Community Award

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Winner: Olia Hercules

A regular fixture on Saturday Kitchen and Sunday Brunch and one of Ukraine’s most celebrated chefs and food writers, Olia Hercules has been at the forefront of British hospitality’s response to the Russian invasion of her homeland. Before the war, Hercules trained at Leith’s Food and Wine and went on to publish three popular cookbooks – with another imminent. She won the Observer rising star award in 2015, and the Fortnum & Mason Award for best debut cookbook a year later. Today, Hercules’ work is concentrated on raising vital funds for Ukraine’s war effort against Russia, most notably through the Cook for Ukraine campaign, as well as championing the nation’s cuisine and culture across Europe and around the world.

For more than three months now, you’ve been leading UK hospitality’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the war still ongoing. How are you feeling?

The Ukrainian diaspora here and around the world has come together. It’s been powerful and affirming to witness. People in the UK have also been amazing in supporting us.

Before, you speak to your family, your friends. Perhaps I branched out more because of my book and media work in the past. The war has brought everyone together. In that sense it’s good.

You seem to be finding positives, even in such dark times?

Social media has really helped us connect with people, here and around the world. The situation is desperate, and sad, and I’m not sure I can find the words. I’ve been talking about it so much.

But yes, social media has helped us reach so many people and spread a message – it’s an amazing thing to see people unite. We’ve been campaigning and fighting and it’s so important we have a voice.

Could you share an example of your recent work?

Recently, I had to find medicine for my aunt. Volunteers stepped in to answer my appeal online almost instantly.

After war broke out, we were also trying to help families stuck in refugee camps. Posting online meant that within a couple of hours someone in Germany stepped in to help. It’s been hugely inspirational.

And Cook for Ukraine specifically?

Cook for Ukraine is going well. We’re going through trauma. But we’re feeling the support people have shown. We’re grateful.

In my hometown, there’s a Russian van driving around shouting propaganda from megaphones. They’re saying, ‘The Ukrainian Government has forgotten you. Give up hope’. It’s horrible – so getting together, organising, and building this network has been vital for us here and in Ukraine.

Do you feel a weight of responsibility because of your profile?

I feel a massive responsibility. I had a media profile before but Cook for Ukraine has had an impact. It’s hard to navigate, and it’s hard to orchestrate various things. But it’s what I and we must do – all we can do is keep going.

Writing about people and getting to know others is also rewarding. I think the more we speak, the more people can empathise. Community values unpin it all. And that’s true in hospitality – we’re a community and together we’re doing what we can.

What’s next for you, and for Cook for Ukraine?

We’re going to continue. I can’t imagine not being involved in activism. My work preceded the war – but of course it’s a far bigger role now.

I have a new book out this month (July) too and will be cooking on TV, teaching people how to cook Ukrainian food. It supposed to be a joyous thing but it feels a bit shit… a bit weird.

But no doubt it’s been great to see Ukrainian food play a role in raising awareness and raising funds?

Yes of course. I also hope to do something practical in London in September for refugees who want to retrain. I hope to build a space for people to learn – I’ve got big plans.

When the war is over, hopefully I can return to my hometown, and bring people from the UK to visit. I’d love to open a cookery school there and build a bridge between the food scene here, and the food scene there. Something sustainable. A big dream of mine is to help kids from schools and provide them with training. More than anything, it’s time to think about rebuilding. We have to be strong.

A message from the award sponsor

Saira Hospitality is a non-profit that partners with hospitality brands to educate and empower local communities. Their raison d’etre is to support local people into local jobs via expert-led hospitality schools that teach essential skills to those who are far from the job market and may have otherwise been overlooked by the industry. 

The non-profit sources students via partnerships with local charities, mentorship schemes and government organisations that share their values and wish to increase employment opportunities in their local area.

Saira Hospitality’s work allows operators to build stronger, more meaningful connections with their local communities whilst developing a new sustainable pipeline of talent. Their work instils skills and confidence in students, taking them through a tailored curriculum that is proven to create personal growth and lasting careers for graduates. 

Having worked globally since 2014 in destinations such as Namibia, Mexico and the US, on May 16th 2022 Saira Hospitality opened the doors to its first London school in partnership with nine innovative hospitality brands including The Hoxton, Nobu Portman Square, citizenM and Pan Pacific. On October 31st Saira are launching their second school with more industry leading names.

Read more about Saira here

Read this year’s full list of our 100 Most Influential Women in Hospitality here

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