Chef Maya Hetman, owner of Uchenna in Old Colorado City, has been sharing her Ethiopian and Mediterranean cuisine with Colorado Springs since 2009. But Chef Maya is giving locals far more than just a new, cultural dining experience.
Arriving at Uchenna to “break bread,” as Maya calls it, she instructs me to sit while readying our lunch. “In my land, we eat, then we talk,” she says.
She serves us “house tea” that is a blend of green and black teas—“special for family,” she says—and a rice, shrimp and scallop dish. There is a bowl of injera, a bread made from teff flour with the texture of a thin pancake and rolled into spirals. And she sets out a large platter displaying a beautiful assortment of red and green lentils, chicken, lamb, beef, egg, cabbage, potatoes, carrots and collard greens. Unwinding the injera, we begin ripping pieces off and using it to pinch up the different foods.
“We eat everything with our hands,” Chef Maya says.
Then we talk. What follows are highlights of our conversation.
Chef Maya: My father always said, “Never forget to leave your character behind you when you leave this world.” We did not understand because we were little; now we understand what it means. It’s wonderful when you love people, you care about them, you are there when they need you. Like here. Every customer is my family here, literally. Because we’re not really a restaurant—we are a home. When you want to cry, you come here. When people talk about divorce, and I have to stop it, they come here. When someone loses some very dear person, we come here. We just sit together, and we go through everything together. I think I’m just reflecting what my parents were doing.
Springs: Tell us a little about your background.
My mom would make clothes for us. Before we left our land, I did not know about fashion. Once the revolution came, we had to go through literally hell on land. [Editor’s note: The Ethiopian Civil War began in 1974 and lasted until 1991.] We had to walk until your feet became big. A lot of things can happen because there are bad people. Elderly people would die. You have rape. You have all kinds of things that are not agreeable.
How old were you when your family fled?
About 12 years old. So that’s when we went through the French territories and then to France. When we were walking, I saw the clothes, and I said, “Look! We have the same dresses as in Paris.” My mom would make clothes for us. Before we left our land, I did not know about fashion. I learned from her. In the village she comes from, they let the women work.
I remember my mother had a big box [made] of wood, and she would invite all the ladies to come. She would take paper to make patterns, and she would show them how to cut. First she’d tell them, “Put your hand in the box and get money, whatever comes out. Go to the market, and buy the fabric that your heart will fall in love with.” Then she would teach them how to make the kind of dress they wanted. When they were done, they went back to the market to sell it. Then she would ask them, “How much did you take?” Put that money back, and take the difference to your family.” So they were stronger now.
That’s amazing. Where did you grow up in Ethiopia and in France?
I am from Girawa, up in the mountains. We lived in Marseille and in Paris. I stayed there a little over 20 years.
Why did you decide to move to the United States?
The mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, was like a father to me. He knew our family; he passed away. He told me we should come to California. In L.A., people were very kind to me. When I came, my mother taught me a lot already. I spoke with a family friend, and she said “You do a lot of beautiful things.” So she called Nordstrom, and they wanted to meet with me. I submitted my work, and they liked it. I made clothes for their stores. I met my husband through his business; they did the cutting in a big factory in L.A. Then I opened my store in Fashion Island, Orange County, called Violet.
So how did you arrive in Colorado Springs?
We came here because my son wanted to go into the Air Force. We have military family we know here also. She said, “You always cook and feed us; you should just stay here. Colorado Springs would be good for you.” We have mountains, which I am from mountains. I talked to my family, and they said OK. While we were preparing to do things, everything fell apart—the Recession [of 2008].
Everything is about destiny. It doesn’t matter how much you plan—if that’s not your destiny, it doesn’t happen. We believe in that. It was meant and destined for me to come here as things were falling apart and to have a new life. I sincerely take Colorado Springs as my land, my home, and the place that gave me back life. It’s like I am born again in Colorado Springs. I have a very special love, respect. All my customers, with no exception, whether they are in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore, anywhere they are, they became my family. They write. They call. So this is my home. And I would like to serve Colorado Springs.
My father used to say, “Always go out of your way to help because somewhere, someone will help you. If not you, your children, your grandchildren. The good you have done today trickles down.”
You have a beautiful outlook on life.
We went through a lot. We had a lot; then we lost a lot. I don’t wish for war to come here. Most of the time, we don’t see the suffering of others. It doesn’t matter what country they are from, what religion.
I just like to think of tomorrow, a world of more peace for those who really have nothing. Because here we have a lot. We have so much here it is shocking. Every single day in my prayers, I never ask for money or things like that. Keep away bad people, bring good people, to guide us to peace, do the right thing and to provide just what I need: a home, a roof for my children, food to eat, their clothing—that’s all I ask. I never ask for more than that, never.
What role does food play in your culture?
In my family, it’s food. Everything is food. They sit in the backyard, and there’s all kinds of spice. It’s like dancing really in the spices because you smell so many things. They roast, and they crush it. It’s so good. All the women sit together and drink coffee, of course. They talk about their children, their husbands, all kinds of things. It is just so wonderful. For lunch, 20 to 25 people all eat together. My mom and my grandma were all the time in the kitchen. The only time they were not was when they were sleeping, just a few hours.
When we all sit, we just love to eat and talk, and eat and talk. And we feed each other. You feed everyone, and everyone feeds you.
Tell us about the different types of food you serve here at Uchenna?
This year we are going to add two or three dishes from Italy. You don’t make the sophisticated things that don’t taste good. You make the real country food with a big loaf of bread, some good pasta. We want to add from Spain, paella. From France, cassoulet. Just very earthy foods. Not these little things, you’re not eating anything. You get out hungry. My mom and grandma, before they passed, would call and ask, “Is the stomach of the customer full? Never let a customer go out without their stomach full.”
What are some of the traditional Ethiopian foods you serve?
We have beef, lamb, chicken sautee. Traditional chicken, cooked in a red sauce with tomatoes and all the spices and also hot sauce. We love collard greens, cabbage, potatoes and carrots. The green lentils are cooked with tumeric. I think because we use so many different spices we are less sick.
What would you serve someone coming to Uchenna for the first time?
I don’t take orders. I’ll just give them a big platter of all kinds of food. Like we did today. Most people come for the lamb. Some people ask me to do the collard greens with chicken or seafood, so now I’m going to add it to the menu.
So how did you start Uchenna?
We had no money to start this restaurant, we started with quarters. We lost everything and look where we are today. It’s a lot of work, we work sixteen hours a day. But it makes you feel happy, with dignity, because you did not ask, you made it yourself.
How was Uchenna received initially?
When we started, we were two doors from here, and we had a queue from the door all the way back. Then there was a competition, a chili cook-off, and I did not know what it was. My friend, who owns the [Rocky Mountain] Chocolate Factory, who is a lovely sister to me, said, “It’s about putting tomatoes and beans and meat.” And I won! And I did not know how to make it. So we started that way. Then a lot of people will drive from Denver, from Boulder. Yesterday, we had an American family that works for the American government in Ethiopia. They said, “Even back in your land, your food is better than there.”
You had to close the restaurant recently while you were hospitalized.
Yes, I was in the hospital in France for two and a half months. So it was a bit of a difficult moment. But you work hard; you have all of the community with you; there is no fear. I will be fine, and I am back. Colorado is my home. Colorado Springs particularly.
What does Colorado Springs mean to you?
I am lucky. I don’t know how to describe to you because I will cry, what Colorado Springs meant for us. I found myself without anything. Just the same way we had left the land. We had—then we had nothing. We had—then we had nothing. I prayed, and I told my landlord, “I don’t have money. I can only give you this much, and you have to trust me.” He said, “OK, clean the place, and you take it.” That’s why we believe you need to push a person, give a hand—so that they make something. If you can help, do it. It really makes you happy. When I feed, when I take care, I go home bubbling with joy.
You make many other people happy too, I’m sure.
I like us to eat today, listen to music today, just love each other today and be happy. If tomorrow I die, at least today we had good times. That’s what will stay. That’s what you will remember. That’s what I will remember. Because I don’t know what will happen in five minutes. I’m very happy the way I’m brought up, in my family, in my culture. Sometimes I say, “Why wasn’t I born in America?” Then I say no, no, no. I like the way I am. Eating together, sharing together. I may not have money, but look how rich I am.
Old Colorado City
1501 W. Colorado Ave.
A Chance to Give Back
Chef Maya has touched many lives, and many in the Colorado Springs community and beyond are giving back. Although she would be reluctant to mention it, Maya’s medical treatments have resulted in sizable out-of-pocket bills. So a GoFundMe campaign has been created by friends to help. Information and a donation link can be found at gofundme.com/yc-mayas-medical-fund.