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'A sense of agency and purpose': Austin chef from Mariupol bakes to raise money for Ukraine relief

Matthew Odam
Austin 360

Olga Koutseridi turned to baking and cooking when she was experiencing an identity crisis several years ago. 

The Mariupol, Ukraine, native and Austin home chef felt unmoored from her Eastern European roots, which include familial ties to both Russia and Ukraine, in addition to Greece. She harbored an uneasy relationship with her ethnicity because of shame spun out from negative stereotypes about Russia and had long suppressed her Eastern Europeanness, she told the American-Statesman in March. 

“I was going through my own identity crisis when I was leaving graduate school in 2016,” Koutseridi said. “I didn’t really know who I was or what I wanted and part of that identity building process was me embracing my different ethnicities through food.” 

More:An Austin movie theater owner's family fled Ukraine. Now he's keeping vigil onscreen.

"I’m overwhelmed to the point that I don’t even know how to articulate how grateful I am," Olga Koutseridi said about the support she's received since the Russian invasion of her native Ukraine.

When she decided to build a bridge back to her Eastern European heritage, she started cooking her mother’s Ukrainian recipes and baking the kinds of hearty rye and sourdough breads from home that she could not find in her new home of Austin. 

As Vladimir Putin’s Russian army invaded Ukraine in February and began destroying the town of Mariupol, Koutseridi’s grandmother and aunt sought safety with a group of about 15 in a friend’s cellar, where they would shelter for more than a month without electricity or running water. 

Koutseridi lost contact with her grandmother and aunt and began searching social media app Telegram, turning into an amateur photographic forensics investigator as she attempted to discern the conditions on the ground in Mariupol by sifting through photos and videos online. 

The images revealed a town devastated by the Russian onslaught, every school, community center, hospital, or shopping bazaar Koutseridi could identify, leveled. Koutseridi reposted many of the images, along with old family photos, on her Instagram page, giving her followers an on-the-ground perspective of the terror. 

“I actually did allow myself to start that grieving process a couple of days ago,” Koutseridi said in late March. “With every passing day, all the information coming out of that city is getting more and more graphic. So I think it just hit me on Sunday just how destroyed the city is.”

Once again, Koutseridi turned to baking as a ballast. 

Olga Koutseridi's burnt Basque cheesecake has a liquid center.

The senior graduate student coordinator for global mobility at the University of Texas had been selling an assortment of baked goods through a newsletter and Instagram for a few years. She decided to devote her baking time to making her trademark burnt Basque cheesecakes and selling them to raise money for the UNICEF relief efforts in her home country. 

“Baking has given me a sense of agency and purpose,” Koutseridi said. “Many of us feel helpless. Raising funds through my baking and micro bakery is my way of helping the people of Ukraine.” 

Those not familiar with the niche world of Austin home bakers may not know Koutseridi, who posts as Ogi the Yogi on Instagram. The Ukrainian native and now naturalized U.S. citizen, whose parents currently live in Spain, makes a sublime burnt Basque cheesecake. 

The center of the burnt Basque cheesecake has a milky consistency.

The wobbly cakes with their tawny walled edges and paper-thin caramel colored top layers exist in an undefined state somewhere between solid and liquid. Slice through the refrigerated cake with a fork and the milky center oozes in slow motion like a relaxed triple cream brie. 

Chef Page Pressley, formerly a partner at Emmer & Rye and now the culinary director at the Pearl in San Antonio, was one of Koutseridi’s early fans from the local food community and says the home cook’s cheesecake  is “the greatest expression of dairy” that he’s ever tasted. 

More:Not just about the pics: Ukrainian immigrant-owned Texas Selfie Museum raises relief money

Koutseridi sells the burnt Basque cheesecake, which weighs about 5 pounds and feeds eight, for $64. All of the proceeds currently go to UNICEF, with Koutseridi having sold about 100 already. The fundraiser will continue through the end of April. Sign up for each week’s dozen or so cheesecakes is made available each Sunday via a link in Koutseridi’s Instagram page.  

Rosen's Bagel Co. and Nervous Charlie's Bagels both donated 60 pounds of cream cheese to Koutseridi, who says she has been overwhelmed by the support she has received personally and in her fundraising efforts. 

Olga Koutseridi making a burnt Basque cheesecake at her home kitchen in Central Austin.

“Baking for me has always been about helping people. Before the war it was about helping people bring a little joy or pleasure into their everyday life,” Koutseridi said. “During the war it’s about helping people survive.”

Almost four weeks after first entering their makeshift bunker, Koutseridi’s family members were able to get word back to Olga and her sister, Svetlana, that they were safe. A day later, one of the group was killed when he left the cellar to cook a meal outdoors. 

Koutseridi’s grandmother and aunt have since escaped to St. Petersburg, where they are living with family. Koutseridi says the compound in Mariupol was shelled the next day. 

The fact that Koutseridi has Russian and Ukrainian heritage, along with family in both countries, has made the Russian invasion even more difficult. She says while some in her family back in Russia have been "brainwashed" by Putin's propaganda, other relatives believe Putin is a danger. 

“I feel like I’m going through two separate forms of grief. One is seeing the city that I have a close connection with completely destroyed. So, that’s being erased — the culture I hold near and dear is being destroyed,” Koutseridi said. “The other form of grief is that the intruder or perpetrator is my other ethnic self. Seeing where Russia is going, turning into another totalitarian state, has been incredibly painful for me, and it’s just going to get worse.”

Koutseridi says that her family members who have escaped the war hope to return home to Mariupol but believes the idea of heading back is almost like a coping mechanism that keeps them going. Whether there is anything to come back to remains a fraught proposition. 

The mayor of Mariupol said this week that "more than 10,000 civilians have died in the Russian siege of his city, and that the death toll could surpass 20,000," according to the Associated Press. 

In the meantime, Koutseridi continues to throw herself into her baking as a way to cope and find purpose in a helpless time.

“Ukraine is known for its baking culture,” Koutseridi said. “It’s the bread basket of Europe. I can’t bake without thinking of Ukraine. The reason I bake is because of how much meaning it carries for me and my Ukrainian identity.”