In 1986, Julie Smolyansky’s parents brought commercial kefir to the U.S. when they launched Lifeway Foods. More than 30 years later, Smolyansky—now CEO of the company—has published The Kefir Cookbook, a collection of recipes that incorporate the tart cultured milk—along with one for making kefir itself. It’s a memoir as much as a cookbook: she’s written her family’s history in the personal stories that accompany each of the 100 recipes.
While her dad is the one who officially created Lifeway, Smolyansky says, her mom played a major role as well. In 1978, a couple years after the family fled the Soviet Union, ending up in what Smolyansky describes as a roach-filled apartment at Morse and Greenview in Rogers Park, her mother opened a Russian deli that quickly expanded into a national operation shipping eastern-European food to delis all over the country. “My mom didn’t know who Gloria Steinem was or that there was women’s lib happening, but she was a total badass entrepreneur,” Smolyansky remembers. “She traveled around the world, cut deals with international billion-dollar companies.”
In 1985, Smolyansky’s parents attended a food show in Germany where her father bought a few bottles of kefir. He said he missed the staple from his home country. “Mom said, ‘You start a company and make it, and I’ll sell it in my distribution network,'” Smolyansky remembers. Back in Chicago her father set up a makeshift lab in the basement to develop his own kefir recipe, officially opening Lifeway the next year and taking the company public two years after that.
Smolyansky began working at Lifeway full-time after graduating from college; when her father died suddenly in 2002, she became the youngest woman ever to lead a publicly traded company. She encountered plenty of skepticism over whether a 27-year-old could handle the task, and even after proving herself over the last 16 years, she says she still encounters misogyny at times. “In meetings, I can’t tell you how many times men who work for me will speak over me,” Smolyansky says. “I guess I would say, if you’re a woman, conduct yourself with the same confidence that a mediocre man does and you’ll get through life just fine.”
Though Smolyansky grew up drinking kefir, she says that it took years before she began experimenting with using it in recipes. “I realized there are so many uses for it: smoothies, soups, marinades, dressings, scones,” she says. “There’s a deconstructed red velvet cake [in the cookbook], which reminds me it’s OK not to be perfect. It was inspired by my kids sticking their fingers in every cake I ever made and I finally just gave up and deconstructed it. I love the idea that it can be broken and beautiful and there’s beauty in imperfections.”
Other recipes combine cultural influences, like one inspired by a memory Smolyansky has of delivering red caviar to the original location of Kamehachi sushi bar in Old Town late one night when she was very young. Marion Konishi, the owner, warmly welcomed her father and fed Smolyansky tamago. It was her first introduction to sushi. “I combined the caviar and deviled eggs and wasabi to combine the Japanese and Russian flavor, the warmness of two immigrants hustling and sharing a moment of friendship.”
While there are a few Eastern European classics like borscht and okroshka (a cold soup traditionally made with kvass) in the book, it has a decidedly international flavor, featuring gyros, jerk chicken, lasagna, falafel, and palak paneer. Friends of Smolyansky’s also contributed recipes, including locals like Katrina Markoff of Vosges Haut-Chocolat, Jason Hammel of Lula Café and Marisol, and Ina Pinkney of the late Ina’s. “I think this book is a love letter to Chicago, honestly,” Smolyansky says. “Chicago should be proud that they welcomed this young immigrant family of refugees.”