Editor’s note: The Kyiv Independent isn’t sharing the names of the restaurants in this story for security reasons.
Before the war, this restaurant in central Kyiv was always packed, no matter the time of the day. It was a popular spot among creative youth and foreigners.
In usual times, it served Beef Bourguignon and Kyiv Mule cocktails, but the war made changes to the menu. Now the restaurant bakes bread for hospitals and cooks chicken soup for defenders of the city.
This restaurant is among dozens in Kyiv that shut down for customers but opened their kitchens to volunteers to help the country amid war.
The place is hardly recognizable from its days of partying. The decorations are gone, and the windows are covered with black fabric.
But just like before the war, the restaurant is a magnet for young people. Volunteers come here to cook for those in need. Helping the country in the company of like-minded people helps them cope with the tragedy of war.
As volunteers pack meals for delivery, a reminder of the restaurant’s normal life comes through: the techno music playing from the speakers.
A ladle instead of machine gun
Pavlo Khrobust, 25, used to work at a restaurant as a cook but quit not long ago. The war brought him back to the familiar kitchen – now, as a volunteer.
“At first, I wanted to join the territorial defense forces,” Khrobust said. “But I realized that I am useless there. I started thinking what use I could be of and figured – it’s cooking.”
“Instead of a machine gun I grabbed a ladle and a knife,” he went on.
The quality of army food is far from restaurant dishes, Khrobust said. He wanted to change that and provide soldiers with healthy and tasty meals.
“Considering the intensity of physical activities of the soldiers, they require food different from what they have in the army, something more delicious,” he said.
“Good food keeps the spirit high,” Khrobust said, “The soldiers do everything so we can sleep at night and we do everything for them to be well-fed.”
He came up with a balanced menu, which includes vegetables, porridges, soups and sometimes, fruit.
Oleksiy Bilyk, 21, gives it a final touch -- freshly baked bread.
“Someone said they can bring a lot of flour if we can make something out of it. I thought of a huge pizza oven we have in our second restaurant and realized we can use it to bake bread,” said Bilyk, a waiter.
He taught himself to bake taking lessons on the internet. At first, he did not have baking forms, so he used plates and pots instead – the bread was of various shapes.
“We delivered it to the hospitals and to lonely seniors. We would pack a few small buns,” he said.
Now Bilyk bakes around 80 loaves a day, something he could not have imagined a few weeks ago. He never baked before the war started.
He was unable to join the army due to an issue with his documents, so he was happy to be able to help in another way.
“I learned something new. I did something to help. And I feel relieved that I can be useful,” he said.
Olga Romanchuk, 23, also had to learn new things.
A land specialist in an international company building windmills, she now helps out in the kitchen.
“I felt that I wanted to help, but I couldn’t bear arms,” Romanchuk said.
“So, I thought I can cut potatoes, everyone can,” she said.
Teaching volunteers to cook was the biggest challenge, said Khrobust.
“There are IT specialists here, there is a girl who is a chemist in a laboratory,” the chief cook said. “We had to teach them, so it was a lot of work at first,” he went on.
But a couple of days later, they were already a team.
Restaurants uniting in a bid to help
The restaurant is among a dozen eateries in central Kyiv that joined efforts to help Ukrainian civilians and the military amid the war. Together they produce around 20,000 lunches daily. And that is just one group of restaurants in one neighborhood.
“During this tough time, we all managed to unite. It's such a Ukrainian thing, our strong side is to unite,” Vlada Herasimchuk, 25, said.
Herasimchuk is a waiter and now a coordinator of the volunteer movement of the area.
“There are many open kitchens in the center,” she said. “Many people took on roles of coordinators. We collect inquiries all over the city and pass them along to one another to make logistics more convenient.”
The restaurants also share groceries with each other.
“We also have volunteers who have cars and who are ready to help (with deliveries),” Herasimchuk said.
Despite the threat of shelling, the volunteers have been coming to the restaurants to cook meals for those in need for over a week now.
“There is a very interesting thing I just realized,” Herasimchuk said, “Ukrainians are very hardworking people. All people here, it’s necessary for them to be doing something.”