Sharing Knives: Executive Chef Bethany Zozula On Food As A Vehicle For Memory  

Cooking, for Ace Hotel Pittsburgh’s award-winning Executive Chef Bethany Zozula of Whitfield, is a family affair. She cites her mother and grandmother as influences in her idea for Sharing Knives, the collaborative dinner series she created in 2017 as a way to collaborate with chefs from all over Pittsburgh. Here, she talks about the roots of the series, how food is a vehicle for memory, storytelling and love.

We started Sharing Knives in January of 2017, and from the beginning it has been very personal. Growing up, both my grandmother and mother were always cooking, and it became something that we always did as a family. My mom is a firm believer that food is medicine, and she takes a lot of care in the art of nourishment. My grandmother looks at it from a similar perspective — hospitality and comfort are medicine, too. Love, for us, is feeding each other.

Cooking for me is personal. Feeding people is an intimate thing. A conversation. The work that goes into a single plate can take days, weeks even, even though enjoys it for mere moments. I’ve never been a chef that cooks for myself. My goal is to create a memory, an experience, for someone else. The sense memories of food and cooking and eating I have from my childhood, all the learning moments, the discussions about life that happen while you are preparing the dishes, the stories that are told when we enjoy meals together, and the deeper moments that come later when your belly is full and you are getting ready to say goodbye. Those are what’s important.

Cooking for me is personal. Feeding people is an intimate thing. A conversation… My goal is to create a memory, an experience, for someone else.

I wanted Sharing Knives to be a place for those stories. I invite chefs and friends into my home and together we prepare a meal for our guests, inspired by our lives, our memories, our families, things we are excited about, small moments of food, tradition and interesting flavors that we want to tell each other about and tell you about, too.

My great Uncle Joseph and Aunt MaryAnne created one of those food memories for me very early in my life. Christmastime attaches itself to your heart through many avenues — family, magic, religious traditions, presents and for most of us, food. We moved from California to Pittsburgh when I was six to be closer to family and immediately fell into the traditions of my father’s Ukrainian and Czechoslovakian heritage. Christmas Eve held the most magic of all.

November 2017, I started putting together the list for 2018 Sharing Knives. I knew immediately that I wanted to collaborate with Kate and Thomasz from Apteka on a Christmas dinner, inspired by our own traditional eastern European families. They were on board.

November 1, 2018 my Great Uncle Joe died. He was 82. I had not been to their house for Christmas eve in years and it is a tradition I don’t want to forget. Dinner was always early, around 5:30, we would arrive on time to their tiny two-bedroom home in Scottdale PA. In the early years there would be me, my parents, two sisters, my grandfather, my uncle, two great uncles and two great aunts all squeezed into a tiny kitchen with just enough room to fit a dinner table, a card table, a stove, fridge, and a microwave oven. The fridge had a ceramic tree with multi colored plastic lights (my aunt is a hobby ceramic glazer and has an amazing collection of Christmas ceramics), and an old radio. Hymn-like carols always played softly in the background, while in the foreground, my grandfather told jokes, my uncle joe told stories, my aunt Maggie talked about the bottle factory, and my aunt Mary Anne dished out the perogies.

Everybody only got three, and she dished them out to ensure that fact. If there were some left over, then she divvied them out again. This how I developed my taste for sweet cabbage pierogies. There were always more of those. Who wants “Feesh” she would ask, always following that up with a, “watch for the bones.” We passed around the boiled potatoes, mushroom gravy, beans, and dry, (not dry) peas, white bread with butter, and ate until everything was gone. After dinner we would have cookies, apricot kolaches, and poppy seed roll, and then it was time to go. Everyone had to get to mass.

I think of that kitchen, and how tiny it was. If anyone needed to use the bathroom, everyone would have to get up from their seats, for you to pass by. In the old days there would have been a bail of straw under the table, for the animals. Animals talk on Christmas Eve. They had all been born in that house. All of them, My grandfather, two aunts, my two uncles.  Two bedrooms, one for the boys, one for the girls. They raised chickens and had a garden, and Christmas Eve has always been happening in that tiny kitchen. It makes my heart sad to think of that history coming to an end.

Sharing Knives has always been personal, and on December 19t it felt like Christmas Eve. Preparing vegan dishes to replicate an eastern European Christmas Eve is a challenge, but when the room was full of guests, and the carols were playing in the background, the foreground felt warm and right. We told our stories of our family and wished each other joy in the new year, and our families, and our traditions will hopefully live on in new memories of food.