Ukrainian chef to launch London restaurant staffed by refugees

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(CNN) — Considered a “culinary ambassador” for Ukraine, renowned chef Yurii Kovryzhenko has spent years championing the national gastronomy of his home country around the world.

Now Kovryzhenko, who’s previously run 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 Tsybytovska will launch Mriya in London’s upscale Chelsea neighborhood later this month. But to say this latest venture has arisen out of difficult circumstances is something of an understatement.

The couple were visiting the UK capital from Kyiv for an event at the Embassy of Ukraine when Russia invaded their homeland back in February. They’ve been in the city ever since.

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

Championing Ukrainian cuisine

Mriya will serve Ukraine’s national dish borsch, a soup made with beetroot, which was recently added to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding.

Elena Bazu and Dmitriy Novikov

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

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

“I want the people who come here to feel like I do when I’m in a [food] market in other countries,” explains Kovryzhenko, 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.”

Kovryzhenko uses local products rather than importing food products from Ukraine to ensure that there’s some familiar tastes for diners.

When Mriya opens its doors, he’ll be serving up Ukrainian food made from British products with a “touch” of the influences he’s picked up in other countries.

According to Kovryzhenko, Ukrainian food has a lot of similarities with British food, such as a lack of “aggressive spices,” as well as a fondness for pork, dill and horseradish.

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

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

Fermented vegetables and fruits, heavily used within Ukrainian cuisine, will be featured significantly — the restaurant has its own dedicated fermented room.

Shared dream

Ukrainian chef Yurii Kovryzhenko and his partner Olga Tsybytovska at their London restaurant, Mriya.

Ukrainian chef Yurii Kovryzhenko and his partner Olga Tsybytovska at their London restaurant, Mriya.

Elena Bazu and Dmitriy Novikov

Kovryzhenko and Tsybytovska say they chose the name Mriya, which means “dream” in Ukrainian, for a multitude of reasons.

Not only does 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 Mriya, which Ukrainian officials confirmed was destroyed during the invasion.

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

“It [the aircraft] means a lot to Ukrainians,” says Tsybytovska. “It shows how talented Ukrainian people can be.”

Of course, Mriya also reflects the simple wish for peace and the restoration of everyday life that they and Ukrainians like them share.

“Many Ukrainian families are now living apart in different parts of the world,” says Tsybytovska. “And they dream of coming back home and sleeping under a safe sky. Of getting their houses back, restoring the country, and to come back to a previous life.”

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

Aside from traditional cuisine, Mriya 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 we can,” adds Tsybytovska.

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

‘Gastronomic embassy’

Kovryzhenko says he wants the restaurant to become

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

Elena Bazu and Dmitriy Novikov

In fact, Kovryzhenko aims to offer Ukrainian cooking masterclasses at the venue, located a short drive away from the Embassy of Ukraine, in the future.

“I want to make this place a gastronomic embassy of Ukraine,” he says. “The food embassy of Ukraine in the UK.”

Since advertising for staff on various social networks, they’ve been inundated with requests from Ukrainian refugees in London who are desperate for work.

However, many of those who’ve responded do not speak much English, while some are still waiting to for their official documents to come through, so it’s proving to be a problematic process.

“It’s very sad to speak to those people,” says Tsybytovska. “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 say they remain committed to staffing the restaurant with displaced Ukrainians.

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

“My parents and my brother stayed in Ukraine,” says Tsybytovska. “So I cannot be relaxed anymore.”

Fermented fruit and vegetables will be a prominent fixture on the menu.

Fermented fruit and vegetables will be a prominent fixture on the menu.

Elena Bazu and Dmitriy Novikov

If and when Mriya turns 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 have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of help and support they’ve received.

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

Although the couple say 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 up another Mriya over there.

For now, they are focusing their energies into the new restaurant, which is scheduled to open on August 2, and looking forward to welcoming their first diners.

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

Mriya, 275 Old Brompton Road, London SW5 9JA

Top image credit: Elena Bazu and Dmitriy Novikov