On 29th July 2022 the British government announced that more than 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion had arrived in the UK. A small, resourceful group of them have found purpose and community in a newly-launched Ukrainian restaurant in Earl’s Court in London. In late 2022 Delayed Gratification heard the stories of the team behind Mriya
29th July 2022 (Taken from: #48)
Their work trip was meant to last ten days. But nine months later Ukrainian chef Yurii Kovryzhenko and his partner Olga Tsybytovska are still in London.
The night before the Russian invasion began on 24th February 2022, the couple were in London preparing varenyky, traditional moon-shaped dumplings, ahead of a cookery class for students organised by the Ukrainian embassy. The event never went ahead. “When we woke up on 24th February we had many missed calls and texts from friends and family back in Ukraine,” says Tsybytovska. “As we were waking up some of our friends were already on the way out of Kyiv, stuck in traffic. They’d thrown their things into a bag and jumped into a car.”
“That first day of war was the hardest emotionally because nobody knew what to do or what the next few hours would bring – everyone in the embassy was glued to their phones,” says Kovryzhenko. Tsybytovska remembers the intensity of the atmosphere, with staff at the embassy – where the couple lived for two and a half months before they were offered a room by a British woman – working from early in the morning until late at night every day.
Kovryzhenko was able to help get his mother onto a packed train out of Kyiv, which was being bombarded by Russian forces. Tsybytovska’s family, meanwhile, chose to stay at their home in Dnipro in central Ukraine, around 70 miles from the frontline in mid-November. “My father runs a business and he couldn’t just leave his employees,” she says. “My family can see and hear the bombs flying outside their window. They can sometimes feel the house shaking. At this moment they are not safe.”
Kovryzhenko briefly considered the possibility of returning home to fight. But the couple realised that they could contribute more without leaving London, and they set about helping raise hundreds of thousands of pounds to support their compatriots by making their Ukrainian dishes at fundraising events in the city alongside some big-name chefs including Jamie Oliver and Jason Atherton. British attendees at these events were enthusiastic about the food, so the pair formed a new plan – to create a permanent home for Ukrainian food in London, a place offering employment for those who had fled the war. Mriya – meaning ‘dream’ in Ukrainian – was born.
The front of house staff
After committing to creating employment for Ukrainians displaced by the conflict, Tsybytovska and Kovryzhenko received more than 100 job applications, many from people who in ordinary circumstances would have been vastly overqualified. “One applicant for kitchen porter [washing dishes, cleaning floors etc] had a doctorate and was deputy director of a university,” says Kovryzhenko.
Before the war Dasha Nazarets taught children English at a school in Kyiv. When Mriya opened on 31st August she was a member of the waiting staff, and she’s recently been promoted to supervisor. “[A year ago] I’d never have dreamt that I’d be here doing this,” she says. “I thought I’d be teaching in the UK, but it turns out my Ukrainian teaching diploma means nothing here.”
The 21-year-old was staying with her grandparents in the west of Ukraine when war broke out. “We took all of our stuff to their basement and hid there for the first couple of weeks,” she says. Her mother decided that Nazarets and her cousin weren’t safe in Ukraine and should leave the country. She asked a friend in the UK to help them and through their contacts they were able to find a host under the Homes For Ukraine programme. They took the bus to Poland, flew to the UK – and after replying to a job ad posted by Tsybytovska on Instagram, Nazarets got the waiting gig at Mriya. Being one of the few applicants that were fluent in English helped.
“I believe that we’re going to win the war and we’re going to win soon. I had a lot of plans for my future in Ukraine,” says Nazarets. She calls her mother every morning, every evening and often on work breaks. Her family is doing well, she says, but the fear of a bomb dropped by a Russian drone is constant. “You never know when and where it’s going to land and what it’s going to destroy,” she says.
Deputy manager Yurii Horchyn, an 18-year-old finance student from Lviv, left Ukraine to move to his aunt’s flat in London with his parents and three of his brothers in April. “My aunt is happy for us to stay for as long as we need but there’s seven people sharing a one-bedroom flat so it’s crowded,” he says. In spite of the job and the busy family life, he’s managing to find time to continue his studies through distance learning. “Life in London is very different to home,” he says. “I’d like to go back to Ukraine when I can.”
The interior designers
“I never believed that a war like this could happen in the 21st century but on 24th February I woke to sirens all over the city,” says Kris Badzyan, co-founder of Lviv-based architecture firm Replus Bureau, which handled Mriya’s interior design. “I couldn’t believe it, it was like I was in a movie; we all went to the office to work but we couldn’t, we just talked about the news. What was going on? Should we escape to another country? Should we join the army?”
“A day earlier we had plans, budgets, deadlines, lots of work,” Badzyan continues. “And then it all just stopped. No clients, no projects, nothing. Nobody cared about yesterday’s problems.” She was determined to take the necessary steps to save her business. “We have 20 people working at Replus and I didn’t want to lose them,” she says. “I don’t want to say ‘I don’t have a job for you any more’ so that’s why we decided to try to find more projects abroad.”
After spending a month in Budapest waiting for their visas to come through, Badzyan and her project manager Ola Tytko arrived in the UK to set up a London office. Since the end of April they’ve travelled between Lviv and London every two or three weeks, which involves a night bus between their hometown and Krakow in Poland, and sometimes a border queue of up to ten hours. Life in Lviv has largely returned to normal, they say, but nowhere in Ukraine is safe and Russian missile attacks on critical infrastructure have caused lengthy blackouts.
The pair have set about turning Mriya into a mini Ukrainian cultural centre, importing contemporary art and vintage furniture, including a 19th-century chest of drawers from an abandoned house in Lviv, which now functions as a waiters’ drawer. Near the restaurant entrance the Replus team installed a mirror made from an old window frame; blue masking tape criss-crosses the glass panels. This, they say, is because Ukrainians have had to tape up windows to protect themselves against flying fragments of glass during Russian shelling. The tape will only be removed when Ukraine wins the war. “With our work here we wanted to show Ukrainian culture without clichés,” says Tytko. “We want to show how rich our culture is.”
The sous chef
Like the rest of her colleagues at Mriya, sous chef Natalia Lozenko is extremely worried about her family’s safety. “Where they live in central Ukraine is a danger zone,” she says. “Just today I spoke to my mum and they had a bomb explode near their home. My family have all stayed in Ukraine, they didn’t want to leave.”
Until the start of the war Lozenko had been working in an Italian restaurant in Odesa, a Ukrainian city on the Black Sea coast. “I left within two weeks of the start of the war. I packed one backpack with my documents, my laptop and some money, and that’s it,” she says. She spent four months in Bulgaria before leaving for London due to what she describes as a “feeling that I must be here”. A former colleague told her that Kovryzhenko was opening a restaurant in London and that he was on the lookout for displaced Ukrainians in the UK who had experience of working in a kitchen. “Oh my god, I was so happy to find a job in London with Ukrainian people,” she says.
Although she misses her home, Lozenko isn’t in a rush to leave London. “The UK is a great country and they’re helping the Ukrainian people. This is my first time in London and it’s been a good experience,” she says, adding that her sponsor through the Homes For Ukraine scheme has been a huge help to her. While conversation in Mriya’s kitchen is unsurprisingly dominated by the war, Lozenko says she’s also had many conversations with her boss about her country’s culinary heritage. “Before working with Yurii I’d never thought much about the history of borscht,” she says.
Mriya’s red-pink borscht – a comforting soup of Ukrainian origin – is slow-cooked with duck, plenty of beetroot and a dollop of sour cream. The menu features Kovryzhenko’s artful reimagining of other traditional dishes such as chicken kyiv and golubtsi (stuffed cabbage rolls, although he uses courgette flowers) as well as his own creations based on his experiences of travelling around the country and learning about Ukraine’s gastronomic heritage. Kovryzhenko is clear that the food – as well as the imported beers and wines – must symbolise the identity of a proud and independent Ukraine, and he refuses to include dishes from Soviet times, what he characterises as “awful Russian salads with lots of mayonnaise.”
With rocketing energy bills and the cost-of-living crisis keeping many would-be customers at home, this is not the best time to open a restaurant. It’s also the only Ukrainian restaurant in central London, so there’s the additional challenge of introducing unfamiliar dishes to the city’s diners. Tsybytovska admits the decision was driven more by the heart than the head. “We didn’t really think about any of the challenges of opening a restaurant,” she says. “It was a dream, really, to do something for our country. We felt that we had to do something while we’re here, in a safe place. We’re not fighting. We’re not making big sacrifices like so many Ukrainians are doing. So this is our way of supporting ourselves, and helping our country too.”
For Lozenko they have succeeded in creating a home away from home. “When I opened the door of Mriya,” she says, “it was like being back in Ukraine.”
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