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The tastemakers: ten people spicing up the Russian food scene

The tastemakers: ten people spicing up the Russian food scene

Russia is in the grip of a food renaissance. From eating local to nouveau Russian fare, meet the innovators responsible for the change

13 October 2014
Text Nika Makhlina

Over the past couple of months, I’ve made more food than ever before. I swapped my job at Condé Nast Russia for the heat of the kitchen, and my office clothes for an apron. I’d love to believe that my newly found culinary obsession makes me different to other Muscovites. In reality, it makes me a conformist. Like so many others who fancy themselves as gourmets, I’ve been seduced by Moscow’s gastronomic revolution. In Moscow today, there are cooking lessons, masterclasses and street food markets everywhere you turn. There’s the annual Omnivore food festival, the monthly Mestnaya Yeda (Eat Local) market and daily restaurant openings (and closures). In the words of one of the leaders of this movement, Alexey Zimin, “Gastronomic news has become as important as following politics and sport.” Yep, that’s us alright. Yet in our hearts, we know that at some point the trend will pass and we may end up at the publishing companies, advertising agencies and marketing firms we once worked at. The leaders though will stay. It is after all thanks to them that “foodie” Moscow exists.

Art of cooking

When it comes to food innovation in Moscow, Alexey Zimin is arguably the trailblazer responsible for transforming the city’s culinary scene. “In the last four years, Moscow has hosted more food festivals than it had in its entire history before that,” he says. “The editors of Afisha Eda (Russia’s culinary bible) are even asking whether our foodies have run too far ahead of the rest. What is happening in Paris and London at the moment is yesterday’s news for them.”

After studying at Le Cordon Bleu London and training in the kitchens of legendary chefs from Michel Guérard to Raymond Blanc, Zimin returned to Moscow to open Ragout, a stylish restaurant that combines French haute cuisine and traditional Russian fare. It wasn’t long before the Ragout empire expanded to include a cooking school of the same name that according to Zimin, taught “classical French cooking techniques and modern methods for integrating them with other styles”. Around 500 people have completed the course so far with 50 going on to open their own restaurants or cafes.

Zimin, who also editor-in-chief of foodie bible Afisha Eda, is scathing about the state of culinary education in Russia. “For the last 80 years, schools in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia have existed for the same purpose: to ruin their students to the point where their bad habits can’t be undone,” he says. “In terms of official education, this is still going on. Students are leaving with degrees and less knowledge about food than people who watch cooking channels.”

Supper club scene

Anna Bichevskaya and Aliona Ermakova are the duo behind Stay Hungry, Moscow’s first supper club. Launched in December 2012, the supper club offers new chefs the chance to cater to a group of around 20 diners in a loft-style apartment in central Moscow. Following up on the success of the supper club, Bichevskaya and Ermakova launched a second Stay Hungry project: a festival of street food.

The aim of both the supper club and the festival is to bring like-minded people together for friendship and possible future creative collaborations. Now, the pair are looking to export their model to Russian cities outside of Moscow. “This summer we had a festival in Kaliningrad where we took the most interesting Moscow street food projects,” says Bichevskaya. “The best thing about Kaliningrad was that it suddenly became apparent that a lot of people need what we do. Now we will think about working in the regions and helping Muscovites with getting permanent food spots.”

Reinventing the gourmet

Regularly described as culinary wizards by the Russian press, the Berezutsky twins are known for their innovative take on all things gastronomic as well as their witty approach to food. Separated only by the cities they work in — Ivan is in St Petersburg and Sergey is in Moscow — both are committed disciples of nouveau Russian cuisine. The brothers, 28, have a preference for locally sourced food and have even been known to scour forests in search of rare herbs to complete their recipes. Such is the myth that has developed around the pair.

In June, Sergey beat nine other rising stars from around the world to be named the best young chef by the S Pellegrino Cooking Cup. His winning dish, a Russian-Italian fusion, comprised mackerel with watermelon with a crunchy beetroot risotto and Chechil cheese side. Last year, Ivan picked up the Chef of the Year prize at St Petersburg’s Where to Eat awards for his set of menus that explored the connections between gastronomy and art. Taking his quest literally, Ivan used squid ink to re-create Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square. When together, the brothers are a hoot: their joint masterclasses — generous portions of irony with a patriotic flavour including Russia-shaped dishes — are sell-out events with performances that border on stand-up comedy.

Eating local

Boris Akimov, the bearded co-founder of LavkaLavka, a farmers’ collective, cafe, restaurant and chain of small grocery stores, has made eating local a priority among well-off Muscovites. Expect to find dishes such as beef tartare with homemade vegetable caviar and fried potatoes on the menu along with details of each ingredient’s provenance and the name of the farmer. The creation of a link between farmers and city folk is part of Akimov’s mission to change current attitudes towards farming.

“It’s not like in Europe or in the US where farmers are respected,” he says. Akimov, the Russian equivalent of former-Blur bassist-turned-cheesemaker Alex James (Akimov too was once in a band before working as a journalist for more than a decade) lives in a village just outside of Moscow where he regularly posts selfies of himself with turkeys in the foreground.

Helping the makers make it

The past few years has seen the rise of foodie culture in Moscow with both eating and cooking becoming somewhat of an obsession among young Muscovites. Riding on this wave, Nastya Kolesnikova launched Mestnaya Yeda (Local Food) in 2012, an incubator for prospective food businesses. Kolesnikova not only offers those starting out a shared kitchen space but also the chance to pilot their product at a monthly food market and lectures from those in the industry.

“It’s almost impossible to create a small, cool project in Moscow because of the high rent,” says Kolesnikova. “I realised that there are a lot of people in Moscow who have great ideas for projects which they can’t turn into a business because they lack the experience, skills and money. These people are very important for developing different industries, food culture and the economy.”

Retro food revival

Celebrity chef Vladimir Mukhin, who heads the kitchen at Moscow’s White Rabbit restaurant — a must for any gastronome — combines traditional Russian dishes with a contemporary twist. Using modern culinary methods and almost-forgotten Russian ingredients, Mukhin’s menus are as innovative as they are delectable. His latest tasting menu includes mussels with foam of fried onions and cider jelly, and mini sandwiches with fried chanterelles on honey bread.

“In my kitchen I mix my Russian family’s gastronomic traditions with modern technologies,” he says. “As a result we get a new Russian cuisine. Traditions are eternal — innovations are endless.” Abroad, Mukhin is the poster boy for the new wave of Russian gastronomy with specially themed nights at Michelin-starred restaurants across France. In 2013, he took second prize in the S Pellegrino Cooking Cup, a global competition for young chefs, becoming the first-ever Russian finalist.

Good pub grub

Last year energetic chef and restaurateur Dmitry Zotov branched out from his string of high-end restaurants — Zolotoy, Entrecote, Beefbar Junior and Olivetta — by launching Wing or Leg, Moscow’s first gastropub. A year on and it’s made it on to the Diner Club World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Along with classic gastropub grub such as chicken wings with chipotle sauce, Wing or Leg serves a variety of British ales, stouts and ciders. A second Wing or Leg soon followed in Moscow’s hipster hangout, Gorky Park, and then a third pub, Haggis, which has a more rustic focus. “We are seeing more high-quality and accessible restaurants appearing,” says Zotov. “Before they had either been good but too expensive or cheap but horrible. Even five years ago there was practically no middle ground.”

Street food central

Ivan Shishkin, the co-owner of the more upmarket Delicatessen restaurant, is one of the pioneers of street food culture in Moscow. In 2012, he opened Dary Prirody, the city’s first permanent food truck in Hermitage Garden, with a weekly changing menu selling gourmet street food such as smoked cod salad. A year later, he followed with a soup and sandwich shop, Buterbro, in the same location. Both places are run by young, amateur chefs who Shishkin takes on as trainees.

According to Shishkin, working in the food industry has never been so attractive, especially to young Muscovites. “These people could become the mainstays of this new market and make food culture understandable and accessible to contemporary Russians,” he says. But, says Shishkin, the difficulty in obtaining licences and finding premises are two barriers to opening up a food business. “The city’s authorities have no interest whatsoever in developing a food culture,” he says. “Even the official whose job it is to protect the interests of street food. There are only about 5,000 people involved in street food but still we are not going to give up.”

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