There are many paths to becoming a chef. For Dmytro Kovalenko, who heads the kitchen at this rustic East Village luncheonette, it started with a war. A former businessman and Euromaidan activist in his mid-thirties, Kovalenko fled the violence in eastern Ukraine three years ago.
In New York, he worked as a dishwasher and a line cook before landing at Streecha. “You have to be passionate about cooking,” he said recently. “Otherwise, it’s really hard and you will quit really soon.”
Streecha (an old Ukrainian word for “meeting”) is easy to miss. It’s situated in a basement beneath a chiropractor’s office and is demarcated by a blue banner in Cyrillic. The restaurant—which, despite appearances, is open to the public—was conceived about four decades ago (no one recalls the precise year), as an income-generating project for St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church, up the street. To this day, all the cooks, including Kovalenko, are volunteers, and the majority of the patrons are parishioners.
On a recent Friday, just past 7 a.m., while Kovalenko was making beef stock for borscht, three elderly women sat at a table, folding mashed potatoes and cheddar cheese into rolled-out circles of dough for Ukrainian dumplings called vareniki. “Over here—put in potato—close—strong,” a centenarian named Anastasia instructed, pinching dumplings shut with practiced rhythm.
For as long as anyone can remember, the menu has consisted of exactly four items, all paragons of traditional Ukrainian fare. Besides borscht and vareniki, there is holubtsi, a medley of rice and pork or mushrooms swathed in braised cabbage leaves, and kovbasa, or sausage, which Kovalenko gets at a nearby Ukrainian-run butcher shop and serves with homemade horseradish.
Rotating daily specials include shallow-fried potato pancakes (deruny), wheat berries with poppy seeds and honey (kutya), and a block of congealed fish stock (kholodets) that Kovalenko likens to “fish jello.” For dessert, there are rose-jam doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar (pampushki).
The décor borders on the monastic: communal tables, religious icons, a wooden dough-rolling machine long retired from service. Notably, there are not one but two portraits of Taras Shevchenko—a nineteenth-century Ukrainian poet who was exiled for organizing against the Tsar and mocking his wife. One of his most celebrated works begins with a plea: “When I am dead, bury me / In my beloved Ukraine.” Asked whether he shares the sentiment, Kovalenko said, “So far, I don’t want to go there.” His application for asylum is pending with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.