Ksenia Amber: "Everyone Wants to Help Ukrainians"

06 May, 2022
Chef Ksenia Amber

Photo: ©Barbara Lazzari 

“When everything started, I was in Kyiv. I was giving a couple of masterclasses to local chefs - the basics, knife skills, sauces… We had three days of classes planned but we were able to have just two, because on the 24th of February everything started. My brother-in-law called me early in the morning and said 'just jump in the car and get to Odessa'."

“So we jumped into the car with my husband and my sous chef and we drove for twelve hours, instead of the usual four from Kyiv to Odessa, because I just wanted to hug my family. It was stressful, because nearby on the roads, there were the tanks, Ukrainian tanks, but still we don’t see them every day.”

Amber used up all the produce in her restaurant to cook for the soldiers and civilians going to defend Ukraine, but then she had to close down everything. She started cooking with her mother from her apartment, trying to feed and comfort the lonely mothers and grandparents who had just said goodbye to their sons, grandsons and husbands heading off to the frontline.

“Because of the military situation, men of a certain age can’t leave the country. My husband can’t leave the country and my family are still in Odessa. My mother is still working and she doesn’t want to leave the country. My father is retired right now, but they have their house and garden and my mother is like ‘no, I will stay at home'.”

“My grandmother, when she was four she was a victim of the Holocaust and she is super shocked that this is happening now. Again?”

Like so many Ukrainians, Amber is alone, a stranger in a strange land, separate from her family, her beloved restaurant in Odessa, Slow Piggy, and her team. But she is first and foremost a chef, and chefs need to cook. She is using her culinary skills to help in the struggle to raise funds, working with José Andrés’ non-profit World Central Kitchen.  

Initially, it was the team at Jaxana restaurant in Tenerife, and Ukrainian chef Aleksey Prokopiv, who got Amber involved in the initiative to support Ukraine and raise money for World Central Kitchen. It has taken Amber from Odessa to the border of Romania and Ukraine, and on to Madrid and Santa Cruz. So far it has been successful, but also eye-opening for her.

“It was a shock for me, because all these strangers, people I’d never met before, were giving me so much support. They helped me to stay strong and that has been very important for us,” she says.

“All Europeans have given Ukrainians so much support it’s been crazy. I was in a refugee centre in Madrid, there were families there, and everyone wanted to help. Everyone wants to help Ukrainians. The Ukrainian people are so grateful, they appreciate it thousands of times over.

Next, Amber will travel to the Eurovision Song Contest, this year being held in Turin from 10-14 May. She will do five charity dinners with five different chefs – a fusion cuisine with Ukrainian traditional dishes. The chefs will play with the chicken Kyiv, the chicken cutlet, and share their experiences.

World Central Kitchen Hit by Missile Strike in Kharkiv

Nate Mook  in Kharkiv after missile strike

For all the weight of her recent experience, Amber is not jaded. She comes alive when talking about some of her heroes, met while travelling to do her charity work

“I used to live and work in the US so it is a little unusual for me to talk with European chefs. There is one chef, René Redzepi, that I saw - before I had only seen him on TV - and I was like ‘can I touch you’ and he was like ‘OK’."

Amber trained at the Culinary Institute of America, so she loves American chefs, but one, in particular, stands out. “Of course, Anthony Bourdain was my everything,” she says. “When I first started out he was the great adventurer."