Words & Deeds

Boise’s popular Russian Food Festival started in her kitchen. Now she’s opening a new restaurant.

Elena DeYoung has fed thousands of hungry Boiseans, but she’s never owned a restaurant.

In fact, she worked in one just once — a couple of years at Pleasant Valley Golf Club in Happy Valley, Oregon. That was a quarter century ago.

“Back then, I couldn’t even speak English,” she remembers.

Yet it’s hard to imagine any Idahoan more qualified to run Alyonka Russian Cuisine, which DeYoung hopes to open this fall at 2870 W. State St.

Born and raised in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, DeYoung is the event coordinator for Boise’s popular Russian Food Festival. She’s organized the fundraiser at St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church since its humble beginnings 14 years ago. Back then, church volunteers baked in her Meridian home.

Nowadays, the annual event serves between 3,500 and 4,000 people over two days, DeYoung estimates. And she keeps hearing the same request: “Where is the place we can eat food like this?”

The answer is on State Street — in a small building remembered by local foodies as State & Lemp restaurant.

As owner and chef, DeYoung will create a familiar menu at Alyonka Russian Cuisine.

If you love the Russian Food Festival, will you love Alyonka?

“Probably! I hope that!” she says with a laugh.

state & lemp exterior
Boise fine-dining restaurant State & Lemp changed ownership then eventually closed in early 2019. Darin Oswald Idaho Statesman file

DeYoung plans to offer all the comfort foods that make the Russian Food Festival a hit: shish kebab, beef stroganoff, Russian crepes, piroshki, lots of desserts ...

“All the recipes. All the food,” she says. “I would add some of my favorites that we never have a chance to do at the festival.”

Alyonka is DeYoung’s nickname used by friends and family back in Kazakhstan and Russia, she says. It’s a particularly fitting choice for the restaurant, since Kazakhstan is where she first learned to cook. As the oldest daughter in a large Russian family with a working mother, she found herself running the kitchen early in life. “I started when I was 11 years old,” she says.

“I love serving people. I love cooking. I just love people. That’s my thing.”

DeYoung had eyed the State & Lemp building for years, she says. Most recently, it held Epek, a short-lived restaurant. “A couple of months ago, when I saw the sign again for rent, I thought, ‘Maybe this is the time.’ ”

She’s kept her plans relatively quiet to avoid jinxing them: “I’m so excited ...,” she says. “Russians are very superstitious. They always keep it secret whatever’s going on.”

But word is spreading among the Russian faithful. “The whole community is looking after me,” she says. “Everybody is cheering for me. Everybody wants me to do this right now, and at the same time, continue the festival, too.”

And what about the Russian Food Festival? It’s been a big part of DeYoung’s life since she moved to the Treasure Valley in 2004 with her husband, Daniel, who was transferred here by his employer. “I wouldn’t be where I am without my husband,” she says. “He is my biggest cheerleader and supporter of all my dreams.”

DeYoung insists that she plans to keep running the festival. “The church is just two blocks away, so it shouldn’t be a problem,” she says. “Right now, I don’t have a clear picture of how it’s going to happen, but it’s going to happen.”

Money raised at the annual event has paid for church remodeling, which is scheduled to wrap up in November. If everything goes according to plan, DeYoung hopes to open Alyonka around the same time.

That’s when Archbishop Kyrill of San Francisco is scheduled to visit Boise and bless the church.

“My goal is for him to come in and bless the kitchen,” she explains. “Give me the green light and say, ‘God is with you! You can just open up and start the restaurant!’ ”

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Michael Deeds is an entertainment reporter and columnist at the Idaho Statesman, where he also has been a sportswriter, entertainment editor and features editor. Deeds co-hosts “The Other Studio,” a one-hour music show, at 8 p.m. Sundays on 94.9 FM The River.