“I’ve been cooking Polish food my whole life because of my mom. My mom’s family is Polish,” says Matt Reeves, who recently launched Polish food pop-up Brave Wojtek. “This is the food I grew up with, but I’ve seen very little, if any, true Polish and Eastern European cuisine at restaurants in Atlanta. For such a big food city, why is this food not here?”
Reeves named the pop-up after a World War II Polish folk hero, a Syrian brown bear called Wojtek, who was orphaned as a cub and found by the 22nd Artillery Supply Company while stationed in the Soviet Union. The unit adopted Wojtek as its mascot and traveled with the soldiers throughout Italy and the Middle East. Wojtek became an important member of the outfit, keeping spirits lifted with his antics and penchant for snacking. He even acquired a taste for cigarettes and achieved the rank of corporal, eventually helping to carry shells to trucks along the battle lines. Following the war, soldiers from the 22nd Artillery continued to visit Wojtek at the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, where he remained until his death in 1963.
In Brave Wojtek, Reeves says, he’s reconnecting to his Polish heritage and the country’s history through food.
Reeves has worked for a number of Atlanta restaurants, including as general manager for One Eared Stag and stints at Salt Factory and Little Alley Steak, owned by Hicham Azhari and Fikret Kovac of F&H Food Trading Group. Azhari hails from Morocco, while Kovac was born and raised in Bosnia. Reeves himself is a transplant to Atlanta, having grown up in San Francisco.
It was working for Azhari and Kovac when Reeves first realized the lack of Eastern European restaurants in Atlanta.
“During COVID, when things were dicey for everyone, I began thinking about what I’m going to do next in restaurants to not find myself in the position I was in where I had to lay off 25 people,” he says of founding Brave Wojtek. “It was a hard time, and I was strapped and needed to change something.”
Reeves is no stranger to Atlanta’s pop-up scene. He pitches in during service at pop-ups like TKO Korean and Seoul Chikin as well as at Dead End Drinks, which recently rebranded from Ration and Dram and shifted to operating as a pop-up kitchen. Reeves hosted his first Brave Wojtek pop-up at Dead End Drinks in October. He’s back there again on November 30.
“The pop-up community in Atlanta, it’s almost like a co-op and it’s worker oriented,” he says. “One day I might work for Fu-Mao [Sun] of Mighty Hans on Saturday mornings. Me and two other pop-up guys will help run service. It’s then reciprocated.”
While most people associate Polish food with dishes like pierogi, Reeves says there’s more to the country’s cuisine than the doughy dumplings, including one of his favorite one-pot meals: bigos. Often referred to as the Polish hunter’s stew, bigos typically consists of kielbasa, sauerkraut, and game meats like venison or boar. For his bigos, Reeves opts for fattier cuts of meat, using pork or beef shoulder to provide that rich flavor. Then there’s gołąbki, stuffed cabbage rolls filled with mince pork and rice, the beetroot and bean sour soup barszcz or borscht, and zapiekanka, a popular Polish street food similar to French bread pizza typically topped with mushrooms, ham, and melted cheese and drizzled with ketchup.
“A lot of what I’m cooking right now you would consider homestyle or comfort foods,” he says. “These are foods found at every Polish household, and each family has their own take on the dishes.”
Reeves includes pierogi with traditional fillings on the menu, alongside a decidedly Atlanta take, stuffing the Polish dumpling with lemon pepper wet chicken.
Moving forward, Reeves hopes to continue adding other Eastern European dishes to the Brave Wojtek menu from countries like Ukraine and Russia. The November 30 pop-up will also feature a few “semi-kosher” foods for those celebrating Hanukkah, which begins at sunset on November 28.
“I was talking to people leading up to my first pop-up who said they had never tried these foods before,” says Reeves. “I didn’t expect to see so many people, and so many people of Eastern European heritage, come out that night. It blew my mind and told me these foods are missing here and do need to be part of the larger Atlanta scene.”
Follow Brave Wojtek on Instagram for pop-up dates and menu drops. The next pop-up takes place at Dead End Drinks, November 30, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., and is first come, first served.