Getting to know Olia

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Getting to know Olia

Ahead of her first Leiths class on 14th July, we catch up with Olia Hercules about the food she loves and her journey so far...

Working as a stylist for Guardian Cook... joining Yotam Ottolenghi's restaurant team... being named Observer Rising Food Star 2015... publishing her debut cookbook, Mamushka, and winning Best Debut Food Book in this year's Fortnum & Mason's Food and Drink Awards... Olia Hercules has achieved a huge amount since completing the Leiths Diploma in 2010!

Now, exactly two weeks before teaching her first class at Leiths (14th July), Olia tells us how it feels to be teaching others to cook the food she grew up with. 

How does it feel to be teaching your own class at Leiths?

Rather surreal in the most positive sense. Teaching my own class was never what I was aiming for when I joined Leiths, I just wanted to cook; to turn my hobby into my profession, into my life. I was prepared to do any odd job, as long as I was cooking. 

I remember washing dishes during Yotam Ottolenghi’s Saturday classes at Leiths, as a side job for some pocket money and inspiration. Now, I have actually worked for the man and written a cookbook of my own! I'm thrilled to be teaching at my beloved cookery school. It is a beautiful, hazy but also a very real dream.

Which three words sum up your Leiths Diploma experience?

Herculean, knowledge and confidence.

For people who aren't familiar with Ukrainian cuisine, how would you describe it and why do you love it?

It is all about the ingredients. Not just about buying them, but growing them too. Farm-to-table has become such a fashionable notion, but this is how I grew up, and this is what is amazing about Ukrainian food. Seemingly simple ingredient combinations, but the produce is so good - the flavours blow your head off.

Everything is very seasonal as well, we never had fresh vegetables in winter, only fermented (another buzz word! - I’m not complaining). There are incredible vegetables in the summer though - the best tomatoes in the world, delicious pork and cured pork fat, lamb and unbelievably good mountain sheep’s cheeses in Western Ukraine.

The cuisine is hard to pinpoint actually; Ukraine is a huge country and it varies from season to season and from area to area. You can’t throw all Eastern European cuisines into one basket, each country’s cuisine varies regionally.

If you could only make one of the recipes from Mamushka for the rest of your life, which one would you choose?

The green borsch - it’s a duck broth with fresh sorrel, spring onions, dill and a chopped hard boiled egg added at the end. It has everything a human needs to live and enjoy life.

Who are your food heroes?

Yotam Ottolenghi inspired me to give up my journalistic career and academia in order to train at Leiths, so he is definitely one of them, if not the first one.

Nigella Lawson and Diana Henry have both been a great support and inspiration to me; both talented, strong, and extremely kind women.

There are numerous others - Allan Davidson, Elisabeth Luard, Diana Henry, Francis Mallmann, Jeremy Lee... and many, many more! But I admire a lot of cooks; not all necessarily famous either. I am bound to love anyone genuine, with knowledge, dexterity, intelligence and a kind heart. 

We’re so pleased that you’ve received so much praise for Mamushka, congratulations! What’s next for you?

There will definitely be more cooking (hurrah!), more writing, I enjoy styling still (especially for Guardian Cook) and hopefully a lot more teaching - it gives me immense energy and inspiration.

Recipes from the Ukraine and Beyond with Olia Hercules will take place at Leiths on 14th July from 10:00 - 14:30. Book here.

Lily Grouse

Author: Lily Grouse


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