Restaurateur Savva Libkin on how war has changed Odesa

Restaurateur Sava Libkin is convinced that people always like good food, both in peace and in war.
Restaurateur Sava Libkin is convinced that people always like good food, both in peace and in war.

Savva Libkin, owner of famous Odesa establishments Dacha, Kompot, and Tavernetta, talks about how the war has affected him personally, how the city and its residents have changed, and how to deal with Soviet culinary heritage.

Restaurants in Ukraine have faced a lack of staff, rising prices, produce shortages, limited business hours, and a fall in revenue during the war.

NV: How has the war affected your business and you personally? What problems have you faced?

Libkin: I will start, perhaps, with the most painful and difficult aspect. Four of my employees have already been seriously injured in this war and will remain disabled forever.

The second aspect is that, unfortunately, due to flaws in the system regulating departures abroad and corruption, some of the men who worked in the company left Ukraine. I don't know how exactly they did it, but I know that some of them – alone or with their families – left the country forever. The result has been losses for our company and our country.

The third aspect is that everyone in the company, including me, has been traumatized by war. I see how employees and restaurant guests shudder at sudden loud noises. For example, if a motorcyclist drives along Kateryninska Street and suddenly hits the throttle, absolutely everyone shudders. The same thing happens if a plate falls on the floor. I think the reverberations will be felt for a long time. And we will all need time to recover.

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As for how the war affects business, we have been focused since the very first days on providing food for the defenders of Odesa’s skies – our air defense troops. This is very motivating and uplifting for our employees. After all, they understand that this is their small personal contribution to a great cause and an opportunity to keep our skies safe. This keeps the team in good shape, which in turn helps sustain and support our business.

On the other hand, the company's resources are constantly being depleted. But we work, feed, and serve our guests so that they are satisfied and receive the same quality service as before the war. We make sure we consistently serve tasty and quality meals. That is why we have a good number of visitors, even matching pre-war levels. But, unfortunately, I cannot say the same about profits. So far, they are at about 30% of pre-war levels.

People often talk about the lack of personnel, but we have managed to fill almost all our vacancies. To the extent there are any shortages, they are far from the most important positions. Of course, now the main share of employees are women. There are very few men in the company, and they understand that eventually they will go to serve [in the military].

As for how the war has affected me personally, it depresses me that, unfortunately, the information about the war is quite contradictory. During this time, many Telegram channels have appeared which publish blatant nonsense and spam. I have always believed that working with information is one of the most important resources, which, unfortunately, receives rather dubious attention. Therefore, I decided to abandon regular reading and viewing of information and news sources.

The only thing I allow myself is to look at some of The Washington Post and The New York Times to understand how the West sees current events, and once a month I turn on a single television channel and listen to a selection of news for 15 minutes. The rest of the information I get is mostly related to communication with other businesspeople and people in my inner circle.

NV: Did you ever think of closing your business completely or at least mothballing it?

Libkin: Closing a business means losing that business. Because the restaurant business is about people from both sides: guests and employees. All the rest are just buildings and premises that have nothing to do with business. By keeping our business running, we keep employees and guests. That is why my team and I never had any thoughts of shutting down.

NV: During the war, some restaurateurs opened establishments in western Ukraine, particularly in Lviv. Have you also thought about expanding your business and opening an establishment in western Ukraine?

Libkin: I have not made such attempts yet. My team and I have been focused on ensuring that our business in Odesa not only survives but remains healthy. Now my team and I are thinking about opening another restaurant, which will also be in Odesa.

NV: Why don't you leave the city for a safer region?

Libkin: Where is the safest region in the world now? In my [social] circle, the idea that World War III has already begun comes up endlessly. And with this in mind, I have a question: what place is safe now? Indonesia? Australia? The North or South Pole? Perhaps a yurt at the pole would be a safe place, but there I would be a polar bear, not Savva Libkin. I will be Savva Libkin exclusively in Ukraine and Odesa. I identify myself with Ukraine. But as soon as I cross the border of Ukraine, I turn from Libkin into a two-legged, two-eyed, and two-eared creature. And when border guards in Poland or Germany talk to me, I have the feeling that I owe them something. No matter what documents I show them, they make it clear: you are just a refugee. And I'm not very interested in refugee status. I don't want to run.

Emotionally and psychologically, I feel better and more engaged in Odesa without electricity or internet than in Barcelona with light and heating.

NV: In that case, which day during the war was the worst for you (other than February 24, 2022)?

Libkin: The most difficult moment was on April 23, 2022, when a rocket hit an apartment building in Odesa. It killed my former co-worker, her child, and her mother. It was a very painful event that hit right in my heart. And we have to live with this.

NV: And which day was the best?

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Libkin: Every day is my best day. I know how to enjoy every day one hundred percent. At heart I am an artist, photographer, and creative mind. Therefore, just walking around the city and seeing what is happening around it is already a holiday for me. I draw positivity from walking from home to Tavernetta and back, or walking over Arkadia. I get the feeling that I am in the best place.

In addition, I constantly work on content creation, which in itself is pure creativity. And the process of creating this content clears the head beautifully. This is what makes every day wonderful.

NV: How has Odesa changed during the war, in your view?

Libkin: If we are not counting the anti-tank barricades that sometimes lay about the city and have long become a decoration that traumatizes residents, Odesa in particular has not changed in any way.

I was in Kyiv recently, and there is the same thing there. Endless barbed wire in the most inappropriate places, checkpoints, and people in uniform checking documents. Obviously, now it is necessary. But, in my opinion, anti-tank “hedgehogs” have become an [art] installation in Odesa and Kyiv.

NV: How do locals experience bombing? How many people are left in the city?

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Libkin: As an example, I will say that on the morning of July 23, 2023, I saw the results of the nighttime missile strikes, – when the Transfiguration Cathedral, the House of Scientists, and a building in the city center were partially destroyed. This was a very strong blow for me. Therefore, it is difficult for me to imagine what a trauma it was for the whole city and for every resident who was in this place during the attack.

As for whether there are many people in the city, you don’t see anyone on the beach, but there are a lot of people at Arkadia and on Deribasivska. And these are not people who were here before the war or 10 years ago. These are people who ended up in Odesa for various reasons, including those who were temporarily displaced. They are our new residents.

NV: Have you noticed how the culinary preferences of Odesa residents and visitors have changed during the war?

Libkin: People always like good food. For example, adults and children are equally happy when they are served delicious cheesecakes. Both before the war and now.

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For 30 years now, I have been convinced that a well-cooked chicken patty with perfectly cooked mashed potatoes and a spoonful of buttered green peas is a dish of genius in any restaurant in the world. Therefore, when guests get to Kompot, they write to me that they missed it very much.

At the same time, I didn't think that I would associate Ukrainians with mashed potatoes, but it turned out this way. At the recent Kyiv International Economic Forum, a 40-year-old man approached me with a discussion about meatballs and mashed potatoes. The conversation was pleasant and important to me. After all, he spent 30 years of his life making the food associated with childhood and the food of the nation.

NV: For a long time, restaurateurs used nostalgic aesthetics for the interiors and in the menu of their establishments, harkening back to the Soviet Times, but this is now no longer en vogue. In your opinion, what should be done with our Soviet culinary heritage?

Libkin: I'm not a fan of narratives, as they work both ways. There is nothing wrong with Olivier salad if it is prepared according to a traditional recipe. And it had nothing to do with the Soviet government in principle. It is not the dish's fault that in Soviet times it was made into some kind of poison with boiled sausage and bad mayonnaise. The dish is not responsible for this.

Guests at Dacha can try a traditional Olivier salad: with crab meat, partridge, and homemade mayonnaise. And there is not a single Soviet molecule in this salad, and there never was.

As for herring under a fur coat, it's actually a wonderful combination of salty herring and sweet baked beetroot used by the best restaurants in the world. Whatever you call it, this type of dish is available at the famous Scandinavian restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, from star French chef and restaurateur Paul Bocuse, and from Austrian chef Wolfgang Puck.

There are several other famous combinations, such as beetroot and goat cheese, or beetroot and taleggio cheese. But for some reason, there are no narratives for these combinations, but for the combination of herring and beet, [Soviet] narratives were invented.

NV: How else do you attract guests’ attention at your establishments? Especially when tourists Odesa are under threat of Russian attacks.

Libkin: I give guests a one hundred percent feeling of peace, tranquility, and home. I am sure that Kompot one hundred percent feels like home to them. After all, we give guests everything that they get at home, at a time when, for example, power is out or there are some other troubles. The same applies to those who were forced to move to Odesa because of the war. After all, their life is not settled here. But it is enough to go to Kompot, and they can count on a certain level of service.

NV: In your opinion, what will Odesa and its people be like after the war?

Libkin: I would like the residents of Odesa to be citizens of the country first. So that they consciously come to elections guided not by empty promises, but by deeper information about whom they are voting for. I believe that most residents – much more than before the war – will be responsible in their civic duties.

I think that [after the war] a change of elites is expected. This will affect both Odesa and Ukraine. I want this to happen.

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I also want business to be recognized in Odesa and in the country. For business to be a respected walk of life influencing the country's economy. I understand that [after the war] business will help us, but still, I would rely on the country's independence in this matter, that is, on business.

And I would very much like the people of Odesa to believe that they deserve a decent life.  To believe in this right and use it.

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Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine