When the war in Ukraine began in February, Parachute and Wherewithall chef Johnny Clark wanted to do something to help. In March, Clark — a Ukrainian American — participated in a fundraiser and joined more than 80 Chicago chefs. Wherewithall also offered two weeks of Ukrainian-inspired menus to raise proceeds for a nonprofit — but once that came to a close, Clark realized he wanted to do more.
“Two weeks wasn’t enough time within a standard restaurant model to raise the amount of funds we were hoping to — I wanted to do something that would center on the cause itself,” he says.
In researching ways to get involved abroad, Clark came across BlueCheck Ukraine, an initiative started by Ray Donovan actor Liev Schreiber that identifies, vets, and fast-tracks urgent financial support to NGOs providing critical assistance to those impacted by the war. After contacting Shreiber, Clark hatched an idea for a semi-permanent showcase for Ukrainian culture inside Wherewithall’s detached private dining space. Anelya, a weekend pop-up that starts this week, pays tribute to Clark’s grandmother. Anelya Ochatchinskiya arrived in America in 1946 after being liberated from Germany, where she worked at a Nazi-controlled hospital during World War II.
“In all of the stories she shared with me in what she had survived — childhood malaria, the Holodomor famine, a Polish cleanse in which she lost her father, World War II, and the labor camps, two bouts of cancer — I looked to her as a superhero when I was a kid,” says Clark. “I was always intrigued by her culture and asking more about it.”
The team has created a homey space for Anelya featuring a 12-seat communal table. Upon arrival, guests can enjoy a cocktail hour and zakuski (hors d’oeuvres) before sitting down for a dinner showcasing shared and individual plates. Diners have the option to linger longer for post-dinner drinks or tea while enjoying the space.
“We thought it would be meaningful to hold Anelya in a smaller space like this — an atmosphere that can hopefully spark conversation around Ukraine while feeling like you’re at someone’s home,” says Clark.
It’s through Clark’s grandmother that he learned about dishes like Ukrainian head cheese and borscht, which serve as inspiration for the menu he’ll be putting forth at Anelya. He’s also enlisting the help of Marina Yakush, a Ukrainian refugee who has recently relocated to Chicago after years of working in Ukraine’s food industry (most recently as head of the Ukrainian Creative Chefs Summit).
“My country is suffering now, and I want to help,” Yakush says. “At Anelya, we want to promote Ukrainian culture and further financial assistance to those who are in need. We’re hoping these dinners will be a journey through Ukrainian culture, showing how the country has changed over time.”
The menu will feature five dishes and will change each week to highlight different regions. “I don’t think many people realize that each region of Ukraine has a very diverse history and that the flavors across the country are so varied,” notes Clark. “They span everything from those found in Polish food to those in Middle Eastern cuisine — places like Georgia or Turkey.”
Opening weekend is the only exception to the team’s regionally rotating menu, as they’ll be kicking things off with revised Ukrainian favorites — items like borscht and vareniki. “We’re hoping to help shift people’s perception on some of these traditional plates — borscht, for example, is so much more than just boiled soup,” Clark says. “I don’t know that many people have had an experience yet with delicious Ukrainian food, and we’re hoping to change that.”
Clark says it’ll be all the easier to feel connected to the culture amidst the dining room’s artwork — Clark partnered with the Ukrainian Museum of Modern Art to receive works from several Ukrainian artists, all of which will be available for purchase.
For Clark, it’s just one more way he and the team can help shine a light on a community that has often been overlooked.
“We’re excited to introduce people to how we arrived at these dishes, drawing from how Ukraine’s cuisine has evolved and its resourcefulness in times of trial,” he says. “It’s a learning experience for me, and a chance to reconnect and rediscover this culture — and I hope we can give that to everyone joining us at the table.”