Ukrainian refugees get a new start in a Paris bistro

Alina Prokopenko, 22, often dreams of one day moving to France from her hometown in western Ukraine. When Russia invaded her country, her only concern for her and her family was survival. But in a twist of fate, the war ended making her dream at least a temporary reality.

“I dreamed about it before the war,” explained Prokopenko. “When the war started, I had no choice.”

Yuliya Tkachenko, 45, and her daughter Nadiya, 15, are also forced to flee for their lives, fleeing to Poland with no clue as to where, or how, their perilous journey will end. end.

Yuliya Tkachenko, 45, and her daughter Nadiya Guidez, 15, walk outside a metro stop in Paris

Yuliya Tkachenko and her daughter Nadiya Guidez walk from the metro stop to the restaurant in Zone 2 in central Paris.

(Iris Schneider / For The Times)

Two months later, two strangers spend the day together in a cramped professional kitchen crafting recipes from their hometown, just steps from iconic Parisian monuments like the Louvre, Bourse and Place. Vendome.

Prokopenko, who ran a home-made artisan bakery on the outskirts of Lviv, and Tkachenko, who had no culinary training, now work in a tony, French bistro called La Bourse et la Vie , owned by an American chef with a Michelin degree. the star cares about the plight of the Ukrainian people, and decided to help.

Maybe he could serve some Ukrainian on his menu, thought chef Daniel Rose. But he needed recipes and for that he turned to social media. Prokopenko was new in Paris one day when Rose discovered her Instagram page, which featured cheesecakes, honey cakes and other traditional desserts.

“He wrote to me that he was looking for some Ukrainians to start a project in Paris to convert his French restaurant to a Ukrainian menu in two months,” she said. “I can’t imagine so much attention is coming to Ukraine and I have the opportunity to share my culture here.”

At the time, she was offered a place to stay for free for two months with a woman in Paris who also contacted her via social media. Although Prokopenko was nervous about being with a stranger, the apartment had a view of the Eiffel Tower, which she thought she could trust and move in. To prepare for the job interview, she decided to make some cakes to take with her. She tries to find ingredients that are close to the ones she used in Ukraine. Her poise, baking skills, and attention to detail were evident, and Rose hired her immediately.

Tkachenko and her daughter, who came to Paris partly because Nadiya spoke French and obtained French citizenship through her father, found housing in a multi-level refugee shelter run by an immigration office France run. She quickly took a day cleaning an apartment for a Parisian but secured an interview with Rose after a cousin in Ukraine noticed one of Prokopenko’s Instagram posts.

“I knew that when I left his restaurant the job would be in my hands,” she recalls with a resolute smile. Rose also remembers the interview. Though her cooking skills aren’t up to his traditional standards, Rose says, “I feel like she’s cooking for her life.”

So he hired her, too.

Ukrainian refugees at a church for food and clothing.

Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees line up at St.-Sulpice Church on Wednesdays and Saturdays to receive food and clothing donations.

(Iris Schneider / For The Times)

According to French officials, more than 50,000 Ukrainians have been displaced to France since the end of February, with both government and private donors providing assistance with shelter, food, clothing and in some schools fit is a job. Once protected, Ukrainians in France can travel, stay and work for at least a year.

To accommodate the displaced, gymnasiums have been converted into dormitories, and the doors of schools and daycare facilities have been opened. A government website offers tips on where to find donated food, clothing and toys – including a twice-weekly distribution at the historic St.-Sulpice Church on the Left Bank, held with the help of the Church of St. Volodymyr, a Ukrainian nearby Catholic Church.

On Wednesdays and Saturdays, hundreds of refugees begin lining up hours before the 2 p.m. distribution in St.-Sulpice’s giant basement. Volunteers of various nationalities, some new to Ukraine, others French nationals from Paris and beyond, arrive early to sort clothes by size and gender so they can be put on display. .

Volunteers distribute food bags and clothes to Ukrainian refugees.

Ihor Rantsya, a priest from St. Volodoymr, distributing food bags to Ukrainian refugees at St.-Sulpice Church.

(Iris Schneider / For The Times)

Volunteers prepare food donations.

Volunteers collect food for donations in the basement of the church.

(Iris Schneider / For The Times)

There are also diapers neatly stacked and fresh produce in pouched portions, enough to make a hearty soup or stew. Distribution lasted two hours and hundreds were served, with young children playing in the basement while their mother scoured the items.

A volunteer started checking passports as refugees surrounded the narrow door. An orderly line of people ran along the winding stone stairs. Some carry trolleys or multiple shopping bags to pack as much as possible. Once the door opens, there will be a frenzy towards fresh food.

While the first group looked through the stacked items, the rest waited patiently. On a recent afternoon, a father stuffed a giant teddy bear for his toddler into his backpack. But this group is mostly women and children, as men are not allowed to leave Ukraine unless they are over 60 or have at least three young children.

Most of those in the airline are as lucky as Prokopenko and Tkachenko, who are now paid to spend their days immersed in the memory of their homeland in a restaurant temporarily renamed Le Borscht et la Vie, run by a famous chef. restaurant in Manhattan and plans to open another in downtown Los Angeles.

When Tkachenko prepares sour cherries for varenyky (dumplings) on the menu and Prokopenko remakes a strawberry dessert recipe her grandfather made for her as a child, thoughts of Ukraine are never far away.

Yuliya Tkachenko working with Ivan Tabalov

Yuliya Tkachenko works with Ukrainian refugee Ivan Tabalov in the kitchen of a small pub.

(Iris Schneider / For The Times)

“We have teamwork,” said Ivan Tabalov, 20, a third Ukrainian kitchen worker now living in Paris, studying at Cordon Bleu when the Russian invasion began.

When Tabalov’s mentors at the school heard about Chef Rose’s idea, they held an interview, knowing that the skills he’d acquired as an intern for Alain Ducasse, the famous French chef, would be making him a good candidate to complete the group. After an enthusiastic meeting, Rose decided to replace her French chef with a young immigrant who now spends part of the day filling a giant soup pot with the ingredients for borscht. with veal.

Tabalov said his young wife, who lives with her mother, at first refused to leave Ukraine because the mother believed in Russian propaganda. He remembers talking on the phone with his wife and hearing the sirens of an air strike going off in the background. “I was in a panic, not knowing what was going to happen to her,” he said. Then the village next to them was bombed and destroyed.

That changed the mother-in-law’s mind. They fled, and his wife was able to accompany him to Paris.

He was more secure now knowing she was safe here with him. And there is a sense of comfort in being with other people from his country, making the food they grew up with.

Together with Rose and his grateful new staff, came up with a French twist on traditional Ukrainian recipes, setting up a temporary Ukrainian tasting menu for lunch and dinner. evening prix fixe lasts until the end of May. Rose says he’ll keep the borscht on his menu forever because it’s so delicious.

Alina Prokopenko serves a meal

Alina Prokopenko, wearing a Ukrainian floral embroidered blouse, serves a strawberry dessert. “I could not have imagined so much support for the Ukrainian people in Paris,” she said.

(Iris Schneider / For The Times)

Alina Prokopenko with chef Daniel Rose, restaurant owner.

Alina Prokopenko with chef Daniel Rose, the owner of the bistro.

(Iris Schneider / For The Times)

“When Daniel suggested it to me,” Prokopenko said, “I thought, oh, it’s not just dessert. I have prepared some music that represents our culture, connected to our roots. ”

Wearing a Ukrainian embroidered blouse, she serves lunch and dinner as her playlist sets the mood. “I couldn’t have imagined so much support for the Ukrainian people in Paris,” she said.

Back in the kitchen, preparing for dinner, the three Ukrainian refugees huddled around each other in a small space, joking and talking in their mother tongue.

“I was really shocked to be able to take over the kitchen and make our dishes,” said Tabalov. “It was a great opportunity to use my knowledge. We developed the menu with Daniel and started moving forward.”

Tkachenko marveled at the events that in turn brought her to Rose’s kitchen in the days following the arduous journey to the border and to safety.

“From something so terrible,” she said, “a miracle happened.”

Schneider is a special correspondent. Ukrainian refugees get a new start in a Paris bistro

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