At first glance, the menu at Inshni (which means “others” in Ukrainian) looks like something you would find at any trendy new restaurant opening: there are dainty plates featuring modern twists on old classics, made with ingredients where provenance has been prioritised. For 455 hryvnia (about £12), you could start with a Ukrainian riff on a Caesar salad with Jerusalem artichokes, follow it with a catfish fillet in a lemon sauce with carrot puree, or get the meat dumplings with cherries. Then dessert might be a little dish of tomato jam with dark chocolate and sea salt.
The difference is that a chunk of the money you spend on your meal at this Lviv eatery goes towards buying the produce for “menu two”. This second “chef’s menu” is discreetly available free of charge to any of the hundreds of thousands of displaced people passing through the western Ukraine city from the war-torn east of the country. Menu two is packed with comforting old favourites like lasagne, shepherd’s pie, moussaka and hearty Ukrainian potato dishes, along with a salad and a proper pudding – often a Lviv cheesecake.
Anyone can request it, no questions asked. Diners are never referred to as refugees, says Ievgen Klopotenko, “because we don’t want them to feel like refugees, we want them to feel like normal people with normal lives”.
When war broke out on February 24, he knew he would be more useful in his chef whites than a flak jacket. “I’m much better with a knife; it’s like my front line,” says Klopotenko, a Ukrainian chef who has been a household name in his country since winning Ukrainian MasterChef in 2015.
Klopotenko’s war is playing out in the kitchen. He has turned over his restaurant in capital city Kyiv to the war effort – his staff now churn out 1,000 meals a day for the army – and three weeks ago, he travelled 373 miles to Lviv, where he opened a new restaurant in a small abandoned kitchen and began cooking free meals for displaced refugees. “It’s not a frontline where you shoot, but it’s important,” he says.
In the six weeks since Putin invaded, Ukrainians have mobilised a civilian army. Their military has expanded dramatically, of course, but this war isn’t only being waged with guns and tanks. Soldier or not, everyone has a vital role to play. Behind the scenes, lawyers work 24/7 documenting war crimes to present to the UN; on the ground, volunteer networks dig trenches and coordinate medical supplies, open food kitchens and work to get people out of besieged towns to safety in western Ukraine or out of the country entirely. Just two months ago, they all had jobs and lives. Now, for those who stayed behind, there is only one thing occupying their days.
When it became clear there would be a mass exodus of people to Lviv from Kyiv, Kharkiv and other besieged eastern cities, Klopotenko went looking for an empty restaurant space there. He found a café that had been lost to Covid and set about cleaning it up: “Five days later, we were open.” Now, they cater for around 150 paying customers and 200 refugees every day.
“They’re just coming to the restaurant and asking for menu number two. Every day I’m cooking for 200 people who cannot pay, but they can still have a restaurant dish – nice presentation, nice detail. It makes them feel they aren’t refugees who need to beg for their food. They are just coming and sitting down and saying, ‘Hi, can I have menu number two?’ and we’ll give it to them.”