Jun 25 2013

Yegor Romantsov and Kukhnya

By: Emily Hingle

P5230356

 The Russian Mafia band Debauche is a favorite among locals looking for something different. There are no horns, electric guitars, or computer-made beats, but the Russian folk music outfit is comprised of multiple acoustic instruments that make more raucous music than other bands can hope to create. The band’s founder and frontman Yegor Romantsov is from the land of which his music is reminiscent. “I’m from the Ukraine. I learned guitar in a Soviet labor camp in 1988. I moved almost sixteen years ago to the U.S. Two years, I lived in Los Angeles, California; eight to ten years, I lived in New York; and five, six years, I lived here. Does it add up? You can do the math. I moved here in 1996 for adventures.” I asked if he’s found any yet, and he replies, “You kidding me? I have a lot of adventures everywhere. I haven’t been to jail here yet.” 


Debauche was formed five years ago when Romantsov put together a band with some of the regulars of his performances. “I started playing here five years ago when the Kahve Coffee was open. It was a very cool spot on Royal Street. I was doing solos there, and I had a crowd,” explains Romantsov. Debauche enjoys frequent concerts that always pack the house and make the audience dance madly. 


Romantsov remembers his homeland’s fare fondly. “I ate a lot of borscht, Ukrainian food. At home, I make Ukrainian food,” states Romantsov, although he admits that one restaurant has hooked him on something not-so-Eurasian. “I love the pineapple pork burritos at Café Negril on Frenchmen Street. We don’t have pineapples in Russia,” says Romantsov. But for more traditional foods, there’s only one place in the city he can find them. “I’ve eaten at Kukhnya at Siberia—they have very good pierogis. It’s very good food. We played there for the Polish festival, Dyngus Day, on April 1st.”


The Polish heritage festival Dyngus Day was a hit at Siberia, the eclectic Bywater club located at 2227 St. Claude Avenue. “Dyngus Day was insane; it was a record- breaker. I had to shut down for an hour and regroup. Drunken Polacks; it was great,” exclaims Kukhnya’s owner and chef Matt Ribachonek. There’s a reason that the Slavic soul food from Kukhnya (pronounced like Cook-Knee-Yah) is great: Ribachonek is third-generation Ukrainian. He learned firsthand during his childhood how to make the dishes that would eventually get him to Siberia’s kitchen. “My grandparents are from Ukraine. I grew up in the house with my great-aunt Stella, and she was a great cook. I always played with her in the kitchen when I was a kid. And my grandmother always made the cabbage rolls vegetarian, and she was the only one who did that. I took that, whereas most people make it with beef and pork. The pierogi, that’s pretty much their recipe too,” says Ribachonek. 


Matt Ribachonek has been making Slavic food ever since that time, but found his first permanent home in Siberia. “I had moved to Chicago for a few years after the hurricane, and when I came back, I just had a plan to not work for anybody. I did pop-ups, and I used to pack up duffel bags and go sell pierogis at tattoo shops and other places without kitchens as a side gig. But once I found this place, it was perfect. I didn’t really want to start a restaurant. I never wanted to have dishwashers and waiters. Just a window: come see me and give me cash, I’ll give you food,” explains Ribachonek.


Siberia sought out a chef that could add to its business after Luke Allen of the Happy Talk Band bought into the bar. “We’ve been pals since 2000, and he called me up and said, ‘Hey, you do Eastern European food, I bought a bar called Siberia, let’s put them together.’ I moved in a year ago, and it’s been gradually busy,” states Ribachonek. His menu includes items that mix traditional Slavic ingredients with modern favorites. The Red Beet Reuben is a staple item, and the potato and cheese dumpling-like pierogis are a hot seller. “There’s a trinity of Eastern European food: beets, cabbage, and potatoes. It’s really rustic. But everything else is kind of a melt between American and Ukrainian food. I’ve never been to Ukraine, I have no gauge of how truly authentic it is, but Yegor Romantsov likes it, so I guess it’s all right,” says Ribachonek. 


Ribachonek is able to watch every show that Siberia hosts from his great vantage point at Kukhnya’s window. “I love working in a music club. I’m so happy I got this place. I get to watch different bands every day and make family recipes. And I love seeing Luke Allen on stage; it’s a different Luke.”

Tasting Notes