Bonnie & Israel Morales

Chefs and Founders, Kachka

Sometimes passion comes at odds with the best business sense. Or seems to. Bonnie and Israel found a way to combine what they felt they had to do – opening a restaurant based on homecooking of the former Soviet Union – even if it didn’t exactly seem like a surefire hit. Bonnie, who grew up eating her Belarusian parents’ cooking, noted, “We felt if we don’t, nobody will.” And their creation, Portland’s Kachka, became the country’s hottest Russian restaurant (covered dotingly by The New York Times and Food & Wine) and spawned the first Russian-based cookbook in the US in decades.

The couple is detailed in their devotion. Stepping into Kachka, and the vodka bar Kachinka, is like stepping into another world. You’re met with ‘70s-style Soviet wallpaper Bonnie’s mom picked out, communist-era propaganda posters and a fun all-Russian soundtrack – plus lots of vodka. The star attraction, of course, is the surprisingly fresh, varied menu that ranges from a Georgian khachapuri cheese bread and house-cured fish boards to Siberian dumplings, chased by horseradish-infused vodka shots. (Yes, please!) Bonnie and Israel deliver it all with classic “intense hospitality,” the truest import from former Soviet cultures.

Why We Love Bonnie & Israel Morales

Bonnie and Israel gush with infectious passion, expertise and commitment for something most people didn’t realize they loved. Their restaurant is their mission: to share the seasonal, varied, complex flavors of Russian cuisine.

“Russian or Eastern European food isn’t just about beets, cabbage, fur coats and lots of mayo. There’s also cilantro!” – Israel Morales

“I get asked about the election, and I’m like, really? I’m cooking food I love to eat. I’m not Vladimir Putin. Just because I cook this food doesn’t mean I’m colluding!” – Bonnie Morales

6 Questions with Bonnie & Israel Morales

  1. Opening a Russian restaurant in the USA isn't exactly a certain hit. Why did you?

    Bonnie: To tell my family's story. And also to share the food with people who wouldn’t be exposed to it. And because we’re crazy.

    Israel: I would have led with "crazy." This food isn't only under-represented, but it’s misrepresented. And so part of why we wanted to open Kachka was to preserve this food. And not just the food, but the food way — the way of eating and drinking that's going away if we don’t tell the story.

  2. What do people not understand about cuisine from the former Soviet Union?

    Bonnie: The seasonality. Even Siberia has summers. And then if you look at places like Georgia it’s more Mediterranean. There’s a huge range of ingredients.

    Israel: Yes. Russian or Eastern European food isn’t just about beets, cabbage, fur coats and lots of mayo. There’s also cilantro! And exotic spices. Some foods are even grilled!

  3. Why did you publish the first Russian cookbook in the US in a couple decades?

    Bonnie: Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking has a double meaning for me personally. Although I grew up eating it, I shunned it. I didn’t really think about it until Israel got into what my mom was cooking. That was a paradigm shift for me… And if you want to learn about French or Italian food, there are stacks of books to find, classes to take. But if you want the same for Russian food, you just didn't have that info.

  4. Georgia seems to be on the verge as a rising destination.

    Bonnie: There was a Food & Wine article about Georgia recently and I thought 'oh people are starting to take interest.' But Georgia has been doing something special for thousands of years. It's just that people are finally paying attention.

    Israel: If you had to sum up Georgia in one word, it’s 'hospitable.' Everywhere you look, people are trying to give you food. And they don’t even know who you are. Like Bonnie said, it’s always been this way. I think it is really enticing to people.

  5. Georgians know how to drink really well, don't they?

    Bonnie: Yes! In Georgia there’s the tamada, which is a person who is in charge of making sure the wine is flowing and the toasts are moving along at a dinner party. Because in Georgia, and in Russia too, people always drink together. So there has to be a ringleader. Russians actually borrowed the word "tamada" for the Russian language because it’s so important. I love the concept so much. I think it's brilliant it comes from Georgia.

  6. What about Georgia excites you most?

    Bonnie: The regionality of khachapuri. It’s often cheese bread (not always) and its shape and ingredients vary from region to region. I want to experience that firsthand and make my own khachapuri map.

    Israel: The wine region. Georgia has 8,000 years of uninterrupted wine producing. That’s crazy. They age things in clay vessels underground. That’s very cool right now, but that’s the way it’s been done for thousands of years.

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