Few things bring people together like food.
As former MasterChef contestant Mandy Hall puts it, food is often the glue that binds us no matter the circumstances, and that is true even amid tragedy on a global scale.
"Food is what we do," she says. "In times of grief, in times of celebration, in times of death, in times of birth. Everything. Food is involved."
And so when Hall heard that London-based Ukrainian chef and food writer Olia Hercules was launching a campaign dubbed Cook For Ukraine – rallying foodies to raise money for displaced children via Unicef – she knew the Australian industry had to get involved, too.
The result is Hall's Aussie Hospo for Ukraine initiative, an online silent auction where you can bid for a range of meals and other treats, everything from top-shelf wines to dining experiences such as a meal for four at Shannon Martinez's Collingwood venue Smith & Daughters.
For Martinez, joining Hall's fundraising push didn't require a second thought.
We'll always do whatever we can, and I think that's across the board for hospo.Shannon Martinez
"I was instantly keen to help, we're all keen to help," says Martinez, who notes that even after the impact of the pandemic on hospitality, the industry is still keen to rally around a good cause.
"For us [the pandemic impact] doesn't even come into play. When you've got something like what's happening in Ukraine and what's happening in the Northern Rivers, what's happening to us as a business just falls away really.
"That's why we'll always do whatever we can, and I think that's across the board for hospo. Your whole job is to work with people and give people enjoyable experiences, and it's the least we can do when people have none of that."
The Aussie Hospo for Ukraine campaign has raised $10,000 in three days.
For Mandy Hall, it was hearing Olia Hercules's heartbreaking stories of her family in Ukraine that prompted her to step in and do something. The pair already had "an Instagram relationship" inspired by Hall's fermenting passion. Hall studied fermenting in the US before appearing on MasterChef in 2019.
"I was watching these stories come through [from Olia], her whole family is in Ukraine, her brother is going to have to arm himself but they don't know how. She can't reach her parents and doesn't know if they're alive. It was just so full-on. And feeling like I had some kind of personal relationship with her, it just hit me heavily. Listening to the stories of her brother and thinking, 'that's the age of my son'.
"So I thought I'd put something up because they're a generous bunch in hospo, despite all their troubles. They'll always dig deep."
For Melbourne restaurateur Boris Portnoy, the Ukrainian crisis has personal resonance. He was born in Moscow but left with his family for the US in 1989 as a child, before moving to Australia. Portnoy has organised a fundraiser to take place at Northcote Town Hall on Sunday, April 3 during the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.
"We are planning a market called Cook Bake Preserve Grow," Portnoy says. "We're going to have a collection of people who have answered the call. They will either sell [products] themselves or drop things off. We've had a really good response and I'm really happy. I think we need to keep this up, I don't want it to be gone in a 24-hour news cycle."
The proceeds from Portnoy's one-off market will go to the Jewish refugee organisation the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
"Everybody in the world is looking at [the war] and thinking, 'what can I do?'," Portnoy says. "A lot of people don't have the tools. We're in a position where even though we're small businesses, we can make quite a big impact together. Through the pandemic the food industry has really gathered together in pain and grief and I think that is carrying over from the pandemic to wanting to participate in something that is beyond ourselves."
Hall says another important part of the Cook For Ukraine campaign is encouraging people to cook Ukrainian food at home and share the results on social media under the #CookForUkraine hashtag as a way of raising awareness and showing solidarity.
"Not everyone's in a position to give, but giving does not have to mean money," Hall says. "Get in your kitchen and make a Ukrainian dish. The thought that goes into that means as much as putting your hand in your pocket."
Or as Shannon Martinez puts it: "People don't come together for much else, except music. But nothing does it like food and booze."
- Aussie Hospo for Ukraine silent auction items are displayed on Instagram at @AussieHospoForUkraine, or view and make a bid here.
- Click here to donate directly to Unicef's Cook For Ukraine campaign
- Cook Bake Preserve Grow market will take place at Northcote Town Hall on April 3.
- Cook a Ukrainian-inspired recipe: Braised borscht chicken with olive and dill dumplings