The spirit of this project is to kind of trace my steps as I walk through the everyday of my every day, for the course of a month, elaborating on the things and ideas, the faces and events and places I frequent, and introduce you, in my own way, to this protracted kind of day-in-the-creative-life of me, my peers, my neighborhood. In that vein, it was important to take at least a few opportunities during the month to talk about food. It’s pretty easy, really. I love food. I especially love eating it. And like everyone, I have those spots that are just like…the go-to joints. From my time living in the East Village of NYC, I have a lingering affinity for Ukrainian food, and in this neck of the woods, there’s only one game in town.
KUKHNYA, the Ukrainian kitchen in the back of the St. Claude music bar Siberia, marries traditional Eastern European classics with the rock and roll ethic of great American bar food, into something they like to call “Slavic Soul Food.” Founded, owned and operated by my friend, Matt Ribachonek , it is a place that I frequent on a regular basis, so in keeping with the spirit of my guest curation, it seemed a perfect subject for today’s entry.
The menu at KUKHNYA (which translates in Ukrainian to mean both “kitchen” and “cuisine”) features clever spins on Eastern European classics such as pierogi, borscht, stroganoff and blini (a Slavic version of the crepe), while being comfortably balanced by American diner staples, such as burgers, french fries and Po Boys (or, in this case, “Polboys”). It is an easy menu to take in, but very difficult to choose from. Ribachonek also features a special or two every night, and whether it is a house favorite or a new creation, nothing is without his traditionally-based homespun signature. There is the vegetarian Beet Burger, the Kielbasa Polboy, the Mushroom Golumpki (stuffed cabbage rolls), or the Cheeseburger Blini. And without getting into the business of being a food critic, let me tell you some of the things I order at KUKHNYA that get me wild with cravings at least once a week:
There’s the Omni-Reuben, with corned beef, beets, swiss cheese, kapusta (spicy cabbage), and Russian dressing. It haunts me when I’m jogging. Likewise the Black and Bleu Burger, with it’s bleu cheese and brown sugar bacon jam. I always get a side of egg noodles in garlic butter and parmesan, but other sides you can get, besides french fries, are grilled asparagus and pickled veggies. Try some borscht, or pierogi or one of the many varieties of blini. You have to try these things if you’ve never had them before. It’s a law, I think. And if you are already a fan of these things, and didn’t know where you could find it, then your search is over. You can thank me later. After you’ve had a Sweet Apple Blini for dessert—apples, almonds, goat cheese, honey. I know, right?
This guy, Matt Ribachonek, he knows how to cook. Matt, who hails from south Florida, but is a third-generation Ukrainian-American, learned the cuisine of his inherited culture as a hand-me-down. He graciously lent me some of his time today while preparing the kitchen and prepping the day’s specials.
SS What is your background as a chef, and inherent to that question, I guess, is why?
MR I never really had any other job. I’ve never done anything else. I worked in a butcher shop in high school, that’s the only thing that didn’t involve like, a stove.
SS And you learned to cook from your grandmother, and a great aunt?
MR Yeah, my great aunt Stella was a really good cook and she was the Ukrainian one so…I got a lot of those family recipes from her. Other than that, I just worked in every kind of restaurant.
SS It seems like it was not even a thing that you thought about, you just knew.
MR Oh yeah. I went to college for awhile, but I always knew. I went as long as it was free.
SS What are the top 5 ingredients that characterize Ukrainian food?
MR Potatoes, beets, cabbage, mushrooms. And meat. Beef and pork.
SS Is there a really significant difference between Ukrainian and Russian food?
MR It’s like the difference between Creole and Cajun. Russians have that obsession with the French style, going back to Peter the Great. That’s where the crepes come from, and the Russians call them blini. Ukrainian and Polish food is more alike than Russian.
SS Way more blue collar?
MR Yes. Boiled stuff, boiled and pickled.
SS And so…what is Slavic Soul Food? Is that something you made up?
MR Actually, I’m not gonna lie, it’s one of my favorite bands, Slavic Soul Party. So I just kind of rolled with it. It is soul food, though. It just happens to be Eastern European.
SS Why Ukrainian food now? You’ve worked in a lot of different formats.
MR I was working in Chicago and my boss was Indian, and he had been a cab driver. Everybody loved his food at home, so he saved up enough money to start his own restaurant. [When I heard that} I hugged him and I was like ‘you’re my last boss.’ I’m gonna take my family’s food and you know, try and figure out how to not work for anybody. That was pretty much the ultimate goal. I just really don’t want to work for anybody. you know?
SS So, what is your timeline here in New Orleans?
MR I moved here in 1997. After Katrina, I stayed a year, and then I got a job in Minneapolis, and I went there for a couple years, and then Chicago for a couple years.
SS And then you came back down?
MR Then I came down.
SS And you fell right in here? [Siberia]
MR Well… I had a shitty catering business for about a year. It was really terrible, and stressful, and it wasn’t working very well.
SS By terrible you mean…
MR Trying to run a catering business by yourself.
SS Hustling jobs?
MR Exactly. Doing parties in people’s houses. I did pop-up kitchens and I would get clients from there. You know, I’d put out flyers ‘if you’re having a party, call me.’
SS You did one at Pal’s?
MR I was helping them with the tacos on Tuesdays, but then every Saturday, I was doing Ukrainian food. I had a pop-up uptown, Cafe Rani, and the R Bar. I laid out a spread on the pool table.
SS But they were sporadic.
MR Yeah, once a week at each place, and I would fill in the gaps with catering gigs. One night, Luke and Matt [2 of Siberia’s co-owners] came into Pal’s and they’re like, ‘Dude you want to move into the kitchen? Cuz it’s called Siberia…’
SS It’s really appropriate, that marriage.
MR This is perfect. It’s good to know people from when you were young. I’ve known Luke since I was 21, working at Fiorellas and Flanagans, and he was the bartender that would come in. I used to pack up pierogi on my days off, and go around to bars that didn’t have kitchens. Just like, unload all my pierogi and they would call me the Pierogi Boy, and get all excited.
SS So, how is it [the business] working?
MR It gets busier and busier. I was a little worried at first, and then it got busy. And then it got crazy busy.
SS I hate to get all into the “future goals” question, but I will. Do you have any thoughts about down the line?
MR It’s weird because I never talk about plans. Probably because I’m afraid to admit that I don’t have plans. (laughs) If I do have an idea for something, I’d rather not say it out loud, I’d rather put it into motion and see where it goes. If it doesn’t work out—even if it’s just a recipe, or some thing that I never cooked before—I try not to put it on the special board before I make it once, you know?
SS That makes sense. That’s a good way of putting it. Isn’t there something, like in the back of your mind? A dream thing, like having your own space?
MR Sure. I always thought…a diner. You know what I mean? No booze. Someplace you go to sober up. I love those places. If I had to say i have a next move….