As war rages in Ukraine, a Russian restaurant in America serves as a 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 amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. El-Wattar cooked with his mother growing up in Moscow, picking 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 of New Mexico, completing his formal training at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York. Birch & Rye is his first restaurant.
I opened two weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. No one could have foreseen this. I certainly couldn’t have. It was so humiliating for me to think of myself as Russian after the consulate in San Francisco was closed in 2016 due to Russian interference in the US election. When someone asked me where I was from, I paused before answering. You 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 be proud of my culture. So it’s very ironic because two weeks after the opening, we are talking about a collective shame.
Heartbreaking doesn’t even describe that experience. It was absolutely overwhelming. Ukraine and Russia are very close cultures, and we share a soul. I am sincere. We have many similarities in food, culture, language and history. As painful and complicated as it was, the idea that the Russians could invade Ukraine was unthinkable to me.
It took us a few weeks to even realize what was going on. We were so shaken up that we didn’t even know how to tell 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 someone asks what’s going on? From day one, we took a very strong stance against the Russian government and the invasion of Ukraine. But are we entitled to any pride, or is it just shame? How do we introduce ourselves?
My great-grandparents came from Ukraine. Originally, we were Jews from Ukraine, and my great-grandparents immigrated to Moscow. So I definitely have Ukrainian blood in me. I don’t have any relatives in Ukraine as far as I know, but my sister has a lot of friends there. She happens to be a Ukrainian scholar who did her doctorate in Ukrainian history in Odessa.
My brother and my father had to flee Russia because they opposed the war, and they didn’t know if there would be a lockdown, and all the airports were closing. There were no flights to western countries. They were to fly to Turkey and then to London. My brother has two small children and they just didn’t feel safe. Just overnight they left everything and took the flight to Turkey.
Every day, I have very touching and sincere encounters with guests who come to share their stories. Some are direct stories, like their family members in Ukraine. Some are much more nuanced, and so it’s become a safe place for people to come in and share their thoughts on this war. And because it was so emotional for me, often they start crying, and I start crying with them at the table. At first I was so embarrassed, but I couldn’t help it. I have Ukrainians coming to tell me how grateful they are to have something Russian they can relate to. I have Russians who come to tell me how sorry and responsible they feel, and ask me what they can do.
This human response is very healing for people. I didn’t sign for that at all. I thought my biggest challenge was how to modernize the Russian menu. I had no idea that I would be in this position of sometimes psychologist, sometimes priest, and sometimes ambassador. I feel so honored and I think it’s such an important place for people to come and heal a little and have a little hope.
If someone boycotts us, I don’t know because we’re busy. I have my own theory, but I think because we stood up for Ukraine, we stood up for what’s right—maybe that’s our blessing. We defended democracy. We stood up for what I think the Russians should stand up for. We have been so clear and articulate in our protest against these atrocities committed by the Russian government. We haven’t had any negative feedback from our guests so far. Customers come in and see the sunflower, the national flower of Ukraine, blue and yellow ribbons around every vase, stickers on our front door and windows, and every one of our cars. And the most important thing is that they feel our heart.
A lot of Americans don’t understand the level of interconnectedness we have and what a special kind of betrayal that is against Ukraine because we were so connected. I was very committed to educating staff, both front and back of house, around empathy and really listening to people and standing very strong for what we think to be fair. This may have been our saving grace.
What I see is that the real loss for Russia in this war is that it loses its soul. Only a soulless country can behave like this towards another country. For me to have hope, I can only imagine a kind of Russia that I try to embody here in this restaurant. An inclusive, non-violent organization open to dialogue and pro-democracy. We have embodied these qualities in our culinary culture from day one. When we started building the DNA of this restaurant, I wanted total inclusion, kindness, understanding and the healthiest restaurant culture. I didn’t know I was preparing for something bigger, but it was important for me to lay that foundation for the restaurant because I knew I was overcoming a lot of prejudice against my culture.
I recently hosted a five-course collaborative dinner to raise funds for World Central Kitchen and Ukraine with Dominique Crenn. I reached out to Dominique because I knew she had a big heart and really cared about me, and I knew it would be so meaningful to have her support. She’s been such a good friend and she’s 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 helped her friends from Odessa move through Poland and into Germany. She came from London to attend this event and support me. We raised $108,000 that night, but I’m still thinking about what more I can do.
We have a drink on the cocktail menu, Les Fleurs d’Olena, named after the First Lady of Ukraine and made with linden blossom and linden honey. One hundred percent of the profits are donated to Médecins Sans Frontières. In July, I’m working with a Ukrainian chef in San Francisco, Anna Voloshyna, to host another fundraising dinner, serving a half-Ukrainian, half-Russian meal with pre-Soviet recipes. Anna told me her dream was to have a long table along the Russian-Ukrainian border, but we can do it at Birch & Rye and create a symbol for it. We try to embody and emanate the kind of qualities that we want Russia to manifest.