Johnny Clark, chef and owner at Chicago restaurant Wherewithall, is using his culinary skills to help keep Ukrainian culture alive.
At the same time, he is raising awareness about the current devastation the country is facing.
“My grandmother’s home is being destroyed, and it hit me personally, and I just wanted to do something right now,” Clark said.
That’s when he decided to create a Ukrainian-inspired four course meal. He focuses on dishes that bring back memories of his late grandmother.
“One cool story my grandmother use to tell me is one of her favorite foods was head cheese,” Clark said. “Which is like a pig’s head where all the meat is pulled apart and then put back together in a gelatin form.”
As the world watches hundreds of thousands of refugees flee Ukraine, Clark remembers his grandmother’s journey out of the country many years ago.
“She was scared to talk about Russia in any negative way,” he said. “I grew up in Ohio, and she’ll tell me that she was scared to talk out loud about the Soviet Union. They took her father in the middle of the night, and they never saw him again.”
His culinary effort is also bringing back family memories.
“Every Christmas my grandmother would make deviled eggs. I’m not sure if this is a Ukrainian thing, but I’m sure it is,” Clark said. “She would bring this big round tray that held all the deviled eggs in place.”
Diners are pouring in to the restaurant at 3472 N. Elston Ave. show solidarity.
“I’m actually from a country bordering Ukraine, so I bought this and wanted to wear it today to show my support,” said Michaela Karim.
Another customer, who only gave his name as Matt for fear of putting his family in danger, shares the importance of preserving his culture, now more than ever.
“I’ve always loved my heritage. I’ve always been proud, but I’ve never been as proud as I am now. I’m especially proud of President Zelenskky, who has become such a hero,” said the Rogers Park resident.
A portion of the sales will be going directly to a nonprofit working to help Ukrainians, Clark said.
“We’re there in spirt and we are ‘razom,’ it means together,” Clark said.
Clark says creating the menu has helped him navigate the painful events happening to his people.
“I feel very proud to be Ukrainian, but it just hurts and I don’t know if I can even go there anymore,” he said.
He hops the food will resonate with his customers.
“These are flavors of Ukraine but also there’s some personal expression there,” he said. “I still try to be creative with the food, and it’s not traditional but taking that inspiration from Ukrainian recipes.”
The first Ukrainian-inspired menu was such a success, Clark plans to create another this week.