Veselka is a beautiful restaurant in the East Village that has been serving traditional Ukrainian food since 1956. The matzo ball soup, stuffed cabbage, and pierogis were a welcoming site after I trudged through the snowy New York city streets. After enjoying a delicious meal, I sat down with Executive Chef Dima Martseniuk on a cold and snowy December evening to hear his story and tales from the kitchen.
The Chef’s Connection: Where are you from?
Dima Martseniuk: Originally from Ukraine.
TCC: Is Ukraine where you learned how to cook?
DM: Actually yes. I was studying at a University and I started cooking in my mother’s kitchen. I did not study cooking but I just taught myself. I didn’t even know how to make sunny side up eggs at first. But I started to cook simple things like rice.
TCC: What age did you become interested in cooking?
DM: 17 or 18, after high school. I was studying International Economic Relations and Management in college. I got a masters degree in a completely different field than being a chef.
TCC: So what made you decide you wanted to be a chef?
DM: I came to New York to see a new country and practice my English. I got a summer job in a kitchen at a Jewish summer camp in upstate New York cooking for two or three hundred people. By the end of the summer I could cook by myself for that huge group. I found that I really enjoy cooking, it seems like my hands just know how to cook.
TCC: How many restaurants have you worked in?
DM: After the summer camp I moved back to Brooklyn. I worked in about a dozen catering restaurants. Then I found Veselka. I met the owner and they didn’t have an open position but he liked me and decided to take me on. My first day at Veselka I started by peeling onions and potatoes, just small and simple jobs. Everyday I collected new skills and after some time I could cover any job in the kitchen. Soup station, meat stations, salad station, etc. Now I have been here for 8 years.
TCC: You are the executive Chef at Veselka, do you oversee other chefs or do you still do some cooking?
DM: I would say it is 50/50. When we are busy I will cook. I also still really enjoy the cooking part. I was working here at Veselka and also studying at the French Culinary Institute (FCI) where I graduated. It is now called the International Culinary Center. When I graduated from the FCI I was hired as Executive Chef at Veselka.
TCC: How do you deal with the stress of being in the kitchen?
DM: There is always stress, especially when it is busy. The kitchen is down stairs and we have 20 or so people working. It gets busy and then we have catering orders as well. But overall I don’t get too stressed because I enjoy the work, I love what I do.
TCC: What advice do you have for people who cook at home?
DM: Many people say “I don’t know how to cook.” They expect that what they are cooking will come out bad. My advice is just be positive. Positive thinking is most important. If you don’t enjoy yourself and think positively then it will come out bad.
TCC: What is your favorite thing to cook at Veselka?
DM: I like to cook meat. Especially steak, we sometimes have steak for specials. The beef Stroganoff. Sauerkraut with sausage and roasted pork. The European dish Bigos, which is kielbasa, roast pork, sauerkraut and onions. I also like to cook chili, meatloaf, marinated chicken, lamb, beef, turkey, stews, gravy, all sauces, and seafoods. I really love to create new dishes with proteins.
TCC: Who is the most famous person you have cooked for?
DM: A few people. I was on a show with Guy Fieri that aired last week. The new movie Ocean’s 8 filmed here so we cooked for that cast, which included Sandra Bullock. That movie comes out next summer. The actor from the James Bond movie comes in frequently. I’ve cooked for Bradley Cooper, Macaulay Culkin, and Keanu Reeves, they have been here a few times.