Friday, May 24, 2024

Suprêmes in Lviv

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A kravlyk, a stuffed croissant modeled after Lafayette’s viral Suprême croissants.
Photo: Polina Bryzghalova

Cheese Bakery is located on the second floor of a historic residence at the intersection of two of Liviv’s busiest plazas: Rynok Square, anchored by the town hall, and Katedralna Square. The bakery’s main dining room overlooks the Cathedral of the Assumption through a perimeter of picture windows that offer a view of the top of the bell tower down to the bicyclists and lemon-lime electric tramway that weave through the cobblestones below. The vista has quickly become a backdrop for influencers, like the young women in oversize blazers with a cherry juice in hand and a Marc Jacobs crossbody on the window bench who — living up to a certain eastern European stereotype — may be models, Ph.D. students, or both. Those same models might also be posing with Cheese Bakery’s most popular item, a round, coiled croissant that is a perfect match for the viral Suprêmes I watched people line up to try back home in New York.

Lviv is Ukraine’s westernmost “big” city, a half-day by train from the front lines, closer to Krakow than to Kyiv. There’s no fighting in the streets here, and Russian forces remain, between periodic missile and drone strikes, mostly out of sight. Aside from the air-raid sirens, a night out here recalls the ambition and aesthetics on display in downtown Manhattan: The pizzaiolo at Promin blends Ukrainian and imported Italian “00” flour for his pie crusts and bakes seasonal specials topped with wild asparagus, while an amateur lingerie model stirring negronis at Bar Over would probably be signed to No Agency if the upstairs hideaway were in Dimes Square instead of Stefana Yavorskoho Square.

My decision last fall to begin reporting on the food world here — really a series of small, increasingly consequential decisions — began with stalking Ukrainian chefs and bartenders on social media and hitting up their DMs with the help of Google Translate, before booking a flight to Krakow and a car over the border. I had previously interviewed José Andrés while reporting on World Central Kitchen’s efforts in Ukraine, but I wanted to see the other side of eating here, how bars and kitchens operating under a vague specter of death, hustle to make every meal count for the city’s 700,000 residents.

Cheese Bakery.
Photo: Adam Robb

I was an hour late to my first meeting with Tatiana Mykytyn, Cheese Bakery’s owner, and Kate Kraus, the head baker. What I thought at first was an unpredictable snarl of traffic on the road into town turned out to be the opposite: a regular occurrence. My driver slowed to a halt and we stepped outside to see a passing funeral procession that soon occupied the opposite lane. Priests and congregation, a band in army uniforms, and a grieving family bookended a hearse driving no faster than the children following behind it.

The country was not like this when Mykytn and her husband, Andriy, started their bakery in 2018 to sell cheesecakes. “When we were married, we used the money relatives gave us as capital for the first location,” Mykytyn says. The second location opened overlooking Cathedral Square in 2020, two months into the COVID pandemic. “We pivoted to a delivery model two days later, and it’s been a large part of our business ever since,” Mykytyn recalls. “We were scheduled to open our third location on February 24, 2022” — the day of the Russian invasion. “We held a soft opening the day before, and stocked the cases, and on opening day, everyone sheltered. It was another three weeks before we tried again.”

By then, the pulse of the city had quickened, and in came a flood of immigrants from the east, some displaced and in search of a hot meal, work, or both. “Employees left to go abroad, while we hired those who just moved here looking for work,” Mykytn says. It was Kate Kraus, who’d come from Kyiv before the invasion, that conceived Cheese Bakery’s iteration of the Suprême croissant immediately after it went viral in the U.S. The self-taught pastry chef had always used social media to track bakeries around the world: Lune Croissanterie in Melbourne, Pophams in London, or Supermoon and Lafayette in New York. Upon first seeing the Suprême, she got to work. “My first thought was, Oh my God, we need that! and then we thought, When is better than now?” Kraus tells me. “It was a new idea to our country and we wanted to make them first.”

At that time, Kraus had been working with Cheese Bakery for more than a year, while simultaneously running her own custom bakery, Kombinat, which continues to operate daily in Kyiv; she makes a weekly commute — a five-hour train each way — between the two cities. While Kraus juggles multiple kitchens, Mykytn runs Cheese Bakery’s social accounts. “We did a survey on Instagram, and guests came up with the name,” Mykityn says. “Here it’s called a kravlyk. It’s a combination of croissant and ravlyk, the Ukrainian word for snail.”

After a few days of experimentation and tracking down advice online, Kraus nailed the pastry, and went to work on the fillings; best sellers include pistachio, lime pineapple coconut, basil black currant, and Nutella. Cheese Bakery sells around 80 of its $3.65 kravlyks — about one-third of the price at Lafayette — per day, a quarter of the bakery’s daily pastry sales.

“After two years, I’ve come to understand that everything can change in one second and you have to be ready for everything,” Kraus says. She navigated country-wide blackouts when there weren’t enough generators to go around: The daytime team tasked with cheesecakes and overnight pastry teams would together wait out whole days for the power to return, sustaining themselves on tea and instant noodles, water boiled on gas camping stoves. “During the winter it was cold enough that we could keep our ingredients fresh outside when our refrigerators were down, and we’d huddle together and make up songs so we didn’t lose our minds,” Kraus recalls. “Too often we’d have to mix ingredients by hand, and we’d have contests to see who could whip cream fastest to keep us motivated. Today, nobody in our kitchen can be intimidated by anything.”

Baking with no heat and now power.
Photo: Kate Kraus

Kraus recalled her team working under the most severe conditions in the autumn and winter of 2022, the start of the rocket attacks against critical infrastructure around Lviv. “I think we were more concerned about our product than for our lives,” she says. “We had the most incredible team spirit, and working through the attacks was the least we could do to show our strength.” (Kraus has recently turned her attention to overstuffed cream puffs following a tasting trip that brought her to Nordic bakeries like Buka in Copenhagen; while Ukrainian men between 18 and 60 years old are barred from leaving the country, women may freely come and go. “I tried to get a visa to the U.S. to taste your croissants, but I was refused,” Kraus says.)

I emailed Lafayette pastry chef Scott Cioe to see what he thought about the kravlyks, and he gave a seal of approval: “A big reason why I’m drawn to working in bakeries is that you can make something everyone can enjoy.” Mykytyn says she’s seen other bakeries adopt their own versions, as well. “After us, many bakeries in Ukraine launched their own round croissant, they’ve even called it kravlyk,” she says.

“Baking is more than a distraction,” Kraus adds. “It’s a way to produce something beautiful in the midst of so much horror, pain, and anger.”

Kravlyks, lined up for service.
Photo: Adam Robb

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