posts. ‘People said that I had to do things properly but there was no time for that. I needed to get money in.’
In just two days she had amassed £100,000 and the money was still coming. Wars are usually delivered through headlines and cold specifics – which towns are being bombed, the number of casualties – but Hercules reminded us that there were real people suffering in Ukraine, and she brought us their stories every day. The public had trust in her to do the right thing with their money. ‘I was overwhelmed by the response here,’ she says. ‘I’m in awe of the British people.’
Before long she had volunteers working round her kitchen table, answering phone calls and emails, helping the public understand how to donate. ‘People just came. They held me up, they worked with me,’ she says. A woman she didn’t even know brought her broth to help keep her strength up. ‘As soon as I tasted it, I was able to eat. I ate only that broth for weeks.’
Her life became a whirlwind of media interviews. She was photographed in her Ukrainian blouses – she had always worn these, it wasn’t just for this new role – with her hands on her hips, looking like the mamushkas, the mothers and grandmothers, the strong Ukrainian women she so admires.
The number following her Instagram account rocketed. She harnessed social media’s power to disseminate news, to raise money, to let people see what the real Ukraine was like, not a country of fascists as Putin would have you believe. She posted powerful videos speaking straight to camera, unfiltered and spontaneous. You could see how tired and traumatised she was. ‘I didn’t think about trolls or becoming well known,’ she says. ‘Social media was a way to communicate with people, so I did it.’
The most powerful thing Hercules posted during this time was a video of her brother in falling snow. He was speaking in Ukrainian so I couldn’t understand a word, and yet I could understand all of it. Sasha was smiling broadly, excitedly showing us his fellow combatants with their new equipment. This is what Hercules had achieved. I watched it through tears.
With her friends, Russian food writer Alissa Timoshkina and social-media influencer Clerkenwell Boy, Hercules established Cook for Ukraine. The idea was to hold suppers, organise cake sales, do any food-focused activity you could to raise money for charities working in Ukraine, including Unicef. It has raised more than £1 million.
Hercules got Covid, but within days she was posting pictures that showed Ukraine during an idyllic summer. Images of wars are unremittingly bleak, but she posted a Ukraine of sunflower fields, ripe watermelons and meadows. You could feel the warm lazy air and understand why Ukrainians are fighting so hard to hold on to their country.
When people living in the same region as her parents – journalists and activists – started being kidnapped she was terrified and pleaded with them to leave: ‘They were very stubborn. They didn’t see why they should go when they’d done nothing wrong. Mum has a B&B and my father has a company that makes agricultural equipment. They felt responsible for their employees. Then I learnt that they had received threats and kept this information from me. I had a hysterical attack, an anxiety attack I suppose you’d call it, on the phone to them. I told them I wouldn’t be able to go on if they died. I asked what would then happen to my children, to my family here. They gave in.’
Her parents’ exodus was slow. They had to negotiate 19 checkpoints. ‘My mum said she wasn’t scared but that she had never experienced such humiliation. She explained there were three types of Russian soldier, the ones who looked as if they were from the most deprived backgrounds, those who were so young they weren’t even shaving and, the worst, the very confident, older types who would goad you.’ At the last checkpoint one of these older men asked for her name, then asked again, slowly studying her passport, then said, ‘Why are you leaving?’
Her father drove for five days to get to Germany, where a family member had a small holiday home. Hercules flew there, arriving before they did, to cook for them. She made borscht, the Ukrainian national dish. ‘They had such pride,’ she says. ‘My mum told me that the house looked lovely and that, when the Russians came, they would find a well-kept home. She took only family photographs and small pieces of her embroidery – she hid the larger pieces. It was heartbreaking.’
With her parents safe she could get a little peace. Her husband, Joe Woodhouse, a food photographer and writer, had been holding everything together – their two children, family meals and Hercules herself. I got in touch with him during what looked like the worst period to see how she was. ‘There are swings from low to lower,’ he said. ‘We are learning to cope with this new norm every day.’
Hercules started posting pictures of outings with the children, looking happy, and of herself from the past – in Paris, in Italy – as if she was trying to hold on to who she had been before the invasion. With every post she talked about Ukraine. She needed to ‘keep Ukraine front of mind’. She managed to get her 13-year-old niece, who is now living with them, out of Ukraine.
Hercules is still delivering ‘human news bulletins’ every day, along with updates on the visa situation and advice on what food to buy if you’re welcoming Ukrainian refugees into your home. She gets a video from Sasha every morning. ‘It always arrives at the same time,’ she says. ‘7am.’
How, I ask, will this end? ‘I have read everything and watched everything I can about Putin,’ she says, ‘I don’t know whether he acts like this because he grew up in poverty, or whether it’s because a rat he’d cornered attacked him when he was a boy, and I really don’t care.’ I believe he loves Ukraine, I say, and that he had his honeymoon there.
‘F—k him,’ she says, swiping the air. ‘And Henry Kissinger with his idea of giving territory to Russia to end the war, f—k him too.’ She believes that, with arms from the West, Ukraine will hold Russia back. ‘But what I really want to see is Russians taking to the streets to protest.’ ‘I suppose they’re scared,’ I say. She bristles. ‘We’re scared! Ukrainians are scared! But if enough Russians protest, en masse, it will work. They can’t throw everyone in prison.’
She believes the war will be over by the autumn. What about the pundits who predict it will go on for at least a decade? She slumps. ‘I can’t contemplate that. Next summer I want to be in Ukraine. We have a huge family gathering, we call it “the summit”, where we all get together to talk and eat and drink outside underneath my mum’s vines. We’re going to be there.’
Her latest book was finished in 2021, when this crisis hadn’t been foreseen, but it’s uncannily apt. It’s called Home Food: Recipes To Comfort and Connect. Hercules was taught, by her mother and aunts, that cooking can be an act of defiance and self-preservation.
There are sublime Ukrainian dishes in this book, but recipes from the rest of her life too. ‘It’s about comfort,’ she writes in the introduction, ‘And about the connections we all make in life through our experiences of meals shared with those we love. That is what food, and choosing cooking as my livelihood, is all about for me.’
She dreams of opening a cookery school in Ukraine, near her home town: ‘When the war is over, I want to teach young Ukrainians to cook. Cooking and baking are restorative and we’ll need that.’
For now, she’s very much in the middle of this crisis. The house is unsettled. It has the sluggish pulse of burned-up adrenalin. She still doesn’t quite know how to live with what’s happening. How could she? But she keeps being pragmatic and has a lot of support. ‘There are going to be sunflowers here,’ she smiles as she opens the door to her garden. A friend planted them so she could have a bit of Ukraine in London.
‘This has changed me. I can’t imagine not being an activist now,’ she says. ‘I mean I used to pay attention to politics, and I voted, but that was it. Now I see what can be achieved.’ She knows that there will be a lot to do when the war ends. ‘Not just to fix the country and its infrastructure, but its people. A lot of them will be traumatised. We will need to start putting them back together.’ Her work, it seems, has only just begun.
Home Food: Recipes To Comfort and Connect, by Olia Hercules, is out on 7 July (Bloomsbury, £26)