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Five minutes with award-winning author, activist, and alumna Olia Hercules

If you enjoy Ukrainian cuisine, you may own a copy of Olia Hercules’ (BA Italian and International Studies, 2006) recipe books. But, you may be surprised to hear that Olia’s journey started not in the kitchen, but in the corridors of Warwick.

“My parents were always keen for me to study business so I could find a good job and Warwick was known as one of the best universities. I received a politics award at school, and I loved languages, so I opted for a degree that brought it all together. The course was a mixture of languages, literature, and humanities.

“Both my parents and grandparents were excellent cooks, and my year abroad in Italy played a big part in my development in every sense. I was surrounded by the language, culture, and, most impactfully, great food. It was my first experience of cooking for myself as an undergraduate, living with Italian flatmates who influenced me. They cooked with such ease.

“I spent a summer working as a waitress in a small restaurant in Sicily. One of the chefs produced a dish that looked like naked spaghetti. It was so simple – just fresh pasta with a little sea urchin mixed through. It was my first-time tasting urchin and I still remember the salty/sweet flavour. Without knowing it, a seed was planted!”

Olia completed her degree in 2006 and worked for an Indie film distribution company before landing a job at Screen International as a journalist. But the financial crash in 2008 led her to quit her job and pursue her dream to cook for a living.

From chef de partie in a busy food hall in Fulham to an award-winning author, food stylist, and chef, Olia turned her passion into her profession.

“My first cookbook Mamushka was an ode to my family; Summer Kitchens to the food and flavours of my homeland.” Mamushka was almost ten years ago, and I feel just as much love and passion for what I do. Perhaps more.

As well as finding her passion for food, it was her years at Warwick that shaped her into the person she is today.

“My school years were ok, and my teenage years – the ascent into adulthood – felt strange and exciting in equal measure. But it was my university years that were truly formative. My degree was stimulating and the things we studied had a profound effect on me and came at a time I was forming my own sense of self. And the politics and international relations aspects of my degree are relevant in my work as an activist today.”

Olia’s passion for food and justice permeates every part of her life.

A day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Olia came together with friend and fellow chef Alissa Timoshkina and founded the #CookForUkraine movement, which has raised more than £2m for charities including UNICEF and Legacy of War Foundation. And while the conflict continues, so does Olia’s determination to support her country any way she can.

Olia’s online cookery school and community celebrates the food of her country and features cookery videos, content, and access to a group of like-minded people. A percentage of the money raised goes to the families in her hometown of Kakhovka, in southern Ukraine.

“My life would not have panned out the way it has without the first stepping stone at Warwick. Skills I acquired – like writing, research, a love of language – all weaved themselves into the author and advocate I am proud to be today.”

Image credit: Joe WoodhouseOlia sits at a table packed with bowls of fresh vegetables

From chef de partie in a busy food hall in Fulham to an award-winning author, food stylist, and chef, Olia turned her passion into her profession.