When Tom Birchard started working at Veselka, he had no idea that he’d end up committing his life to food. A few decades later, Veselka is a neighborhood fixture, a place that feels like home to old and new alike, a place where you can sit for hours with a cup of coffee, reading your book or writing poems or hanging out with your friends. The neighborhood vibe is not accidental–Birchard has a reputation for investing in the community, and has actively supported neighborhood theater since 1980. He recently won a local hero award from the Alliance of Resident Theaters/NY.
Given its storied history, what is one of the most memorable things to ever happen at Veselka?
I started working here in the late 60s, and it was a much different neighborhood and a much different place. Back then it was a working class neighborhood; most of the people who came here were lower-middle class, Eastern European. The neighborhood was funky and this place was funky, and most of our employees were Eastern European: Polish, Ukranian. I used to work at the cash register, and I would keep the radio on. One night, there were a few regulars in here drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. It was much smaller then, and it was smoke-filled. I had the radio on, and I started to hear that there were power failures uptown, that the power was going out. They weren’t sure how it was going to progress, but they were saying that it might move downtown. I could actually see the Empire State Building from the windows back then, and I kept sticking my head out to see if the lights were still on. Finally they went out, and I thought, “okay, it’s coming here,” but I didn’t say anything. A couple minutes later, the lights went out. Total darkness. Yet everybody stayed in place, drinking their coffee and smoking their cigarettes. I kept looking outside to see how things were going with the traffic, and then I turned around to see how things were going inside. One of the customers at the counter had taken a candle out of his pocket and lit it. He was just calmly sitting there, continuing to smoke his cigarette and drink his coffee. And I thought “Wow, this is like the Twilight Zone.” Surreal. Why this guy was carrying a candle, I don’t know.
What are your three favorite ingredients to use in pirogis and why?
- Short ribs. A couple of years ago we started making braised short ribs with port and red wine, so we put the meat inside the pirogi.
- Smoked ham. We get it from one of the last remaining Eastern European butcher shops. They smoke it in the back.
- Bratwurst and sauerkraut. We have homemade sauerkraut. One of the employees suggested putting chopped up bratwurst in a pirogi for Oktoberfest. It sounded good to me, so I think we’re going to do it in a couple of weeks, when Oktoberfest starts.
We’re always looking for fun things like that. About a month ago, my employees suggested that we have a dish that’s only available late-night, since we’ve become sort of a destination place for people after they’ve left the clubs or have been out partying. So we came up with buffalo chicken wing pirogis. We chop chicken meat and mix it with hot sauce, put it inside a pirogi and serve it with more hot sauce, celery sticks, and blue cheese. You can only get it after 11, from 11 at night to five in the morning on Friday and Saturday.