The new London restaurant hiring Ukrainian refugees

·5-min read
'We can't allow our dreams to be destroyed,' says Ukrainian chef Yurii Kovryzhenko - Dana Potelych
'We can't allow our dreams to be destroyed,' says Ukrainian chef Yurii Kovryzhenko - Dana Potelych

“I stand in solidarity with all Ukrainians,” says Ukrainian chef Yurii Kovryzhenko, 39, who is opening a Ukrainian restaurant in Chelsea in July with his partner, Olga Tsybytovska, 33.

The restaurant, Mriya Neo Bistro (Mriya means “dream”), will be staffed by refugees, and a percentage of profits will go to charities helping Ukrainians in the UK.

“I want to support other Ukrainians who have lost their homes and have had to leave their country, giving them jobs and a sense of belonging, unity and identity,” says Kovryzhenko, who grew up in Kyiv. “We can’t allow our dreams to be destroyed.

“The restaurant will also be a way for me to tell the world about my country’s culture – our heritage, our people and our cuisine. The language of food is one that everyone can understand.”

Mriya will occupy a 37-cover site with a terrace on the Old Brompton Road, serving “dishes you would expect at a fine dining restaurant, but the friendly service and a relaxed ambience of a bistro.” Kovryzhenko intends to “fill the space with Ukrainian energy”, from Ukrainian ceramics to pictures by Ukrainian artists on the walls.

Diners can expect to try both classic Ukrainian dishes and modern variations, inspired by Kovryzhenko’s childhood in Ukraine and his time at culinary schools in France, Spain and Italy.

“The menu will reflect Ukrainian heritage and our national cuisine, transformed and made new,” he explains. “For example, Mriya’s version of traditional Ukrainian cabbage rolls (holubtsi) will be made with courgette flowers.”

Heart and home

While the menu will change frequently, chicken kyiv (“one of the most popular Ukrainian dishes in the world”) and borscht will regularly feature. “Ukrainian borscht has been recognised by Unesco and was recently added to its list of endangered cultural traditions. It’s part of the fabric of Ukrainian life.

“Hospitality comes from the heart and the home in Ukraine, where there are many variations of borscht, depending on the region and the time of year. Growing up, my mum often made it with pork or chicken. At Mriya, we will prepare it with duck, and with cep mushrooms for vegetarians.”

Other dishes include poppyseed cake with caramelised condensed milk, courgette pancakes with stracciatella and smoked trout, vinaigrette with strawberries on green pea cream with crayfish necks, and pampushky (Ukrainian garlic buns).

Pickled and fermented vegetables will also play a starring role. “In Ukraine, we have historically fermented and preserved cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, garlic, apples and plums, because there is a large part of the year when there is no harvest. Pickled watermelon is a Ukrainian speciality,” Kovryzhenko explains. “Grains are also a staple in Ukraine, which is known for sweet and savoury porridges prepared with wheat, poppyseeds, buckwheat, pearl barley and corn.”

Vodka and wine pairings will call attention to Ukrainian wines and spirits, including traditional horseradish-infused vodka with honey (khrenovykha).

Kovryzhenko and Tsybytovska are funding Mriya themselves, with the help of several investors from the UK and Ukraine. One is Kyiv-born spirits entrepreneur Dima Deinega, 33, who founded Dima’s Vodka in 2020 – bringing Ukrainian triple grain vodka, with barley, wheat and rye to the UK.

Ukrainian sommelier Dmytro Goncharuk (head sommelier at Corrigan’s restaurant in Mayfair) is working on the wine list, which will shine a light on Ukrainian wines from Kolonist, Villa Tinta, Beykush Winery and Stakhovsky Wines, produced by Ukrainian tennis star Sergiy Stakhovsky.

“Many people are unaware that there are winemaking regions in Ukraine, and that Ukraine produces good wine, in the south, on the coast and in the Carpathian mountains. One of my tasks is to challenge outdated perceptions of Ukrainian food and wine. I want people to try it,” says Kovryzhenko.

Kovryzhenko has been an ambassador for modern Ukrainian cuisine for many years, working with Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a culinary diplomat representing Ukraine worldwide. As a co-founder of the Slow Food Chefs' Alliance in Ukraine, he works closely with Ukrainian farmers and small food producers to promote Ukrainian produce internationally.

Kovryzhenko and Tsybytovska arrived in London in February to host a dinner at the Ukrainian Embassy, but were unable to return after the Russian invasion. They have since hosted pop-ups and fundraising dinners in support of Ukraine, collaborating with top British chefs including Jason Atherton and Tom Sellers.

Flying the flag

As a “food diplomat, not a warrior”, Kovryzhenko’s mission now is to rally collective resistance against Russia, using his influence here in London to support Ukraine, rather than returning to fight. “At a time when the news is filled with the atrocities of war, it’s more important than ever to fly the flag for Ukrainian culture. I can do more to help here,” says the chef, who supported the Michelin Guide’s decision to suspend Russian restaurant recommendations. “Promoting Russian tourism is all money for bombs and rockets.”

In 2012, Kovryzhenko launched Ukrainian restaurant Kobzar in Tbilisi in Georgia, before moving to Lviv in Ukraine, where he ran high-end restaurant Vintage Nouveau. In 2019 he opened a Ukrainian restaurant in Seoul, South Korea named Trypillia (after Ukraine’s neolithic Trypillian civilisation; Trypillia means “three fields” in Ukrainian).

Since the outbreak of the war he has had to pause his latest venture, a restaurant in Kyiv named Itzel, for the foreseeable future. “I don’t see that we will be able to reopen it for a very long time,” he says.

“As well as creating jobs for Ukrainians in the UK and fundraising for Ukrainian refugees, Mriya is a way for me to find myself as a chef in this city, where I’ve found there is great support for Ukraine among other chefs and within the hospitality industry.

“We’ve been so busy fundraising and preparing to open the restaurant that sometimes I lose track of the days, but it keeps my mind from sadness.”

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