For many of us, nurture is associated with women. From mothers’ first milk to our grannies indulging us with weekend treats, our caregivers while we grow up are most likely to have been female.
I was raised by three women in Soviet Russia during the 1980s, when a small apartment often housed several generations. This made for a powerful connection between me, my parents, grandparents and great grandmother. I learned from them; sometimes I felt that I too had lived through the Russian revolution, war and Stalinist terror, so vivid were their stories.
My home education also included rich culinary traditions encompassing Russian, Ukrainian and Jewish cuisines, and my earliest and strongest culinary influence was my great grandmother, Rosalia. A Holocaust survivor, she fled Nazi-occupied Ukraine in 1942 and settled in Siberia where she lived until her death in 2003. She’d witnessed grave atrocities and great deprivation, but Rosalia was one of the gentlest and most generous people I’ve known. For most of her life, she worked as a cook in Soviet canteens – so while I would hesitate to call her a chef, she was definitely a feeder who continued to cook until her very last days.
This love of sharing food was passed on to me. I hadn’t considered a career in cooking until four years ago. At the time I was working for London’s Russian film festival (I’d studied film before), but often found myself down the rabbit hole of Instagram looking at food. I saw people – including my Ukrainian friend Olia Hercules – making waves with their cooking. Having noticed the trend towards less formal dining experiences, I wondered whether there might be a niche for a cinema-inspired supper club, and KinoVino was born.
We are all familiar with the paradox: acts of feeding are associated with women, but remain limited to the domestic realm, while professional cooking is dominated by men. But that is changing. The internet and social media have helped blur the boundaries between the private and public, and while the implications of this can be mixed, it’s definitely for the better when it comes to food – and to the visibility of women cooks. Look no further than Mazi Mas in Hackney to see a venture that’s training refugee women in London to put their home cooking to work in order to find employment and make a living.
Meanwhile, Britain’s food scene, once defined by high-end dining, now includes supper clubs and street food, which offer opportunities for homely meals and, often, recreate the intimacy of a family dinner (and let’s not pretend these aren’t usually prepared by women around the globe). This is certainly what I try to achieve with KinoVino, which usually features women guest chefs. A very special energy is created when women make a meal and lay the table together. It allows us to establish a symbolic link to those who fed us at the same time as making our mark professionally.
It was in this spirit that chef Romy Gill asked me to take part in her all-female charity dinner The Severn Sisters Feast in Bristol last year, in aid of Action Against Hunger. Rather than making a political statement, Romy wanted this dinner to be both a celebration of female talent and an opportunity for women in the industry to cook together. Each chef was invited to create a dish meaningful to her. The food that decorated the tables reflected the mixed backgrounds of the cooks in the kitchen: Ukrainian dumplings with British spuds, Siberian pickled mushrooms beside an Indian curry. The feast will visit London’s Borough Market on 4 October, adding Ghanaian and Greek cuisines to the repertoire.
Inclusive, diverse, non-hierarchical, and seamlessly blurring the line between professional and domestic cooking: these are the hallmarks of women who work together in kitchens. Everyone is as uniquely qualified to cook and have an opinion about food as they are to eat it. My great grandmother would never have called herself a chef, but I think that if she’d lived in the food culture that I do now, here in London, she’d feel more proud of cooking to earn her keep than she did.
Some 50 years separate Rosalia and me as two women making a living as cooks. She never had the chance to eat at a restaurant. So when I’m peeling onions with my kitchen comrades in Borough Market next week, she’ll be firmly in my consciousness.
Originally published in https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/sep/29/kinovino-supper-club-severn-sisters-feast-female-women-chefs-cooks-alissa-timoshkina