The Little Varenyk

By Raymond Viger

Maria Bilash left her native Ukraine for Paris in 2006. A 48 hour trip by car. There, she enrolled in a French language course, all the while taking care of her children.

She found restaurants representing every conceivable nationality (Russian, Japanese, Polish), but no Ukrainian restaurant.  She missed her home nation’s cuisine. That’s how she came upon the idea of holding a monthly Sunday morning Ukrainian brunch in the middle of Paris. Restaurants there are usually closed on Sunday morning. Avoiding competition with Parisian restaurants let her make a little extra money.

She found herself at the famous Club des Poètes, under the patronage of Blaise Rosnay. A place where poetry reigns supreme. Their axiom: I want to make poetry contagious and inevitable. The concept works very well. Once a week she even organized deliveries.

From Paris to Montreal      

She met her husband in Paris: François Ferland, a Quebecer working as a researcher. In 2017, before coming back home for a new job, he attended one of Maria’s brunches. It took a bit of time for her to organize immigrating to Quebec, but in 2018 she left Paris and officially put down stakes in Montreal. 

She wanted to re-create her little transient restaurant in Montreal. But she didn’t have a support network in her new country. Young motherhood and the pandemic forced her to shelve her project.

By chance, Maria found herself at the Bistro le Ste-Cath, at a poetry book launch. This artistic venue is a place where all the profits go back into the community. She fell in love with the venue. Maria couldn’t resist the idea of creating her first brunch in Montreal, Le Petit Varenyk (the Little Varenyk), in the fall of 2022. She could decorate the restaurant in the style of her homeland, notably with table centerpieces embroidered by her great grandmother, by hand. These are so precious to the Ukrainian community that no one dares actually place them on a table. They decorate an icon, or are hung on the wall.  

The pottery and plates are in terra cotta and come from her native region of Opichnya. Varenyk is the name for a traditional Ukrainian type of cuisine, sometimes remade to suit local tastes. The meals come from different regions, homemade with love and care.

The concept isn’t a money-making thing for her. All proceeds go to fund organizations which could be significant for the Ukraine. For her first brunch, all proceeds went to an organization providing basic services to the population, as well as to Ukrainian military needs. It was the customer who decided where their money should go.

The event would be retaken up in the winter of 2023. It was a local Hochelaga-Maisonneuve school’s turn to receive Maria’s donation. She managed to double the amount collected. The sum of $3,400 was given to the Taras Shevchenko Ukrainian School. They use three floors of the Eulalie-Durocher high school. Their goals are to reinforce Ukrainian culture, support Ukrainian refugees and help them integrate. She hopes to build bridges between Ukrainians who have been in Quebec for several years and new arrivals. This impressive amount was collected from the mere 60 people who attended the event. Some came all the way from the Eastern Townships to support Maria’s project.

A Refugee’s Reality

A new arrival may wait as much as six months before starting French classes! The Ukrainian school is also important because it helps arrivals integrate into Quebec society from the moment they get here.

A lot of hard work and devotion goes in to making the project happen. Friends and family put their shoulders into it. For the first brunch on Quebec soil, François, Maria’s husband, got involved in cooking with his in-laws. For the second brunch his own family got involved. Including their daughter Louisa, that were three generations surrounded by friends, all working towards a common objective.

Maria foresaw doing it four times a year. One per season. Ukrainian cuisine differs from season to season, depending on what’s available. Even if the Borscht (raw beet soup) and Varenyk (stuffed dumplings with potatoes, cheese and other condiments) are on the menu all year long, their composition will change according to needs and possibilities.  

Beyond money, the underlying objective is to have people discover Ukrainian culture and raise awareness of their reality.

And if you think Maria is going to stop with this project, you don’t know her very well. With François, she’s organizing an exhibit of Ukrainian artists to tour libraries and community spaces.

Maria’s parents left Ukraine a few weeks before one brunch to accompany Maria and see their only granddaughter. They may go back. To get to Montreal, they had to drive out of the Ukraine to Poland, a bordering nation. From Poland they took a plane to Montreal. This trip was only possible because they are too old to fight in the war. But despite the war, their attachment to their homeland is strong and they feel the need to return. But the situation may change. If the Russia army occupies their village, they will never live under occupation. 

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