Interview: How Russian-born chef Alissa Timoshkina co-founded Cook for Ukraine & speaking out against Putin

Russian-born chef Alissa Timoshkina spoke to LondonWorld about the significance of her friendship with Ukrainian Olia Hercules and the importance of being able to speak out against Putin.

Alissa Timoshkina and Olia Hercules have been close friends for over a decade, sharing their love of food and cooking.

Shortly after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the Russian and Ukrainian chef duo teamed up to launch Cook for Ukraine.

Russian and Ukrainian chef duo Alissa Timoshkina and Olia Hercules launched Cook for Ukraine together

Cook for Ukraine is an online initiative which encourages chefs, food writers, home cooks and restaurateurs to make Ukrainian and Eastern European dishes and raise funds for Unicef UK.

Since its launch the initiative has raised over £400,000 and has become a global movement.

Russian-born Alissa hopes that the campaign can become a symbol for unity and friendship during this humanitarian crisis.

The 37-year-old mother-of-one spoke to LondonWorld about the significance of her friendship with Hercules and the importance of being able to speak out against Putin.

Alissa Timoshkina is a Russian-born chef and writer

“When Russia first invaded Ukraine, Olia and I went along to the protest on February 24 and that’s where the idea was born,” she said.

“We wanted to put forward a powerful message by having a Ukrainian and Russian chef working together to raise funds for Ukraine.

“The campaign itself was based on a really successful campaign ‘Cook for Syria’ and both Olia and I have collaborated with them previously.

“I reached out to the people who run Cook for Syria to see if they could give some advice on how we can start Cook for Ukraine and they offered to work with us.

“In the first couple of days we set up our Just Giving page and it’s been amazingly successful since then.”

Russian roots

Alissa was born in Omsk, Siberia but has lived in London since 1999.

Her parents left Russia after the invasion of Crimea in 2014, although her grandmother remains in Siberia.

Having spent most of her adult life in the UK, Alissa says this has made her much more open minded.

“It was very useful to get some healthy critical distance from Russia but also I have chosen to study Russian history and culture professionally,” she said.

“I have a PhD in Soviet film history specifically about the Second World War and the Holocaust.

“I’ve always felt a bit alienated from the Russian mentality.

“Some values which we’re very privileged to enjoy in the West, gender equality, awareness of race and class issues, values like that in Russia don’t really exist.

“The language is very sexist, these kinds of small things never really sat well with me.

“That’s not a specifically Russian issue, it’s more Western values versus Soviet.

“Whenever I was old enough to make my own decisions I was extremely cautious, to put it mildly of Putin.”

The Salt and Time author said that thanks to her education she was able to gain an insight into how much more dangerous Putin was than Russians perceived him to be.

“Ever since I’ve been very cautious about it and more recently Putin started really clamping down on human rights issues for example gay rights,” she explained.

“There was a lot of anti-gay propaganda and to me that was really a big danger signal for me and I became vocal on social media and attended a number of protests here.

“I’m not personally part of the queer community but it really felt like an important issue.

“There are lots of Russians who don’t care, homophobia is a big part of the so-called Russian mentality and I did fall out with a lot of friends over that.

“That was about 12 years ago and it’s gotten worse and worse.”

Putin demanded that “unfriendly countries” which purchase Russian gas must pay in roubles. (Credit: Getty Images)

Speaking out against Putin

“Since the beginning of the war I’ve been really determined to make a case that not all Russians are supportive of Putin,” she said.

“But having seen the recent news of Bucha and seeing the way the Russian media is covering it, seeing comments on social media from pro Putin people, it’s really hard to keep that belief that it’s not all Russians.

“It’s really hard, I felt like I had found my way through this difficult ground but after recent events I’m completely baffled and shocked.”

When asked if she felt nervous about speaking out against Putin, Alissa said that she isn’t worried as she is a British citizen.

However she feels like she will not be able to return to Russia for a long time.

“Now in Russia it’s a criminal offence to support Ukraine even though I’m technically doing that in London as a British citizen, I wouldn’t feel safe going now that’s for sure,” she revealed.

“For now I’ve cancelled my second cookbook which was about a culinary trip across Russia.

“My grandmother is still there and I’m very close to her and it does seem quite heart breaking that I might not be able to see her again especially when I was going to go to Russia this summer.”

Ukrainian Borscht with smoked pears

Symbol of friendship and unity

Alissa says that the most important aspect of Cook for Ukraine is being able to spread a message of unity through her friendship with Hercules.

“I think the success of Cook for Ukraine is because Olia and I are Ukrainian and Russian friends,” she said.

“I think it’s the reason why it has touched people in the way that it has.

“I am Russian and I am full of hatred and rage towards my country for its involvement in the war.

“Specifically I’m seeing the unimaginable images of what they have done to innocent people.

“If I feel that I can’t imagine how the Ukrainian people must feel.

“I think specifically in times like these it’s essential to still talk about unity and friendship.

“Olia’s and my friendship has become more symbolic than we initially anticipated.”

You can support Cook for Ukraine and find all of Alissa and Ola’s recipes on their Just Giving Page. 

A message from the editor: