SF chef raises $17,000 for Ukraine with famous honey cake

SF chef raises $17,000 for Ukraine with famous honey cake

Michelle Polzin couldn’t shake the feeling of unease in the days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine late last month. The former chef-owner of the now-closed 20th Century Cafe in San Francisco would not endure this feeling of angst and turmoil for long when she decided to take action. Polzine organized, made a few calls and put his skills to the test by launching a Russian honey cake fundraiser to help Ukrainian families fleeing their country.

“I took the Russian honey cake and I use it to raise money to fight Putin. There’s a bit of irony in that. Now we call it Ukrainian honey cake,” Polzine told SFGATE.

Polzine’s fundraising began earlier this month when she contacted her former clients in instagram and email to share that she would be bringing back her famous 10-layer honey cake as part of a special offer. Fundraising started with a minimum donation of $250, before moving to a raffle with $30 tickets. All profits were donated to Chef José Andrés’ organization World Central Cuisine. Polzine says the response has been exciting, but overwhelming, as some customers placed bids at higher prices than she could have imagined.

“I woke up in the middle of the night and looked at the emails and was like, ‘…Oh my God, they’ve ordered so many. It’s already more than I could do… you have to close the door! I had no control over the number of orders I would receive,” she said. “Every time I got an email, I was like, ‘It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s awesome. Awesome. Yay,’ and people were giving crazy money for honey cake. Someone donated $1,000.

Chef Michelle Polzine raised $17,000 for Ukraine with a Russian honey cake fundraiser in early March 2022. [This image was excerpted from Baking at the 20th Century Café by Michelle Polzine (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2020.]

Michelle Polzine, 20th century cafe

But the volume of orders should not have been a surprise. Polzine customers were stunned last spring when they learned that the 20th Century Cafe would be closing permanently after a short period of eight years. They would no longer savor the cafe’s sourdough bagels, strudels or its famous multi-layered honey cake once considered an “incredible work of art and craft” by celebrity chef Samin Nosrat.

This closure marked the end of a particularly difficult period for Polzine after suffering a difficult surgerycoping with the fallout of the pandemic and overcoming the overall hardships of operating a business in SF.

“San Francisco is not welcoming to small business owners,” Polzine said. Eater in 2021. “I love this city as a citizen. I still want to live here. But I no longer have any interest in owning a business here.

Fast forward to March 1, 2022, Polzine was without a restaurant or an active sales license, but that wouldn’t stop him from cooking. Polzine couldn’t imagine filling 40 total honey cakes with a hand mixer at home, but the saving grace was his industry friends at State Bird Provisions and Zuni Café who received the talented chef with open arms into their fully equipped kitchen.

“Michelle reached out to us, particularly because of the ovens we have in our pastry kitchen,” said Zuni Café chef Nate Norris. “We have the kind of old-fashioned deck ovens that she really likes to bake her cakes in, very similar to the ones she had in her 20th century café. [So] we worked out the details. Michelle has been a business neighbor here for many years and is someone we have tremendous respect for.

On days when the Zuni Café was closed for business, Polzine worked diligently for 12 hours to bake hundreds of layers of cake with the help of a Zuni Café staff member. Together they counted the baking sheets, separated each layer, assembled and carefully packed the glorious honey cakes into individual boxes. The next day, she went to State Bird Provisions to bake the remaining pastries. Polzine added that both companies were entirely supportive, even offering to order ingredients in bulk to help her avoid a trip to nearby Rainbow Grocery.

The elaborate cake is a daunting task, admits Polzine, which begins by burning honey until it bubbles and is then incorporated into melted butter and other ingredients. The dough requires about 30-40 minutes of “straight mixing” until the flour is well combined. Finally, thin layers of cake batter are smoothed onto parchment-lined pans for quick baking followed by cooling and assembly.

“I can’t believe I did this every day for eight years,” Polzine laughs over the phone. “Forty is enough, believe me. It takes a long time to make the cake. That’s over 300 layers if that puts it in context.

Last Wednesday, Polzine returned to the Zuni Café to complete the raffle and present the cakes to the winners. And Polzine was proud to share this with the help of its loyal customers, its honey cakes raised $17,000.

When asked if she was planning any other fundraisers, Polzine was initially unsure, hoping instead to take a momentary break from baking. However, days after the event ended, she emailed SFGATE to share that given the “huge success” of the fundraiser, she would be working on a monthly raffle with the next scheduled for mid-April.

“I just feel the love,” Polzine said. “People are so radiant. My community of restaurants, past customers, and people on Instagram bought raffle tickets. I just felt horrible, and it made me feel better. Even if [it feels] as if there is nothing we can do in the world, there is something we can do in our communities.

If you would like to support World Central Kitchen with donations to feed Ukrainian refugees, visit his site.