By Griffin Swartzell
Compassion and family anchor every business decision Maya Hetman makes. Originally from Gara Muleta, a small town in Ethiopia’s Ch’erch’er Mountains, Hetman fled to France after a Soviet-backed military coup established a junta known as the Derg in 1974. She married an American soldier, with whom she lived in California before moving to Colorado in the late 2000s.
Hetman started Uchenna in mid-2010, first serving a variety of European and Mediterranean cuisines as well as Ethiopian before simplifying her menu to just Ethiopian. Her food takes a long time to prepare, far longer than most grab-and-go American diners would ever tolerate. But it’s handmade, mostly organic and authentic, full of spices that she says don’t have English names.
Hetman talked with the Business Journal about her path to the Front Range, the unique challenges of Ethiopian cooking, and the importance of building family from friends.
Tell us how you got started cooking.
I come from a family [where] grandma, mother, auntie, everybody spent their time in the sun preparing spices — up to 24 kinds of spices — and in the kitchen. At age 7 … whether we were boys or girls, we were told to know how to do things manually. We were always told, ‘You may have degrees, you may have education, but you may not have a job, so you need to learn how to cook, how to clean, how to take care of your little brothers and sisters. Then, one day, if there is no job with your degree, your hands will help you to survive.’
And that is true. Now, you can see that manual [skills] will help, very much so. [They mean] you don’t die of hunger.
In Ethiopia, we have [never] been colonized. Mussolini tried to, after [colonizing] Libya, but we fought him … for five years. So we have never been colonized as a country, and we have a very old history. If you look back, you can even see that most of the [oldest] humans came from there. … So you are part of me now, you understand that?
Yes. We share the same roots.
Yes. So, with this tradition and culture, we … depend on us and on our families to provide. In Ethiopia, no government gives you money… because you have to work, and you’re living for your dignity. It’s undignifying to get something from a government. … Therefore, we have to work and provide for our family. And that’s why they teach us from a young age, whether we are poor, whether we are rich, whether we are middle class, we have to depend on each other. [We have] to learn so that one who knows something teaches the other. …
After our [last emperor, Haile Selassie] was killed, we had a group called the Derg, which is the Communist Party, [which led a coup d’état with assistance from Comintern]. So we left for France. From there, when I came here, I married a veteran. My husband’s family are seven boys, and they’re all veterans. They all served the country.
So we [moved to] California. We had a big manufacturing company, and then I had my line of clothing in Nordstrom. In Fashion Island [a mall in Newport Beach], I had my store. And then, [I gave birth to our first son], so I had to choose between making lots of money or staying home and raising my family. … I stopped everything and became a full-time mother and educator to my children. I taught them [in French, English and Spanish] and I put them through university. Then we came to Colorado as a visit to friends, and they wanted us to stay. We stayed. We loved Colorado Springs. …
I did not know that this state was filled with amazing human beings. Everyone I met became my family here. So to me as a person, Colorado is my home. I was born in Ethiopia, but Colorado is my other Ethiopia.
[But just before] coming here … the economy crashed. At that time, we [had investments], but we lost everything. In a day and a night, we were without anything. No home, no business, at all. Nothing. But sometimes, the good you do or your parents or grandparents did is forwarded to you through someone else. A banker in California, he was like our son … so when we came here, [when] we lost everything … I called him and I said, ‘I don’t know what we’re gonna do.’ He [told me to] find a home. … So in three days, we found the home, we shipped the paperwork to him to sign, he shipped it back to Wells Fargo … and we had a home. We had a roof for our children, and we were blessed.
[After that, our Realtor] told us, ‘You feed us all the time, and we want to bring family and friends, and you have this quality [food]. Why don’t you start [a restaurant] here?’
I told her, ‘You can come [to my house] and eat with me, and I will feed all your family too.’
One day, she and I were driving by Old Colorado City, and we passed this commercial center at the corner of 25th Street and Colorado, and she [insisted I call and ask about renting it for a restaurant]…
When I opened [Uchenna], it was the month of May, [and I didn’t know about Territory Days] at that time. I had no clue what it was. [Macy, my friend and sister at] The Chocolate Factory … came and said I needed to make chili con carne [for a competition]. I didn’t know what chili con carne was … so I made it in an Ethiopian way … and I won. Everybody was lining up to get a taste of my chili.
When you switched to selling solely Ethiopian food for your customers, what challenges did you face?
The challenges were always with our spices. In many restaurants, they use two or three kinds of spices, but my family is used to using as many as 24 kinds. Most of them grow in Ethiopia, so we don’t have names in English for them. Well, we have cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves. There are some things that you can find easily, [but some] we have to wait for family [in Ethiopia] to ship to us…
[For injera, a fermented flatbread we serve with most entrees,] in my land and in my family, we make it with teff. It’s only when I came here that I find people making it with barley, with self-rising flour or with pancake mix, because [teff] is very expensive. But that is not our food. …
Because we are family, we feed our [customers] exactly what we eat. We have no food at home; we take from [Uchenna] or we eat there. Because we are family, it’s not about money — it’s about being together, creating relationships with others, listening to their worries or happiness. If they [stop] coming, I miss them. This is not a restaurant. It is a home for everyone. Whether they have jobs or they don’t have jobs, if they’re rich, middle class or poor, we don’t know who is who. We give support when it’s needed. We’re happy or we cry with them.
The challenge is just the spices, the taste, the hot things like berbere or mitmita. You can find them in Denver, but they are void of spices, because when you make the berbere, it isn’t just grinding the chili peppers. It has to be dried, it has to be roasted, it has to be ground, then it has to have all kinds of spices put in it. … If you don’t care about the [customers], then you can just go to Denver and buy whatever you can find, but that’s not the purpose of our existence.
It’s to serve others exactly what we want to be served.