From Belgrade to the East Village: A Q & A with Vladimir Ocokoljic, Owner of Kafana NYC
As the sun sets, Avenue C in the East Village starts to spring to life. Vladimir Ocokoljic is the owner of Kafana NYC, a traditional Serbian restaurant that specializes in cuisine like gibanica (a phyllo pastry filled with feta cheese) and pileci ražnjici (chicken kebabs). Old sepia-toned photos of Serbian families, along with faded newspapers in Cyrillic script decorate the walls of the cozy eatery. The echoes of conversation grow stronger and stronger as the night progresses and Ocokoljic is in the center of it all. As old-school Blondie plays in the background, Ocokoljic passes from table to table, patron to patron, merrily opening bottles of wine for his guests, some Serbian-speaking, others English-speaking. He immerses himself completely in the atmosphere of his restaurant, the name of which roughly translates to “tavern” in Serbian. I sat down with Ocokoljic to discuss a variety of topics, including his former life in Serbia and why he decided to open a restaurant in NYC.
I just wanted to find out a little bit more about your experience coming to New York City from Serbia. What were some of the differences between the countries? Similarities?
"It really depends where you come from. It’s like coming from Indiana or coming from Chicago. It’s different where you come from. I came from Belgrade, so for me, there wasn’t a shock or anything like that. It was just, ‘OK, I’m back in a big town’ and I grew up with the New York music, the New York movies, so, really, it was kind of like going back home."
That’s interesting. So would you say American culture kind of permeated Serbian media?
"In a sense, for my generation, yes, especially for me. I like the New York punk scene and I like the Ramones and I grew up listening to the Ramones and being in a band called The Pinheads before coming to America, so I was under the influence of the Ramones and the whole New York punk scene. So when I moved to New York, first thing, first night in New York, I went to see the Ramones and second night, I was in CBGB."
What were your experiences like growing up in the former Yugoslavia? What memories do you have of living there?
"Pleasant memories. We had a good time in a somewhat repressive regime because we were a Communist country, but it was the end of Communism that we grew up in. It was more liberal and you could do things but then some people went to jail for speaking their minds."
So, what do you think about the current political situation now in Serbia with Vučić?
"I mean, it’s a very undemocratic society where whoever comes to power, he wants to take every aspect of the power and the first thing when they move in, they go after the news and all the media. I mean, it’s frustrating economically. You don’t really have an independent TV station. You have an independent newspaper but the media situation is horrendous. It’s paralyzed the whole politics over there because you get some very important news that’s put on [the same level] with garbage, like maybe this folk singer cheated on her husband and that’s the equivalent of the biggest political news and it gets even more coverage. It grinds people down. Politicians want them to think about explicit photographs of the folk singer, so they don’t think about their salary or pension. But, now, Vučić, he’s an American protégé."
"He was sent there to finish the job, to finish breaking Serbia apart. The U.S. is a bully. It’s an empire that’s meddling with everybody. It’s protecting its own interests."
|Vladimir Ocokoljic (left) and staff (via Instagram).|
So, kind of changing gears, what initially inspired you to open this restaurant?
"Every Serbian family has a saint day. That’s the saint that protects the family. Then you throw a big feast for three days. So, the feasts that I was holding, they were so big that I just thought, ‘I should open a restaurant.’ That’s how the idea came around."
So, how would you say the general public has responded to the restaurant?
"It’s good. I mean, from day one, we were all over the newspapers. The New York Times came in. We were on TV. We have been in business for 11 years."
So what would you say, like, are some of the biggest misconceptions Americans have about Serbian people?
"There’s no conception whatsoever. Mostly, they have no idea where it is and what it is."
So, what do you think your restaurant brings, in particular, to the New York City restaurant scene?
"Well, it represents one culture and one way of eating."
This Q&A was originally published in Balkanist.