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Ola Szwalek

"Food can really bring up memories of carefree times, of childhood. On the other hand, it can cause a vibration that’s stimulating. Almost erotic at times".

Hailing from Warsaw,  model and chef Ola Szwalek has been immersed in many different cultures throughout her life and career, but has a love of the surprises and delights of her native cuisine. Over the past two years, she has worked with the World Central Kitchen to support Ukranian refugees displaced by the war.

Photography NICOLETTA ZARIFI       Interview HOUSE OF SHILA

HOS: What is your earliest memory?

OS: I’m not sure if it’s my earliest memory, but one of them would be collecting chestnuts with my Mum. I remember there was a park and a forest close to the apartment we lived until my sister was born and we moved out to the countryside. I was maybe three at the time. I remember my mum taking me for walks over there and for some reason I have no memories of other seasons in this park. I remember fall so well. We would collect dozens of chestnuts that fell off trees to later play with them at home. I even remember the beret I was wearing at that time. It was white and blue dotty beret!

HOS: Who do you love cooking for the most? 

OS: I love cooking for my family. I absolutely love cooking for my baby brother who is turning five next month! What brings me the biggest joy is cooking for everyone that enjoys their food as much as I do. If there is happiness, gratitude and joy around the table, it’s my ultimate perfect situation.

HOS What would surprise people about Polish cuisine?

OS: I think Polish cuisine is so diverse and so seasonal at the same time. Spring, summer and fall are incredibly rich in produce, which is also very accessible. Poles have a strong culture of markets – there is at least one farmers’ market in each town, and cities like Warsaw have one in each neighbourhood. I mostly encounter the opinion that Polish cuisine is centered around meat and is heavy, rather than light and vibrant. There is some truth to that, looking at our history and the role that food played through the years. For the majority, food wasn’t suppose to serve pleasures but to feed, fuel and sustain for long periods of time. Yet, I still think that living in the times we live in right now and using resources that we are provided with, it can be such an adventure to play with tradition in more creative, intuitive ways.

“Polish cuisine is so diverse and so seasonal at the same time. Spring, summer and fall are incredibly rich in produce, which is also very accessible”.

 

HOS: Where did your love of cooking come from?

OS: From my mum, that’s for sure. She always cooked meals that were so inviting, generous and nostalgic. Meals that make your knees bend

HOS: How can cooking provoke emotion?

OS: Taste, texture, smell – it all plays a role in it. I believe food can really bring up that nostalgia, memories of carefree times, of childhood. On the other hand it can also awaken in us so many layers, and can cause a vibration that’s stimulating. Almost erotic at times.

HOS: How has your work with World Central Kitchen influenced your cooking and your outlook in your field?

OS: Working with WCK exposed me to such a different reality. The whole experience of working with food in a time of crisis was humbling to the extent I could never have known, and provoked so many deeper thoughts and reflections about the role food plays in our society.

My work started with volunteering on the border and managing food distribution points on three crossings as well as in four different refugee transit stations. Within two months the need had transferred from the border to main big cities in Poland, where Ukrainian people were seeking shelter. Each city that I worked in had dozens of food distribution points, whether it was a primary school, train station, single mother’s house, orphanage, family home or massive expo halls where thousands of people were sheltering.

My job was to establish systems in which we created food. Every meal had to serve different purpose: whether to fuel travellers, feed kids who were studying, or create a sense of home in a shelter. The team and I had to recognise the differences and provide our restaurant partners with certain guidance. It really causes a lot of reflections about the change a meal can make.

I work in the food field, but operating in such a different position taught me so much. I don’t think it’s possible to forget seeing how much a warm meal can change and how it can connect and create a sense of safety.

HOS: We know that you love Greece. How does it inspire you?

OS: Greece is such a vibrant and stimulating place for me. A place where my senses go absolutely nuts! The sea, the history, the tradition and the warmth of Greek people – it all makes me want to create more. There is so much resource one can use in this country: rich, fresh produce, wild herbs, incredible seafood, all the spices and a variety of cultural influences – it’s a paradise!

Greece also causes something in me that’s much harder to explain. It makes me feel very free and feminine, it creates an atmosphere that I like to cook the most in. It’s intuitive and light, very nonchalant too.

HOS: You just stayed at Mona in Athens as one of our chefs in residence. Can you tell us some highlights?

OS: Mona is definitely my dream kitchen. It’s so well-equipped, beautifully designed and has such a welcoming vibe. I love that it’s in the center of that space and it’s so inviting. It literally feels like cooking at home and it doesn’t feel separated and excluded, when that’s usually the case in commercial kitchens. Mona to me is about connection and experience and this is what that kitchen and the whole residency was about. I participated in a Christmas market where many creatives, artists and designers were introducing their arts and crafts. It was such a vibrant, fun and joyful weekend. I love how it just felt like a house party with bunch of friends, kids, dogs, great music, drinks and a kitchen full of baked goods.

“Greece also causes something in me that’s hard to explain. It makes me feel very free and feminine, it creates an atmosphere that I like to cook the most in”.

HOS: What are your favourite restaurants and bars in Athens.

OS: I always get overwhelmed in Athens because there is still so much to discover on the food scene that I feel like I barely even experienced it. I can say that last time my most favourite dinners were in Pharaoh, Fabrica tou Efrosinou and Atlantikos. Diporto is a kind of a place I could eat my lunch in every day, and I’d also stick with breakfast at Mona. Although I’m not such a breakfast person, it’s just such a joy!

HOS: What does beauty mean to you?

OS: Beauty to me is passion, curiosity, intention and vulnerability. Beauty has so many layers. Beauty is honesty and authenticity, beauty is not knowing, it’s learning and it’s a process. Beauty is a bit undone, a bit nonchalant and a bit wild. And it’s a complexity. It’s both strength and surrender.

HOS: You amassed an online following by documenting and posting your daily life, cooking and travels. What is the role of social media in your work and life?

OS: Social media (to be precise my Instagram account as I’m not using any other platform) has always been such a beautiful tool for me to both share and learn. It always played the role of journalling for me: I keep my moments and my daily gratitudes there. I share what I find and consider valuable, beautiful and moving.

I’m not really good with communication with the audience and I usually don’t even realise the number of people I’m exposed to. I keep it very personal and low key although of course it also became one of my work tools these days, expressing my style and energy.

But I never think twice before posting and barely ever scroll. If I do I get very easily tired and brain fogged. I’m so bad with keeping updates on my friends lives based on their social media, and I’m more of a ‘phone call friend’ as I tend to speak a lot. But I do find Instagram a great tool to help me get inspired and observe the world through a completely new lens.

HOS: You just stayed at Mona in Athens as one of our chefs in residence. Can you tell us some highlights?

OS: Mona is definitely my dream kitchen. It’s so well-equipped, beautifully designed and has such a welcoming vibe. I love that it’s in the center of that space and it’s so inviting. It literally feels like cooking at home and it doesn’t feel separated and excluded, when that’s usually the case in commercial kitchens. Mona to me is about connection and experience and this is what that kitchen and the whole residency was about. I participated in a Christmas market where many creatives, artists and designers were introducing their arts and crafts. It was such a vibrant, fun and joyful weekend. I love how it just felt like a house party with bunch of friends, kids, dogs, great music, drinks and a kitchen full of baked goods.

“Mona to me is about connection and experience and this is what that kitchen and that whole residency was about”.

HOS: What are your favourite restaurants and bars in Athens.

OS: I always get overwhelmed in Athens because there is still so much to discover on the food scene that I feel like I barely even experienced it. I can say that last time my most favourite dinners were in Pharaoh, Fabrica tou Efrosinou and Atlantikos. Diporto is a kind of a place I could eat my lunch in every day, and I’d also stick with breakfast at Mona. Although I’m not such a breakfast person, it’s just such a joy!

HOS: What does beauty mean to you?

OS: Beauty to me is passion, curiosity, intention and vulnerability. Beauty has so many layers. Beauty is honesty and authenticity, beauty is not knowing, it’s learning and it’s a process. Beauty is a bit undone, a bit nonchalant and a bit wild. And it’s a complexity. It’s both strength and surrender.

HOS: You amassed an online following by documenting and posting your daily life, cooking and travels. What is the role of social media in your work and life?

OS: Social media (to be precise my Instagram account as I’m not using any other platform) has always been such a beautiful tool for me to both share and learn. It always played the role of journalling for me: I keep my moments and my daily gratitudes there. I share what I find and consider valuable, beautiful and moving.

I’m not really good with communication with the audience and I usually don’t even realise the number of people I’m exposed to. I keep it very personal and low key although of course it also became one of my work tools these days, expressing my style and energy.

But I never think twice before posting and barely ever scroll. If I do I get very easily tired and brain fogged. I’m so bad with keeping updates on my friends lives based on their social media, and I’m more of a ‘phone call friend’ as I tend to speak a lot. But I do find Instagram a great tool to help me get inspired and observe the world through a completely new lens.

HOS: How does one live a life of meaning?

OS: I think every life is meaningful but I get what you are asking. I think to feel that you have that sense of meaning is finding your purpose, following it, letting it guide you and teach you – it gives one a sense of rightness and belonging and trust! It allows us to grow and learn but also share and spread. And I believe we are all here to do exactly that.

HOS: What is your definition of happiness?

OS: Happiness is very elusive and difficult to define. What provides me with a perfect scenario that supports happiness will be good health, inner peace, a sense of purpose, growth and intellectual stimulation, being able to experience nature (more than cities), community as well as passion and inspiration. I know that this seems like a pretty long list of things that we strive for, but when you think about it, it actually comes back to our core values. I also think I’m the happiest in times when I’m also a bit uncomfortable. Whether that’s going out of my comfort zone, being exposed to a new environment or changing a career path.

HOS: Tell us a secret.

OS: Secrets will remain secrets, but one thing i don’t usually share with people is that I am absolutely addicted to the water remaining from cooking pasta or soba noodles. It’s probably my favourite drink and I’m crazy about it.

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