An army marches on its stomach, Napoleon is supposed to have said, and to ensure that some of Ukraine’s finest soldiers can do just that, Zhenya Mykhailenko is cooking up a storm.
At a clandestine kitchen near the front line, five special forces soldiers gathered around a fridge packed with freshly prepared meals. They wore civilian clothes to preserve the secrecy of the site after Mykhailenko’s last kitchen was destroyed by a Russian artillery strike. Nobody was in it at the time.
Fuelled by his desire to help the army, Mykhailenko’s charity work is a prime example of the role that civil society has played in sustaining Ukraine’s war effort. His food speakeasy with blackout curtains in the south-eastern city of Zaporizhzhia, 50km from the front line, is also a tacit reproach of how the army looks after its soldiers.
On today’s menu: corn chowder, a cucumber and cabbage salad dressed with vinaigrette, three-cheese toasted sandwiches with homemade mayonnaise, a sliced pear for dessert and, for the main course, a choice of slow-roasted organic pork or pan-fried river fish in kombucha batter.
“People are made for different things,” said the 37-year-old civilian chef as the soldiers left with bulging carrier bags under their arms and a cheery bounce to their steps. “They are good at killing Russians. I’m good at cooking. It’s all part of the general shit show of this war.”
A burly figure with a flair for the dramatic and tattooed conversion tables for kitchen weights and measures up his arms, Mykhailenko was running his successful Food vs Marketing chain of ramen restaurants in Kyiv when Russia invaded last year.
“Kitchens are well suited to war,” he said, citing the French chef Georges Auguste Escoffier, inventor of the military-style “brigade de cuisine” division of kitchen labour that was first used at the Ritz hotel in Paris and Savoy in London in the 1890s.
Today Mykhailenko, who spends two weeks a month doing his charity work cooking near the front line, is a reminder of the need to keep troops well fed during wartime, when a full belly and high morale can be just as crucial to soldiers as their weapons.
“My main aim is to improve nutrition in the military,” said Mykhailenko, whose war kitchen is run by fellow volunteers and sustained by monthly crowdfunding drives.
“Many of the soldiers are disappointed that the government is not paying us to do this. We do it for free — nobody is paying us. But should it really be a charitable work to feed the military?”
He said that as the size of the army increased over the past year, little attention was paid to the competency of people cooking the food. “To be a cook is treated as a punishment by some commanders. Viewing it like that is like spitting in your own food.”
Mykhailenko pulled out a smartphone to show photographs of wasted army food — badly thawed meat that had to be thrown away, and rusted cooking equipment.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” he said — and his special forces clientele agree. Scrawled on a Ukrainian flag pinned to one wall is the message: “You are Kings of the Kitchen.”
Eating in wartime can be a emotive subject. Although food supplies ran short at the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Kyiv’s fanciest restaurants once again have Wagyu beef and caviar on their menus. Far away on the front line, however, soldiers often must settle for meals-ready-to-eat ration packs, called MREs.
Mykhailenko has tried many as part of a bizarre tasting menu.
Russian MREs are the worst, “not even dogs eat them”, he sniffed. “French MREs are the best and come with gel burners, which if you put together you can even use to cook. US MREs are good value, costing about $5 each. British MREs are OK. But the vegetarian options are poor: nobody bothered to make them delicious.”
Mykhailenko estimated that food costs alone for Ukraine’s roughly 850,000 troops and national guard are more than 30bn hryvnia ($1bn) a year, and that is “before administrative costs, salaries, transport and other logistics”.
This has provided opportunities for corruption. In January, revelations about an overpriced $350mn catering contract spurred President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to fire several high-ranking officials for alleged corruption.
“We have a brave government but not always an efficient one,” said Mykhailenko, who laid the blame for the food scandal on a lingering Soviet mindset that “corrupts everything it touches. New military and social nutrition systems need be put in place.”
On the positive side, however, defence contracts have given some food companies a way to save their business and support Ukraine’s war effort.
In the nearby city of Dnipro, family-owned food business National used to sell fruit juice to Russia under the ANI brand. Today, it makes 20,000 portions a day of food sachets that contain a rice porridge mixed with meat and vegetables, at a cost of about 40 hryvnia each.
“We are working for victory and, when that comes, we want to make food sachets for retail,” co-founder David Van said proudly. “We are considering a Bolognese sauce.”
Back at Mykhailenko’s undercover kitchen, another group of soldiers dressed as civilians arrived, eager for some homestyle cooking to relieve the tedium of their MRE diet.
His kitchen could make 10,000 meals a day if running at full tilt, Mykhailenko said, and he plans a second unit closer to the front line to shorten deliveries. Operating costs are $6,000 a month, not including ingredients, some of which are donated, like a recently delivered tonne of meat.
“Some of the guys have not been rotated off the front for four months. But you can’t live off MREs. For one, they clog you up.”
The lights suddenly went out, victim of sustained Russian attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Mykhailenko flicked on a flashlight and turned on a diesel back-up generator. His fridges powered up again and he readied for another day of cooking.
“The danger is that the longer the war goes on, the more that hate will eat away at us. That’s bad because then you start to underestimate the enemy — and the goal is victory.”