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While War Rages In Ukraine, A Russian Restaurant In America Serves As Hopeful Refuge

Anya El-Wattar is chef-owner of Birch & Rye, a modern Russian restaurant in San Francisco’s Noe Valley that opened in February 2022 against a backdrop of Russia invading Ukraine. El-Wattar cooked with her mother during her childhood in Moscow, foraging for mushrooms at their rural dacha. She moved with her family to the United States at the age of 18 to study Russian literature and philosophy at Columbia University before studying food as medicine at the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico, completing her formal training at New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute. Birch & Rye is her first restaurant.

I opened two weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nobody could have anticipated this. I certainly couldn’t have. It was so humiliating for me to think of myself as being Russian after the San Francisco consulate was shut down in 2016 due to the Russian meddling in the U.S. election. When somebody asked me where I was from, I would pause before answering. You just never know how that person feels about you given the circumstances. This collective shame has been a theme of my immigration experience. Birch & Rye was originally conceived as a way to find pride in my culture. So it’s all very ironic because two weeks after we opened, talk about a collective shame.

Heartbreaking doesn’t even describe this experience. It’s been absolutely soul-crushing. Ukraine and Russia are very close cultures, and we share a soul. I’m being sincere. We have a lot of similarities in food, culture, language, and history. However painful and complicated it has been, the idea that Russians could invade Ukraine had been unthinkable to me.

It took us a few weeks to even realize what was happening. We were so shaken that we didn’t even know how to talk to our customers about it. We had meetings to discuss how we should talk to the public. We’re here to represent Russian culture, but what do we say if somebody asks about what’s happening? From day one, we took a very strong stance against the Russian government and the invasion of Ukraine. But do we have a right for any pride, or is it just shame? How do we show up?

My great-grandparents were from Ukraine. Originally we were Jewish from Ukraine, and my great grandparents immigrated to Moscow. So I definitely have Ukrainian blood in me. I don’t have any relatives left in Ukraine that I know of, but my sister has a lot of friends there. She happens to be a Ukrainian scholar who did her PhD in Ukrainian history in Odessa.

My brother and my father had to escape Russia because they opposed the war, and they didn’t know if there would be a lockdown, and all the airports were shutting down. There were no flights to Western countries. They had to fly to Turkey and then to London. My brother has two tiny kids, and they just did not feel safe. Just overnight they left everything and got on the flight to Turkey.

Every day I have very touching and heartfelt encounters with diners that come in and share their stories. Some are direct stories, like their family members are in Ukraine. Some are much more nuanced, and so it has become a place of safety for people to come in and share how they feel about this war. And because it’s been so emotional for me, many times they start crying, and I start crying with them tableside. At first I was so embarrassed, but I just couldn’t help it. I have Ukrainians come in and say how grateful they are to have anything Russian that they can relate to. I have Russians come in telling me how heartbroken and responsible they feel, and asking me what they can do.

Chef-owner Anya El-Wattar at Birch & Rye restaurant in San Francisco. Photo: Erin Ng.

This human response is very healing for people. I didn’t sign up for this at all. I was thinking my biggest challenge was how can I modernize the Russian menu. I had no idea I’d be in this position of sometimes a psychologist, sometimes a priest, and sometimes an ambassador. I feel so honored, and I feel that this is such an important place for people to come in and heal a little bit and get a little bit of hope.

If anyone is boycotting us, I don’t know because we’re busy. I have my own theory, but I think that because we stood up for Ukraine, that we stood up for what’s right—maybe that’s been our blessing. We stood up for democracy. We stood up for what I believe Russians should stand up for. We were so clear and articulate about our protest against those atrocities from the Russian government. We have had no negative feedback from our diners up to now. Customers come in and they see the sunflower—the national flower of Ukraine—blue and yellow ribbons around every vase, stickers on our front door and window, and every one of our cars. And what’s most important is they feel our heart.

Many Americans don’t understand the level of interconnectedness that we have and what a particular kind of betrayal this is against Ukraine because we were so linked. I was very strong about educating the staff, both front of house and back of house, around empathy and really listening to people and really strongly standing for what we believe is right. Perhaps that has been our saving grace.

What I see is the true loss for Russia in this war is that it’s losing its soul. Only a soulless country can behave this way to another country. In order for me to have hope, I can only envision a kind of Russia that I am trying to embody here in this restaurant. One that is inclusive, nonviolent, open to dialogue, and pro-democracy. We have embodied those qualities in our kitchen culture from day one. When we started building the DNA of this restaurant, I wanted to have total inclusion, kindness, understanding, and the healthiest restaurant culture. I didn’t know that I was preparing for something bigger, but it was important for me to lay this foundation for the restaurant because I knew I was overcoming a lot of prejudice against my culture.

I recently organized a collaborative five-course dinner fundraiser for World Central Kitchen and Ukraine with Dominique Crenn. I reached out to Dominique because I knew she had a big heart and really cares, and I knew it would be so meaningful to have her support. She’s been such a good friend, and she has such a big influence in the community. My own sister came as a speaker, and she cried during her presentation. She moved to the German border and was helping her friends from Odessa to move through Poland and into Germany. She flew here from London to be at this event to support me. We raised $108,000 that evening, but I still think about what more I can do.

We have a drink on the cocktail menu, Olena’s Flowers, named after the First Lady of Ukraine and made with linden flower and linden honey. A hundred percent of the proceeds goes to Doctors Without Borders. In July, I’m working with a Ukrainian chef in San Francisco, Anna Voloshyna, to host another fundraiser dinner, serving a half-Ukrainian, half-Russian meal with pre-Soviet recipes. Anna told me that her dream is to have a long table along the Russian-Ukrainian border, but we can do this at Birch & Rye and create a symbol for that. We’re trying to embody and emanate the kind of qualities that we want Russia to exhibit.