Charlottesville lost a rising food industry star when Polina Chesnakova moved away in 2017.
The accomplished baker, chef, and blogger suffered a devastating car accident while driving to work at Greenwood Gourmet Grocery in December 2016. Most of the functionality in her left hand was gone after the crash, and she moved back to her childhood home to recover.
Charlottesville’s loss, though, may have been the wider food world’s gain. Chesnakova transitioned from cook to full-time writer after her accident, and she’s recently published her first cookbook, Hot Cheese. We spoke by phone with Chesnakova about her tome, time in C’ville, and next steps.
C-VILLE: Most folks in the Charlottesville food community know you as a baker. What’s up with a book on cheese?
PC: It all started when I graduated from UVA and started working at Feast!. That was my first intro to the world of artisan cheese. It was 2014, and they carried this magazine called Culture. When I moved back home, with all my injuries, I couldn’t take on a cooking job. Culture was hiring an intern for the fall.
It was through the internship that an editor at Chronicle Books found my work. They said, ‘Would you want to write a book on hot cheese?’ My dream has always been to write a cookbook and become a cookbook author. But hot cheese was not necessarily part of that.
At that point, you’d already started your blog, Chesnok, correct?
I started the blog even before working for Culture. I knew my journey was into the food world when I graduated, and I kind of knew I had something special with my Russian-Georgian heritage. That’s where my love of food and being in the kitchen started. I started the blog to share that food and heritage, and after the accident, it became my outlet.
So the book came to you?
Yeah. The next step was coming up with 50 to 55 recipes, not having tested any of them. That was one of the hardest parts—that and bringing them all to life. My khachapuri—Georgian cheesy bread—of course that was going to be in the book. I did a Philly cheesesteak with a Korean bulgogi marinade, and that is one of my favorites. We did a Midwest hotdish. I also had a lot of influence from France and Italy and Switzerland.
How does a first time cookbook author compete with all the established writers?
I draw upon my community to support me—who do I know to collaborate with and connect with? That’s how one’s following grows. The more you put out, the more you get back. That’s why I did this cookbook. It might not be the greatest work I will ever accomplish, but it is getting me there. I think everyone has their own path.
What do you miss most about the C’ville food scene?
It’s a small town, and that makes it easy to get together. For its size, there’s so much happening on the food scene, as well as music, culture, arts. Every night there was something happening. You can call up four or five different friends and have a wonderful night. You lose that in a big city. Looking back, most of my friends were in the food industry, where you have an eclectic mix of people. It makes the potlucks pretty interesting.
What’s next for you?
So, my first book ended up being on hot cheese. But I’m not stopping there. I’m working on a second book and getting back to my roots of baking with Piece of Cake.
Any last messages for C’ville foodies?
I miss everyone. It’s just a really special community that is living and supportive. I knew that before the accident, but afterward, the outpouring of support was just overwhelming. That’s something I will always carry in my heart.