Shining through adversity: Cree head chef lends out kitchen to Ukrainian newcomers

Matthew Potts (left) worked with Ukrainian newcomers and the group Free Store for Ukrainian Newcomers to help make meals to sell, with the proceeds going toward helping buy essentials for newcomers settling in Canada. (Facebook/Free Store for Ukrainian Newcomers - image credit)
Matthew Potts (left) worked with Ukrainian newcomers and the group Free Store for Ukrainian Newcomers to help make meals to sell, with the proceeds going toward helping buy essentials for newcomers settling in Canada. (Facebook/Free Store for Ukrainian Newcomers - image credit)

Just over six months ago, life was looking very different for Nataliia Bodnrchuk, who fled Ukraine with her family while she was also pregnant with twins.

But on Saturday, the now-mother-of-four was among a dozen volunteers from the group Free Store for Ukrainian Newcomers who were hard at work making a variety of cultural dishes at Cook County Saloon in Edmonton.

"When you come with nothing, with only a suitcase, you need to build everything from the zero," she said.

"This good opportunity for me ... first and foremost we are trying to give Canadians and Ukrainians part of Ukraine [to] buy Ukrainian dishes."

The work was made possible by Matthew Potts, head chef of Cook County Saloon, who offered the restaurant's kitchen to the group to help make meals to sell, with the proceeds going toward buying essentials for newcomers settling in Canada.

Brendan Coulter/CBC
Brendan Coulter/CBC

Potts, who is from Samson Cree Nation about 100 kilometres south of Edmonton, said he was inspired to offer his kitchen to the group out of a shared sense of solidarity in the face of overcoming adversity.

"I see a lot of similarities in regards to how Indigenous people are treated and how Ukrainians are treated in the current situation that they're in," Potts said about facing systemic oppression.

"I think it's quite beautiful what they're doing in the kitchen ... usually on a Saturday mornings, I'm in here by myself prepping away," he said.

"It's quite beautiful, standing back there and getting to listen to all of them, speak their native tongue and really have fun with it."

Brendan Coulter/CBC
Brendan Coulter/CBC

Potts adds that the experience has been the melding of different worlds as the volunteers brought their Ukrainian cuisine into a restaurant known for its southern-style "cowboy" esthetic.

"It reminds me of my first time coming into Cook County. It is eye opening and being 'Whoa' this is really stepping back into into history, and really seeing an old style of Alberta that we don't normally get to see anymore."

Jorgia Krissa-Moore, co-founder of Free Store for Ukrainian Newcomers, said the group was created last April and has helped provide items like toiletries and clothing to newcomers.

"Two of the people in the kitchen ... owned their own restaurants in Ukraine," Krissa-Moore said.

"They have all this great knowledge, this great experience and so we're like, 'Well, let's start making some Ukrainian food.'"

Brendan Coulter/CBC
Brendan Coulter/CBC

The process has been an emotional one for both Krissa-Moore and the volunteers.

"It's also beautiful that it has that Canadian twist being at this country saloon ... I think it's a good way to welcome them into Edmonton and show that we are a mix of so many different cultures."

The food being prepared includes items like perogies, cabbage rolls, pies and cupcakes.

Some items will be frozen after being made and are available for online pre-order at the group's website.