Acclaimed by big hitters such as Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Andi Oliver and Diana Henry, the ascent of Olia Hercules has been rapid since leaving her job as a journalist and retraining as a professional cook. With four astoundingly beautiful cookery books – Mamushka, Kaukasis, Summer Kitchens and the latest Home Food – which was published this year, Olia has also been a driving force in the battle for her homeland by helping to raise more than £1m for Unicef UK’s #CookForUkraine appeal.  

Where did you work as a chef and develop your skills?
My first job was at the Union Market in Fulham and I worked with Aaron Craze, who was one of Jamie Oliver’s alumni. I had always been a huge Ottolenghi fan so when my head chef told me there was a job going at NOPI, I applied. I had a trial with Sami Tamimi and I ended up at the Islington branch where I was chef de partie for about nine months. Yotam would always come on a Saturday morning to check the breakfasts and that was always a moment of trepidation for me. I had a huge love and respect for Ottolenghi.

How would you describe your cooking style?
The quality and seasonality of the ingredients are the most important things to me because that’s how I grew up with food in the Ukraine. We certainly didn’t have the choice that we have in the UK so it was all about making the best of ingredients when they were at their best. We were always making doughs and I vividly remember making filo pastry so they have definitely stayed with me in my cooking style. It’s all very ingredient-led – like a lot of the best Ukrainian dishes. It’s about having a fantastic in-season ingredient, whether that’s a vegetable or meat as a starting point, and allowing the flavours to be enhanced and shine. I would say I cook quite simple food.

How do you create new dishes?
I can cook creatively but to me the story behind a recipe is extremely important. It could be a recipe picked up on my travels, a friend’s recipe or something linked with my heritage and family. The story of a recipe is so important. Nowadays you can find pretty much any recipe on the internet – to me what makes recipes outstanding is if there is something deeper. It can be more anthropological – linked with history from a country or region or it can be a more personal story and that’s what really excites me.

What have you been cooking a lot recently?
It’s been all about rediscovering some great ingredients and dishes. I had a complex for a while about potatoes and cabbages because people would always say ‘Ukrainian food is nothing but potatoes and cabbage’. I would be saying – no we have lots of herbs, great seasonal veg, amazing meats and would be desperately trying to show people there was more to my country’s food. Now, I am embracing the noble cabbage and potato and you know what – they are the ultimate comfort foods that remain with us from childhood.

Do you have any long-term projects? 
I launched Patreon – a subscription service where I provide recipes and content to raise money for Ukraine in April and we now have almost 500 subscribers. In the short-term, the money we make from that is sent back to my hometown in Ukraine where I am supporting twenty two families. 

The long-term project is to use the funds to open a small cookery school in my hometown in Ukraine. I want to help to build up the community there and to give teenagers an opportunity to learn cooking and give them skills. I want to bring some chefs from the UK so we can teach the next generation of teachers.