Nourishing the soul | The role of food in creating a sense of home

Nourishing the soul | The role of food in creating a sense of home

Food is more than just fuel—it’s a place of safety in times of need. From the tantalizing aroma to the mouthwatering taste, it has the power to transport us to our happiest memories and provide emotional nourishment. Through cooking, we can preserve cultural traditions and connect with others in meaningful ways. So grab a fork and dig in—because food is more than just a meal, it’s a celebration of life.

Ola Szwałek’s diverse upbringing exposed her to various cultures and cuisines, expanding her taste buds from a young age. From the spices of India to the local produce of Mexico and the culinary delights of Cuba, Ola’s sense of taste has constantly been growing. Her experiences in the fashion industry taught her how to appreciate the finer things in life, including food. When the pandemic stranded her in Japan, she observed the local cuisine before returning to Poland to reconnect with her homeland’s culinary heritage. Her journey into the culinary world is a testament to the importance of exploring different cultures besides appreciating the beauty of simple ingredients and the joy of sharing a meal with each other.

How are you Ola, what have you been up to lately?

I’ve been good but calm, a bit silenced, and patiently working on hugging myself both from the inside and outside during the past few months. To be absolutely honest, winter is the trickiest time for me. Therefore, I’ve been very intentional lately. I pay attention to the quality of time spent at home, I set priorities as days are shorter and nights are longer, and I’m working hard to let go and get free of the need to do as much as in summer.

How do you see cooking—is it a passion, a hobby, a form of self-expression or something else?

Cooking has been present in my life since early childhood, my mother is a fantastic cook and host. Our family always gathered around the table, the kitchen was a place of meeting each other in the midst of everyday activities. Preparing food was the way to connect with each other, to host and welcome friends or family in the most intimate and generous way. And this is exactly what it still remains to me.

Is there a specific moment or experience that made you realise the importance of cooking in your life?

I think it was shortly after I moved to London to study. I was nineteen, away from home and what was familiar. In a different country, with a different food culture, unprotected, exposed to all things new and stimulation I had never experienced before. Not long after taking my first step into adulthood, I realised the need for home and safety. Cooking was my subconscious way of bringing a sense of familiarity. The tastes I knew and remembered made me feel safe and supported my trust system.

Which elements of traditional Polish cuisine do you resonate with the most?

Polish culinary culture is strongly related to different periods in time and Poland’s history. It has so many meanings and layers, whether food was fuel for survival or a means of connecting and socialising. In difficult times when different products were not commonly available, it took time and effort to obtain them, making the produce more personal. I think the personal context behind food is the aspect that I respect and cherish the most. I know where my potatoes grow, I listen to the ‘how the soil speaks to me’ and I’m mindful of the hands that harvested my greens and shelled my beans. There’s such a beautiful and strong vibrancy that comes with it. So much gratitude that grounds me so strongly.

Food also appeared in a new aspect of your life when you became a culinary team member at WCK. How did that happen?

World Central Kitchen is a non-profit organization that provides meals in disaster and conflict zones. I joined them after the first bombs dropped in Ukraine, coordinating food distribution and researching the psychological aspect of food. I found that people’s food preferences are influenced by their sense of belonging, identity, safety, and memories. In general, those in private spaces are more open to new tastes, while those in larger refugee camps prefer familiar dishes tied to their culture.

I also heard something about a so-called “Banana bread for Ukraine” mission. Was it a part of your work at WCK?

Not at all. The story behind my banana breads is one that is deeply personal to me. During the height of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, I felt a strong urge to help but was unsure how. Cooking and baking has always been a source of comfort for me, so I came up with the idea of making banana breads and selling them to support Ukrainian orphans. The experience was powerful, and I felt connected to others while doing something that made me feel safe and grounded. It also showed me that help can take many different formseven something as simple as baking a banana bread.

After talking about so many wonderful culinary experiences, I almost forgot that you also did some modelling. Can you share a memory from this field that you treasure?

As a model working in different markets, with the variety of brands like Max Mara, Uniqlo, Moschino, Armani, Urban Outfitters or Sacai, or being on the covers and inside magazines such as Vogue, Harpers Bazaar or Madame FigaroI’ve gathered an abundance of unique experiences. When you are doing this job, there are these big moments of seeing yourself on a magazine cover for the first time or walking your first big show. My first Vogue wedding cover was a dream come true. It’s such an honour each time, and I don’t think I would ever stop being a bit stunned by it.

What do you typically bring home from your modelling trips?

I take memories and sensations from every place I go, mostly subconsciously. I do love bringing back products from small, local producers. I have a particular thing for vinegars and honey. And while it may sound crazy to some, I have even traveled with a pumpkin in my backpack on more than one occasion, along with artichoke bouquets, fresh bread, and boxes of forest berries that I wanted my dearest mother to taste. They all made their way back home and served their purpose as unique gifts that I could share with others, capturing the taste and feeling of my travels...

Photos: Marta Weronika Orlikowska | Instagram

Contact Ola Szwałek | Instagram

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