This Ukrainian refugee is sharing her country’s history, culture and spirit through cooking classes in Fort Collins

Russia Ukraine War
A graffiti depicting the Ukrainian flag and a writing that reads “Bakhmut is Ukraine” is seen on the wall of a house in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022.

On a recent Monday evening in downtown Fort Collins, 48-year-old chef Tetiana Stratilat taught a class of 16 people how to make chicken Kiev, a grain pudding called kutya and a braided sweet bread. 

Groups of four chopped and simmered at cooking stations, listening to her directions which blended in stories about Ukraine. Afterward, the class joined together to eat the dishes they’d prepared. 

It was a three-hour Ukrainian cooking class, like the ones Cooking Studio Fort Collins owner and founder Trish O’Neill has coordinated since she opened in Old Town in 2015. Local chefs offer classes there, so residents can pay to learn about cuisine from Italy, India and other countries.

But this class — and others Stratilat will give in coming months — was different. Stratilat is a Ukrainian refugee who escaped via Germany and arrived in Colorado on June 13, a few months after Russia invaded her homeland. Since arriving, she has been offering cooking classes as a volunteer, and she donates what she earns to a non-profit organization that helps Ukrainians.

Her arrival to the U.S. has been action-packed. She began living in the neighboring town of Timnath and immediately sought a work permit. 

“When you come to [a] strange country, you haven’t any permissions [to work], but anyway, I had and still have [a] big wish to help my country,” she said, in developing, but clear, English.

“And while I was waiting for work permission, I decided, ‘Don’t just sit and wait.’”

Instead, she went around to some local restaurants to interview for a job as a chef or assistant chef, so she’d have work lined up when she received a work permit. 

In the meantime, she also decided to find places where she could offer cooking classes as a volunteer. 

“My idea was to make a cooking class about Ukraine, Ukrainian food, Ukrainian tradition,” said Stratilat, who mentioned in an interview that she speaks fluent Russian and Ukrainian and “a little bit English.”

What she decided to bring to the cooking classroom was not just ingredients. 

“I explain the Ukrainian tradition, how we serve [the] table, what‘s the symbol of these dishes, give some history so the people more understand about my country,” she said.

Courtesy of Trish O'Neill
Tetiana Stratilat discussing how to make borscht in one of her Ukrainian cooking class.

Giving cooking classes was not new to Stratilat, who ran her own cooking school, Culinary Designer School and School for Teen Chefs, in Kyiv from 2017 until she fled in June.

Soon after arriving, she learned about Ukrainians of Colorado, a Lakewood-based non-profit organization. Since it formed in 2014, it has supported Ukrainian humanitarian efforts. Earlier this year, it ramped up to raise money for those impacted by the invasion. Doing fundraisers and accepting donations on its website, the all-volunteer group has raised about $400,000 since February to purchase medical supplies and generators and to support orphanages and civilian hospitals in Ukraine, according to board member Mark Killen. 

She reached out with an idea, telling the organization she wanted to volunteer.

“They answer to me very quickly, and we started our project here in August in Denver,” she said. 

The non-profit volunteer group held the “Ukrainian Festival Celebrating Ukraine Independence and Freedom” in late August, at which Stratilat taught Ukrainian cookie-making, which she enjoyed. After that, she taught another class in October, attended by board member Dillen, and at least two dozen others, some of them Ukrainian. 

Dillen commended Stratilat’s “remarkable ability to convey information about what is essential to Ukrainian cuisine, and also to compare different ideas about different dishes that can be prepared in different ways, such as Borscht, which is quintessential Ukrainian food but has many different varieties and local variants,” he said. 

One recipe he learned called for cod or halibut, cooked in a sauce where tomato was the dominant flavor.

“I made that dish very shortly after the class,” he recalled. “It was great.”

Having found success with her idea, Stratilat went on to approach Trish O’Neill about teaching cooking classes at the Cooking Studio Fort Collins, again as a volunteer. 

“She called, and wanted to come by, and I said, ‘You bet,’” said founding owner O’Neill, 69, a former nurse executive who used her retirement savings to open the school, where chefs who own food trucks or restaurants teach cooking on the side. They struck a deal in which 40% of the $91 tuition would be Stratilat’s to donate.

Stratilat brought past experience to the Fort Collins school. At her cooking school in Kyiv, she enjoyed working with teenagers whose faces would light up, as well as with homemakers who needed to learn to shop for, and cook, three tasty meals a day quickly, using fresh vegetables before they lost their color and nutrients. 

What she brought to the classroom worked — not only culinarily, but socially as well, during her December offerings, according to O’Neill. She described the mood as participants learned about ceremonial Ukrainian holiday dishes during Stratilat’s presentation.

“Oh, people were so happy!” O’Neill said. “People meet new people and you find all these commonalities and you’re cooking together and you have a lot to talk about.” 

So far, Stratilat has taught two classes at the Fort Collins cooking school. Two more are scheduled for January, with one menu including the preparation of Carpathian beans with mushrooms, Borscht with beef ribs, pampushka bread with garlic and dill, and a tart cherry vareniki with honey and cherry sauce. And more classes will be scheduled for February and March, O’Neill said.

“Each time, we change the menu,” Stratilat said, “so that people who are really interested and wanted to come more and more, they can cook new dishes each time.” 

She’s planning an Easter-themed course in April as well.

“The next will be [a] culinary workshop about how we meet Easter in home. We make the special cooking cake there that [is] usually eaten by family,” she said.

Having both cooking skills and connections to Ukraine makes sharing a passion for her country through its food a service that rewards Stratilat, who received her work permit in September. As of October, she now works as an assistant chef at Ginger and Baker in Fort Collins, while continuing to volunteer her time. “I’m ready to help,” she said, “and [do] everything that will be helpful for my country.”