Knoxville, Tenn. — When Russia invaded Ukraine, Laurence Faber and Emily Williams’s first reaction was to cook borscht. Ukrainian flags had yet to spread across the American lawn-scape, and Potchke, the couple’s Ukrainian-inspired deli, had yet to open in this eastern Tennessee city.
They cooked the soup in response to the horror overtaking the peaceful country they’d fallen in love with last summer and fall, when they spent nearly two months in Ukraine, researching its food and Mr. Faber’s family’s history.
“We couldn’t do nothing,” Mr. Faber said. “We owe the country so much.”
Mr. Faber and Ms. Williams, partners in life and business, ended up selling the borscht at a fund-raiser three days after the war began in February, raising more than $5,000 that they sent to charities and friends in Ukraine.
The benefit doubled as the debut of Potchke, which officially opened in mid-March, the largest project yet from two promising young restaurateurs whose interest in Ukrainian cuisine predated the war and is likely to last long beyond it.
The deli is a yearlong pop-up that Ms. Williams, 27, and Mr. Faber, 30, decided to open when a space became available in the Old City neighborhood of Knoxville. The couple saw the pop-up as an ideal way to generate income as they plan a modern Ukrainian bistro inspired by their trip. (Supply-chain snags have delayed that opening until 2023. Like Potchke, the bistro will include partners Brian and Jessica Strutz, owners of A Dopo, a wood-fired pizzeria.)
Mr. Faber and Ms. Williams built a following with the babka business she started in their house after losing her restaurant service job at the start of the pandemic. Sales were brisk enough to compel Mr. Faber to quit his job as a pastry chef at Blackberry Farm, the celebrated resort near Knoxville in the Great Smoky Mountains foothills, to help with the baking.
Babkas are on Potchke’s short, frequently changing menu, along with refined versions of deli staples like blintzes and lox-topped bialys. Borscht appears on the menu as “borsch