Russian Food Festival Co-founder Elena DeYoung opens a Russian family restaurant in Boise
Elena DeYoung started cooking for her mother and five siblings at the tender age of 11, four years after her father’s death turned her family’s life upside down and forced them to move in with her grandmother. DeYoung remembers her grandmother as excellent cook, and recalls learning the basics of food and flavor in her kitchen in Kazakhstan, flipping through an old cookbook that would later become the Bible of her family cuisine.
“[My grandmother] would say, ‘I’d rather go to the market and get a tiny piece of amazing meat—beef or pork or whatever—fresh, not frozen, and make a dish out of it. It will be a tiny dish, but it will be very delicious, and I’ll enjoy it with all my soul.’ I kind of became the same way,” DeYoung said.
Now, decades later and half a world away, DeYoung is opening a restaurant to serve the same traditional Russian recipes she cobbled together as a child; then cooked for the staff of a Portland, Oregon golf course after hours; and finally shared annually with the public at Boise’s Russian Food Festival. Alyonka Russian Cuisine will open in late November in the State Street building that once housed fine dining-powerhouse State & Lemp and the short-lived farm-to-table restaurant Epek.
The counter-service cafe has white-painted walls and dark wood floors. It’s a tiny space with an airy quality accentuated by brightly colored paintings, including a massive piece depicting an onion-domed building that DeYoung ordered online from an artist in Kiev, Ukraine.
DeYoung has had her eye on the 28-seat restaurant for years, since even before State & Lemp’s tenancy. She envisioned a space where she could share her food, and where the Russian Orthodox community could gather. However, it was only by chance that she saw the vacancy sign a few months ago and her pitch to the property owner beat out several others. Though she’s educated as a teacher and had worked at Boise’s Challenger School, DeYoung quit her day job as soon as the opportunity to open Alyonka arrived.
“The last three months I’ve been sitting here dreaming,” she said, describing the hours she spent scrubbing out the tiny kitchen before filling it with an overflow of equipment and ingredients, “and now it’s happening.”
Since The Russian Bear closed years ago in Eagle, the annual Russian Food Festival has been Boise’s only reliable source of Russian cuisine. DeYoung co-founded the festival 14 years ago as a fundraiser for a family adopting children from Russia, and over the years it has grown to feed more than 5,000 people annually and fund the St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church’s upkeep. That number now threatens to overwhelm the small team of volunteers from the church who cook and sell traditional dishes like borscht, beef stroganoff, stuffed sweet peppers, and chebureki (dough pockets filled with meat or potatoes) during the festival, and DeYoung hopes Alyonka will be able to somehow alleviate that pressure, though how isn’t yet clear.
“A lot of people keep asking me, ‘Where is the place we can eat food like that? Not just once a year, but every day!’” she said.
DeYoung serves the Russian Food Festival’s staples year-round, in addition to more inventive and less-seen Russian dishes like her own version of shuba (a layered dish called “herring under a fur coat” which she makes with boiled potatoes, vegetables and smoked salmon) and a wide selection of Russian desserts. The restaurant is family-friendly, and serves lunch and dinner Wednesday-Saturday from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Diners can grab a seat at a small table, or take their food to go. The dishes range in price from $4 appetizers to $18 entrees, which DeYoung hopes will make them affordable for regulars.
“I want to create a family-friendly place,” she said.
To learn more about Alyonka Russian Cuisine, which got its name from DeYoung’s childhood nickname, visit the restaurant’s page on Facebook.