The making of Mriya – the London restaurant run by Ukrainian refugees

0
65

“Here we go,” says Yurii Kovryzhenko with a smile, as he emerges from the kitchen carrying a steaming bowl of borsch. A rich aroma of pork stock combined with the earthy sweetness of the beetroot fills the air as Kovryzhenko approaches and sets the dish down. A plate of pampushkas follow – Ukrainian dough balls slathered in garlic and parsley butter that make for an ideal dunking companion to the soup.

“This isn’t just Ukraine’s signature dish,” continues the chef, earnestly. “It is Ukraine.”

Served traditionally with a dollop of sour cream in the centre, the borsch is one of the most popular dishes to feature on the menu at Mriya – the Ukrainian ‘neo bistro’ launched by Kovryzhenko and his partner Olga Tsybytovska in London’s Earl’s Court back in September. The pair originally arrived in London in mid-February for what was meant to be a quick stopover during which Kovryzhenko, in his role as a ‘culinary ambassador’ for Ukraine, would promote his country’s national gastronomy through a series of dinners. Then, on February 24, Russian tanks started rolling into their country, and Kovryzhenko and Tsybytovska suddenly found themselves facing the prospect of a more indefinite stay.

Several months later and having spent a great deal of the intervening time actively involved in charitable activities to raise funds for Ukraine, the couple have now built a place where they can feel properly connected to their homeland.

“Mriya is our link,” explains Tsybytovska. “When the war started, we felt like uprooted plants that had been discarded without water and soil. This restaurant is a link to our roots, our home, and our livelihoods before the invasion.”

A ‘neo bistro’

The decision to describe Mriya as a ‘neo bistro’ reflects Kovryzhenko and Tsybytovska’s aim to create a contemporary space that blurs the lines between casual and high-end. “It’s something modern,” explains Kovryzhenko. “It’s a cross between a bistro and a higher-reaching gastronomic restaurant. The atmosphere is friendly, and the service is too, but the quality of the food is more fine dining.”

It was the couple’s fundraising work in the weeks following the invasion – which saw them hold more than 20 charity dinner events and raise around £400,000 – that eventually led to the opportunity to open the restaurant. “It started on the second day after the beginning of the war, 24 February,” remembers Tsybytovska. “We were still in a state of shock, but I was trying to think about how we could help and what we could do.”

Initially Kovryzhenko and Tsybytovska approached Templeton brothers Ollie and Ed, and held a dinner at Carousel’s new Fitzrovia restaurant, with all the proceeds going to World Central Kitchen, which has been providing hot meals, grocery kits, fresh ingredients, and shelf-stable packs to people across Ukraine. The evening was a success, and soon the pair were approached to do more dinners across the capital, with Kovryzhenko supported in the kitchen by high-profile chefs including Jamie Oliver, Jason Atherton, Richard Corrigan and Tom Sellers.

The success of the couple’s charity drive led them to be approached by a private backer, who offered to fund the opening of a permanent restaurant in London. “Mriya wasn’t something we were actively planning, it was born in our minds during those discussions,” says Kovryzhenko. “The charity dinners allowed us to develop an understanding of the market in London, and this felt like a logical next step.”

Kovryzhenko and Tsybytovska had no fixed idea on where they wanted to open Mriya. Initially they considered a location on Dean Street in Soho, before choosing to go with the site they have now on Old Brompton Road. What they did have, though, was a clear vision of what they wanted the restaurant to be.

“It was clear from the beginning that this restaurant should represent Ukrainian cuisine, be staffed by Ukrainians and be the centre of the Ukrainian community.”

To the staffing point, Mriya’s entire team is made up of Ukrainian refugees, nearly all of whom came to London to seek shelter after the Russia invasion. And many of them are new to hospitality, with the 15-strong restaurant workforce featuring confectioners, former lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, managers, and university students.

“This restaurant is a link to our roots,
 our home, and our livelihoods
before the invasion”

Facebook was the primary platform used to get the word out when the restaurant was first announced. “We had an immediate response,” says Tsybytovska. “But it was a hard process. We had lots of requests of over-qualified candidates who had significant experience, but we couldn’t hire them as they did not speak any English. We also only had a very limited number of vacancies. There were so many that wanted to come and work with us; the most difficult part was having to say no to a lot of them.”

Once all the positions had been filled, Kovryzhenko led the training. “Most of the staff were new to hospitality, so I trained them in all elements of the kitchen and restaurant, including the front of house,” he explains. “You can’t take a waiter and tell them to just serve a table. They need to know everything about the dishes, allergies, drinks, the style of service. It was a real learning curve.”

Echoes of war

It’s hoped that Mriya, which translates to mean ‘dream’ in Ukrainian, will become a ‘cultural embassy’ of Ukraine in London that emphasises the country’s strength and resilience. Split over two levels, the design was developed by the Ukrainian architectural agency Replus Bureau. Products from modern Ukrainian industrial designers, pieces of art native to the country, as well as authentic century-old furniture and decor from the architectural salvage workshop Restare were delivered from Ukraine to London specifically for the restaurant.

Echoes of the war can be found throughout. On one wall hangs a painting created by designer Andrew Matvichuk, which he made while on the frontline. Featuring a vine of blossoming flowers, it’s a warm image, one of hope, with notes of red, pink, blue and orange poking through against a dark canvass that turns out to be a piece of metal found in a tunnel Matvichuk used to hide from Russian shelling.

Elsewhere, a 19th​ century chest of drawers found in an abandoned house in the city of Lviv has been repurposed as a waiter’s desk. While by the entrance hangs a mirror made from an old window frame that’s covered with a grid of duct tape strips – a reference to how people in Ukraine are now protecting themselves from broken windows and mirrors in case of a missile hit.

It was important to Kovryzhenko and Tsybytovska that Mriya’s design reflects the war back home, but having constant reminders of the reality faced by their friends and family while also having to overcome the day-to-day challenges that come from running a restaurant has been tough. “It’s not something I can remove myself from,” says Tsybytovska. “I’m all the time thinking about my family who are still in Ukraine. And when I’m not doing that, I’m thinking about the restaurant. There’s nothing else. My life is divided between the restaurant and my family back home; trying to think about anything else is so hard. I tried to do meditation, but my mind is so overloaded that I couldn’t relax. Now it’s impossible to me.”

“It’s very hard,” adds Kovryzhenko. “Not physically, but mentally. My body is here, but my mind is always in Ukraine.”

Ukrainian ‘haute cuisine’

Kovryzhenko wasn’t always a chef. In a previous life he worked as a sculptor but was forced to find a new career path after the 2008 financial crash ruined his business. “When my business was destroyed, my mind also was destroyed,” he says, “I had no idea what I was going to do in the future.”

Through his practises as a Buddhist, Kovryzhenko found a personal peace and soon went about looking for new avenues through which he could explore his creativity. Living in France at the time, he chose to return to hospitality, having worked as both a barman and waiter earlier in his life. Soon enough he found a job as a commis chef and begun working his way through the ranks of the kitchen before eventually returning to Ukraine to pursue it full time.

“I put all my focus into studying the craft of being a chef,” he recalls. “As well as working in the kitchen, I took time out to go to culinary school in Paris. And the more I learnt, the more I was able to take the techniques of French gastronomy and apply that to Ukrainian cuisine.”

The menu at Mriya reflects that approach, combining Ukrainian gastronomic heritage including elements of pickling and fermenting with French cooking techniques. “I describe it as Ukrainian haute cuisine,” adds Kovryzhenko. “It’s like trying to save the taste of my childhood but change the shape of it.”

Dishes like forshmak, for example, a traditional recipe of minced herring served with toast, is here presented as a crisp, dainty waffle filled with a mix of the pate and fermented apple and topped with edible flowers, pickled onions and a mix of roe. Then there’s the oxtail holodets, a celebratory meat jelly dish, which at Mriya is served as a delicate, savoury lolly with a beetroot puree and punchy horseradish sauce.

London-Food-and-Drink-Photography---Myria-Ukraine-Restaurant-Menu-West-Brompton-London-2022---Nic-Crilly-Hargrave-19

As the above may suggest, those who are less au fait with Ukrainian cuisine may find there isn’t much on the menu that’s familiar, beyond the recognisable heritage dishes like borsch and chicken Kyiv. Kovryzhenko has made a conscious decision not to anglicise dishes to make it more approachable to London diners, believing that similarities between Ukrainian and British cuisine will make it accessible to any open-minded guest. “I think Ukrainian food is comfortable with a UK palette,” he says. “We have similar climates. Neither of our cuisines have any aggressive spices in them, and both are primarily focused on meat and root vegetables.” 

There are other reasons to keep the menu as authentic as possible, also. “Ukrainian cuisine has such a long, rich history and is so diverse, but no one knows about it,” says Tsybytovska. “It’s underexplored and underestimated. People explore countries through their food; it remains in the shadow. It’s almost invisible and we want to give it a platform.”

Evolving the menu

Work has already begun on developing the food menu. Dishes on the launch menu were carefully chosen to give a broad introduction to the idea of Ukrainian cuisine with a focus on the south and west of the country, but the soon-to-be-released second menu will be more regionally diverse.

“It’s going to be very seasonal, which is how it is in Ukraine,” says Kovryzhenko. “And it’s totally different cuisines. Many of our launch dishes were light, but now we’re going into winter it will be a much heartier offering.”

“It was clear from the beginning this restaurant should represent Ukrainian cuisine, be staffed by Ukrainians and be the centre of the Ukrainian community”

The drinks, overseen by Tsybytovska, are also evolving. The wine list currently comprises notable Ukrainian wines including a number of bins that have been sourced from the Beykush winery, located in the Mykolaiv region, which has suffered from severe shelling since the start of the war. The wider drinks offering, meanwhile, also features a unique opportunity to try Berryland cider, whose award-winning cider house near the city of Irpin in the Kyiv region was completely destroyed by Russian forces in the first days of the invasion. The last supplies of cider from the warehouses were delivered specifically for Mriya.

With a finite supply of such drinks, Tsybytovska, who previously worked in restaurant marketing, has begun exploring other Eastern European suppliers, with an aim to add labels from Poland, Slovakia and Romania, among others, in the coming months. “Back in Ukraine, I used to arrange tours for guests to artisan producers in the country,” she explains. “Mriya gives me a space to explore that again through another sphere. The contacts I made from there has really helped with the supplying of the restaurant.”

Dreams for the future

Mriya isn’t Kovryzhenko’s first restaurant venture. He previously had places in Georgia and South Korea, both of which subsequently closed, the latter as a result of the pandemic. “This is my third Ukrainian restaurant I’ve opened outside of Ukraine,” he says, somewhat wistfully.

A pause, and then he adds: “I would like to open one in Ukraine one day. When the war’s over, I want to go back to Kyiv and open a second Mriya there, which can then act as a cultural bridge between the two countries. That’s my dream.”

London-Food-and-Drink-Photography---Myria-Ukraine-Restaurant-Menu-West-Brompton-London-2022---Nic-Crilly-Hargrave-46

For now, though, the focus of the couple is on doing the best they can to make Mriya a slice of home for themselves in London. “I miss Ukraine a lot,” says Tsybytovska. “We haven’t seen our families in eight months. It’s hard.

“We’re lucky to be here, though, and safe. There’s no other way we can survive at the moment. This is what we know how to do. Yurii is an amazing chef, and to present our country through the language of food, I think that’s the best we could do.”