Ukrainian chef to launch London restaurant staffed by refugees

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(CNN) — Considered a “culinary ambassador” for Ukraine, renowned chef Yuri Kovryzhenko has spent years championing his homeland’s national gastronomy around the world.

Now Kovryzenko, who previously ran restaurants in South Korea and Georgia as well as Ukraine, is preparing to open a neo-bistro-style establishment in London that will be staffed by Ukrainian refugees.

He and his partner Olga Tsibitowska will launch Miria in London’s upscale Chelsea neighborhood later this month. But to say this latest venture arose out of difficult circumstances is an understatement.

The couple were visiting the UK capital Kyiv for an event at the Ukrainian embassy when Russia invaded their homeland in February. They have been in the city ever since.

“When I was closing the door to my apartment, I thought I’d be back in 10 days,” Tsybytovska, who previously worked in restaurant marketing, tells CNN Travel. “But life is so unpredictable.”

Championing Ukrainian cuisine

Maria will serve the national dish of Ukraine, borscht, a soup made from beetroot, which was recently added to UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in need of urgent protection.

Maria will serve the national dish of Ukraine, borscht, a soup made from beetroot, which was recently added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in need of urgent protection.

Elena Bazu and Dmitry Novikov

After spending months collaborating with famous British chefs including Richard Corrigan and Jason Atherton to raise funds for those affected by the war, they decided to launch Maria.

The restaurant will offer classic Ukrainian dishes such as borsch, (or borscht) with a modern twist, as well as specialties such as fermented watermelon and golubtsi (cabbage rolls).

“I want people who come here to feel like I do when I’m in it [food] market in other countries,” explains Kovryzenko, a leading figure in the slow food movement.

“I want them to discover something new — a new taste. I want them to fall in love with Ukrainian food.”

Kovryzenko uses local products rather than importing food from Ukraine to ensure that there are some familiar flavors for diners.

When Maria opens its doors, it will serve Ukrainian food made from British produce with a “touch” of influences it has taken in other countries.

According to Kovryzenko, Ukrainian food has many similarities to British food, such as the lack of “aggressive spices” as well as the fondness for pork, dill and horseradish.

“The flavor and taste are very similar,” he says. “But at the same time, the [cooking] The techniques are completely different. So I think it will be very interesting.”

The main menu consists of around 25 dishes, while a tasting menu will also be available with the option of an infused vodka or wine pairing.

Fermented vegetables and fruits, heavily used in Ukrainian cuisine, will be featured prominently — the restaurant has its own dedicated fermentation room.

A shared dream

Ukrainian chef Yuri Kovryzenko and his partner Olga Tsybitovska at their London restaurant, Maria.

Ukrainian chef Yuri Kovryzenko and his partner Olga Tsybitovska at their London restaurant, Maria.

Elena Bazu and Dmitry Novikov

Kovryzenko and Tsybitowska say they chose the name Maria, which means “dream” in Ukrainian, for several reasons.

Not only did it represent their shared dream of taking Ukrainian food to the next level on the global stage, it was also the name of the world’s largest jet plane, the Antonov An-225 Maria, which Ukrainian officials was destroyed during the invasion.

Designed in the 1980s by the Antonov Design Bureau in the Soviet Union, the aircraft has long been a source of national pride for the country’s citizens — Ukrainian aircraft engineer Petro Balabuyev was the lead designer for the project.

“That [the aircraft] Means a lot to Ukrainians,” says Tsybitovska. “It shows how talented Ukrainians can be.”

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Of course, Maria also reflects the simple desire for peace and the restoration of everyday life that she and Ukrainians like her share.

“Many Ukrainian families now live apart in different parts of the world,” says Tsybitovska. “And they dream of coming back home and sleeping under a safe sky. To get their homes back, to restore the country and to return to the old life.”

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The couple hope the restaurant will become a meeting point for Ukrainians and other refugees in London and plan to use part of the downstairs area as a meeting place on Fridays and Saturdays.

In addition to traditional cuisine, Maria will also showcase art and furniture by Ukrainian artists and designers.

“We will give the space a Ukrainian touch and fill it with Ukrainian energy as much as possible,” adds Tsybitowska.

Both believe that Ukraine has the potential to become a top food travel destination and are very excited to showcase their national cuisine in a gastronomic capital like London.

‘Gastronomic Embassy’

Kovrizenko says he wants the restaurant to be built "Food Embassy of Ukraine in the UK."

Kovryzenko says he wants the restaurant to become “a food embassy of Ukraine in the UK”.

Elena Bazu and Dmitry Novikov

In fact, Kovryzenko intends to offer Ukrainian cooking masterclasses in the future at a venue not far from the Ukrainian embassy.

“I want to make this place a gastronomic embassy of Ukraine,” he says. “Food Embassy of Ukraine to the UK.”

From advertisements for staff on various social networks, they are inundated with requests from Ukrainian refugees in London who are desperate for work.

However, many of those who have responded do not speak much English, while some are still waiting for their official documents to arrive, so it is proving to be a problematic process.

“It’s very sad to talk to those people,” says Tsibitowska. “Because some of them are teachers, some of them are doctors and dentists, but they don’t speak English and their degrees are not recognized here. [in the UK]”

Despite these difficulties, the couple says they are committed to staffing the restaurant with displaced Ukrainians.

Although Maria is proving to be a positive distraction, the reality of what is happening back home is never far from his thoughts.

“My parents and my brother stayed in Ukraine,” says Tsybitowska. “So I can’t rest anymore.”

Fermented fruits and vegetables will be a staple on the menu.

Fermented fruits and vegetables will be a staple on the menu.

Elena Bazu and Dmitry Novikov

If and when Maria makes a profit, a percentage will be donated to charities supporting those affected by the invasion of Ukraine.

While their extended stay in London was unplanned, both say they feel very lucky to be where they are and overwhelmed by the help and support they’ve received.

“I’m not sure there’s anywhere else in the world where we’ve had the opportunity to do so many things,” admits Tsibitowska.

Although the couple says they’ve learned not to plan too far ahead, they hope to return to Ukraine when it’s safe to do so, and perhaps even open another Maria’s there.

For now, they are focusing their energies on the new restaurant, which is slated to open on August 2, and are eager to welcome their first diners.

“We really want to create something new,” says Tsybytovska. “It has its roots in our culture, but it will definitely be something new for the locals.”

Maria, 275 Old Brompton Road, London SW5 9JA

Top image credit: Elena Bazu and Dmitry Novikov

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