Anyone nostalgic about the Soviet Union would probably scoff at Ievgen Klopotenko’s comparison of shaking off communist rule to kicking Covid-19. “Don’t you look at it as just a period of your life?” asks the colorful Ukrainian chef. “Sure, it happened, but it won’t form the basis of your thinking in the future.” Just as Covid-19 robs sufferers of their sense of taste, Klopotenko believes that seven decades of stifling Soviet conformity damaged Ukraine’s culinary realm, where an otherwise eclectic cuisine was sidelined by simpler and less adventurous fare. Now, he says, the time has finally come for Ukraine to move forward and distinguish itself in the kitchen.
It has been seven years since the Maidan revolution prompted Ukrainians to seek a new national identity. Since then, public figures from politics to fine arts have all grappled with different ways to define Ukraine in the 21st century. For Klopotenko, the fast-talking 2015 winner of MasterChef Ukraine, the answer lies in food. By digging into the historical roots of Ukrainian cuisine, the 34-year-old is hoping to vault national dishes, long considered stodgy and uninspired, squarely into modernity. Through his restaurant in central Kyiv — as well as a public campaign to grant borsch official recognition as Ukrainian — Klopotenko is delivering a message to his compatriots (and the world): There’s plenty to be proud of in Ukrainian cuisine.
The evidence of Ukraine’s culinary excellence, says Klopotenko, is buried in the past. Once focused on scouring foreign cultures for inspiration, the Kyiv native, who sports a moustache and a shock of short, curly hair, now sees such departures as unnecessary. “We have everything of our own.” At the start of his journey, he threw himself into the precious few books he could find devoted to pre-Soviet Ukrainian cuisine — that is, before bland flavors and conservative ingredients took over. What he found was a rich array of dishes and cooking methods he never knew were part of his country’s culinary history.
His restaurant, 100 Years Back Into the Future, incorporates those elements with offerings such as fried honey bees — once believed to have medicinal properties — and catfish doused with beet sauce. Also surprising? That even the most seemingly mundane ingredients can make a dish distinctively Ukrainian. Take huslyanka, a Carpathian sour yogurt: Klopotenko says it stands out from its Greek or Turkish counterparts due to the local bacteria it contains.
Then there’s his battle for borsch. Last October, Klopotenko lobbied his government to ask UNESCO to designate the widely-known beetroot soup as Ukrainian cultural heritage. Predictably, the move set off yet another spat in the country’s multi-front conflict with Russia, which also claims the dish as its own. But the move is more than just about optics: Klopotenko says borsch, with its myriad geographic-based variations, is a unique reflection of Ukraine’s own diverse social fabric. Official recognition, he says, would be an important affirmation of that. “We’re all different — just like everyone has a different recipe — but we’re all Ukrainians, too,” he says.
Resurrecting Ukrainian cooking isn’t Klopotenko’s only pursuit. The chef has worked with Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, to reform school cafeterias and also beams out a weekly cooking show on YouTube. Yet ultimately, his boundless energy seems clearly channeled towards a central mission: to pull his country from the Soviet past and convince Ukrainians to take a chance on the future, whether that means stimulating taste buds or reinventing diets.
The outside world has already recognised his efforts: just last month, Klopotenko landed on a list of 50 up-and-comers shaping global gastronomy, compiled by the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants project. But the real question is whether his compatriots will take note too.
“If you just seal off [the Soviet] period in your head,” Klopotenko says, “then you get the Ukraine that was supposed to be and which could have flourished.”