When chef Anna Voloshyna closes her eyes, she can still smell the sunflower oil.
Before the fall of the Soviet Union, there were no supermarkets in Voloshyna’s small hometown in southern Ukraine. Imported foods simply didn’t exist. So growing up, everything from meat to cooking oil was made locally and sold at the farmer’s market. Instead of Mediterranean-grown olive oil, they produced oil from the country’s national flower, the sunflower. It’s the smell of home.
As the Russian invasion drags on, sunflower oil, like many Ukrainian products, is becoming harder to find, but at Voloshyna’s San Francisco home, food has never been more abundant. She and her mom, Voloshyna’s only family member with a U.S. visa that allowed her to escape Ukraine, have turned the kitchen into a hurricane of pampushki frying, rye bread baking, and crepe folding.
“The first couple of weeks [of the war] we couldn’t eat anything, but now there are constant feasts,” Voloshyna says. “Ukrainian food is a sense of comfort and a sense of home. Right now I want that comfort in my life.”
Voloshyna is arguably the best known Ukrainian chef in the Bay Area but she didn’t get there with a restaurant or a high-profile collaboration. She got there by connecting with the borscht-curious at intimate, family-style pop-up dinners that told the story of Ukraine through its foods.
“I think when you have some story to tell and that story resonates with people, you are able to create those wonderful connections that are actually meaningful,” says Voloshyna. And those connections weren’t just with the dishes on the table, but among the guests, too. “So many people met at our dinners, honestly I was thinking about opening a dating agency,” she laughs.
After a pandemic-induced hiatus, Voloshyna’s wildly popular pop-ups will soon return, bringing Eastern European culinary traditions to a new crop of San Franciscans. She’s already working on a pre-Soviet Ukrainian menu that shows off the identity and gastronomic core of the nation before it, like other Eastern European nations, were ”Russianized” by the colonizing superpower. “We will find that and start sharing it with the world,” she says.
In the meantime, Voloshyna continues to offer virtual Ukrainian and Eastern European cooking classes through Tastemade focusing on traditional eats like sour cherry vareniki, fluffy blini, and cheesy khachapuri. Those recipes and other favorites from Voloshyna’s dinners will appear in the chef’s first cookbook, Budmo! Recipes from a Ukrainian Kitchen, which she describes as a love letter to Eastern European food, especially that of Ukraine.
The title, Budmo, a Ukrainian word meaning “let us drink, let us be together, let us be healthy,” is also a nod to the cross-cultural culinary exchange that has shaped modern post-Soviet food.
“Since Ukraine was part of the USSR, a bunch of dishes traveled, like from Uzbekistan and Georgia; just like borscht, it traveled to Uzbekistan,” explains Voloshyna. “I wanted to show the core of Ukrainian cooking while telling the story of other dishes, as well.”
Ten percent of Budmo’s pre-orders (which are available now through publisher Rizzoli) will be donated to World Central Kitchen's efforts in Ukraine, one of the organizations for which Voloshyna actively fundraises. Since February, she’s organized regular #cookforukraine events, including food sales via Instagram and cooking classes through Tastemade, and donated the proceeds to organizations like Misto Dobra which helps unhoused women and children.
“At some point of this war I lost my hope because it was so much pain and so much distraction,” Voloshyna says. But despite the rollercoaster of emotions she experiences following events as they play out back home where her family remains, Voloshyna has been overwhelmed by the support she and the rest of the Ukrainian community, both inside the country and out, have received.
“I feel like this war has changed us. We started understanding what’s important in this life and what’s not,” she says. “I found my hope again with the power of community.