When Vladimir Mukhin was growing up in Yessentuki, a town in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, his father, Viktor, bought a plot of land in the city centre to launch a new business. The Soviet Union had just collapsed, and Viktor was embracing the spirit of experimentation that emerged in its wake. He began by tearing down the subsidised canteen he’d acquired with the land, identical to thousands across the country built to feed a struggling population. “He literally demolished it with a jackhammer,” Mukhin recalls.
In its place, Viktor opened a small restaurant and concocted a menu with local produce. It was there that the young Mukhin, a fifth-generation chef, would learn the tricks of a trade that has catapulted him to global renown and placed him at the vanguard of a push to revive traditional Russian cuisine. Now 35, Mukhin is the head chef of White Rabbit, Moscow’s most celebrated restaurant and number 15 on the authoritative World’s 50 Best list. But the way he sees it, Mukhin is not chasing recognition but a more elusive goal: the evolution of a unique, Russian style of cooking that the world is yet to deem worthy of praise.
It’s certainly been a long journey. Seven decades of communism had a huge impact on the tastes and lifestyles of Soviet citizens – a centralised system enforced uniform standards of cooking throughout the vast, multicultural empire, suppressing the national cuisines that were taking shape before the Bolsheviks swept to power in 1917 and declared war on capitalism and indulgence.
It is into the vestiges of those pre-revolutionary cooking traditions that Mukhin, and others like him in Russia’s capital, are working to breathe new life. Almost 30 years after the Soviet collapse, they are spearheading a campaign to put Russia back on the culinary map. In 2014, President Vladimir Putin imposed a limited ban on food imports from the West in response to its sanctions over Russia’s policies in Ukraine, forcing Moscow’s chefs to scour their vast country for ingredients that will infuse dishes with a uniquely Russian flavour.
“In the Soviet Union – over 75 years, two and a half generations – we trampled the concept of Russian cuisine. We destroyed it,” Mukhin tells me over a late lunch at White Rabbit, as the restaurant prepares for dinner guests to fill up its Alice in Wonderland-themed interior. Set inside an elongated glass dome on the 16th floor of the Smolensky Passage building, it commands a view of the Moscow City business centre’s gleaming skyscrapers and the Orwellian foreign ministry headquarters down the road. “My mission is to teach people to love it once again,” he adds.
We sample dishes off the 10-course tasting menu Mukhin has named “Russian Evolution”, a favourite among the foreign tourists that form the core of his clientele. The slab of pig fat, which is so traditionally Slavic, and which in Russia is known as salo, is here reimagined as a vegetarian delicacy with coconut, not pork belly, as the main ingredient. The crunchy bread bun that complements a helping of sea scallops is made from birch bark flour, which villages along the Volga River historically turned to in times of scarcity. And an otherwise banal wedge of cabbage is cooked in a wood stove to such perfection that you’re forced to rethink this most simple of crops. All told, it’s a reinvention of traditional Russian staples for the modern age.
“The idea is simple,” Mukhin explains, smiling from behind a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. Tucked inside the sleeve pocket of his personalised T-shirt is a palette knife, the better to intervene with when he’s needed. “We used to travel abroad and surprise everyone with Russian products: Borodinsky bread, buckwheat, black radishes and other such things. Now we take products from around the world and adapt them – we cook them with a Russian influence, with Russian technology.”
On a Saturday, I sit across from Pavel Syutkin, a food historian, at a very different establishment. CDL, the restaurant of Moscow’s Central House of Writers, was once part of the residence of the aristocratic Olsufiev family. After the 1917 revolution, the building became a squat for the homeless, then an orphanage and was finally handed over to the writers’ union by Joseph Stalin in 1932. A gigantic chandelier that previously hung at Komsomolskaya, the grandest of Moscow’s metro stations, now casts a light shadow over the space. Our table is laden with traditional Soviet dishes: pirozhki puff pastries, Pozharsky cutlets, mushrooms with onion and Olivier salad. We wash it down with shots of horseradish vodka.
Prior to the revolution, Syutkin explains, there were sizeable regional and class differences in cuisine; Russia’s royal court ate in one style, the clergy in another; merchants dined in mid-range restaurants while the millions of peasants subsisted on what they had. But the Bolsheviks disavowed the imperial past, and sought to feed the population in the most efficient way.
In 1936, Stalin’s trade minister Anastas Mikoyan was dispatched to the United States on a goodwill mission and returned with ketchup, cornflakes and ambitions of solving the USSR’s food supply issue. The industrialisation drive launched under Stalin saw the creation of vast plants dedicated to the production of staples like cheese and bread and canned foods ranging from sprats in oil to mayonnaise. One of Mikoyan’s first instructions upon returning to Russia was to “supply the capital’s workers with a fulsome, cheap breakfast” – by that October, a new factory in Moscow was churning out 500,000 cutlets using machines imported from America.
“My mission is to teach people to love it once again”
Three years later, the government released a cookbook that aimed to enlighten citizens on how these mass products were to be utilised. Published in 1939, The Book of Healthy and Tasty Food was written by academics from the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences’ Institute of Nutrition and became a bible for Soviet house- wives. It opened with a quote from Stalin, and its introduction outlined its main task: to help Soviet women prepare tasty and healthy food for the family while expending the least amount of time and energy. The Bolsheviks had declared that they would liberate women from kitchen slavery – the first Soviet cookbook was a tool that promised emancipation.
Today, the chefs leading Russia’s culinary revolution largely stay away from Soviet cookbooks. But one pair has also turned to government scientists in an effort to realise the vision. When twin brothers Ivan and Sergey Berezutskiy were plotting the launch of their restaurant Twins Garden in mid-2017, they approached the Timiryazev Agricultural Academy in Moscow for help. They envisioned a vast farm that would supply their new restaurant with ingredients, and they needed the expertise – and the seeds – to realise that dream.
“We went to them and said, ‘Please explain this stuff to us,’” Sergey says. “We had to figure out a growth cycle that would produce fresh products every day.” In a country Russia’s size, the state has long pushed farmers to prioritise quantity over quality, according to Sergey. The academy helped provide farmers with the seeds. But the Berezutskiy brothers wanted plants that yielded less volume of higher quality.
“They had disused seeds which grow delicious tomatoes but are not used on an industrial scale,” Sergey says. “We came and asked, ‘Can we have those seeds?’ And they replied, ‘Guys, you’re exactly who we’ve been waiting for!’” The academy now had a use for their rarest tomato seeds, and Twins Garden had a means to provide diners with the freshest tomatoes regardless of the season.
The restaurant, spread over two floors and overlooking the picturesque park on Strastnoy Boulevard, now sources over two-thirds of its products from its 51-hectare farm in the Kaluga region, south of Moscow. On the sprawling territory, a freshwater pond provides fish in abundance and 17 greenhouses together produce over 150 types of fresh vegetables, fruit and herbs year-round, in defiance of Russia’s harshest winters. And with an aeroponic fruit and vegetable system now operating in the restaurant, Twins Garden hopes to reach self-sufficiency in due course.
“Trends change all the time, but there are two things that will always be in vogue: quality products and healthy products,” Ivan says. “And how can we be sure about the quality of our products? We can’t, unless we grow them ourselves.” Last year, they debuted at a not-insignificant 72 on the extended World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, but the twins say they look past ratings. They see their role as fuelling a new approach to food in Russia, and helping a diet of fresh, natural products go mainstream.
That ambition has received a boost from an unlikely source. The political crisis that swept the region in 2014 and cast a shadow over Russia’s economy has ultimately been a blessing in disguise for the country’s food industry. In August 2014, in a tit-for-tat response to Western sanctions over Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine, Moscow introduced an embargo on food products from the US, European Union and several other countries. This deprived Greek restaurants of their olives and Italian ones of their cheese and forced hundreds across the country to improvise. Chefs seized the opportunity to tap the culinary potential of the world’s largest country, taking to the road in search of unique ingredients and the suppliers to move them.
The Twins Garden farm now keeps goats to make camembert. Mukhin has made moose lip a sensation. Sanctions have also driven the success of farming cooperatives such as LavkaLavka, whose stores across Moscow and St Petersburg sell fresh produce from local farmers.
A month after the embargo was announced, LavkaLavka opened its first restaurant in Moscow. Aleksandr Kasich, its 27-year-old head chef, recalls how chaotic those first weeks were. “We’d come to work each morning, check the fridge and the storeroom, and we’d calculate how many guests we can serve duck to, for instance,” he says. “We might be told the ducks had died, or that our delivery had been forgotten, or that someone’s car broke down. That means no duck for three days. Or another story: rains begin, and continue for two weeks. You’re expecting pepper, tomatoes and herbs, but you’re told they haven’t grown. So you’re in constant damage control mode. You try and work with the products that you can get.”
A lot has changed since, not just for LavkaLavka. Though Syutkin can count on one hand the chefs that are instrumental to Russia’s culinary revolution, he says the movement is spreading. “In every tough historical moment, our nutritional habits deteriorate and we default to the basic products present throughout our history,” he says. “Oats, milk, pickles, meat jelly, et cetera. That happened after the revolution, after the war and it happened again in the ’90s.” Following the Soviet collapse, he says, Russian food had to be reinvented. But the problem was deeper. “Most people… have no concept of Russia’s future. So we look too much to the past.”
Shifting that focus on a national scale is the challenge that Mukhin, Kasich and the Berezutskiy twins relish. When the producers of the lauded Netflix series Chef’s Table visited Moscow to film Mukhin for its episode on White Rabbit, they asked him: “What is Russian cuisine for you?” Mukhin took them to a Soviet-style canteen and fed them Olivier salad, aspic and other staple dishes from that era.
“The Americans tried them and said: ‘This is impossible to eat, it’s pure mayonnaise,’” he says. Mukhin, in turn, lapped up his portion and licked his plate clean. He grew up with that diet, he told them – it was wired into his brain. “Mayonnaise is in my DNA,” Mukhin, who now travels the globe giving masterclasses and talks, tells me. “I’ll do everything so that my children and grandchildren cleanse themselves of that palate. Everything.”
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This article was originally published in the April 2019 issue of SiverKris magazine