Konstantin Ivlev:

Russian cuisine is about much more than just borscht!

Konstantin Ivlev, host of the popular culinary show and one of the most famous chefs in Russia, is a connoisseur of Russian cuisine. We asked him whether or not foreigners in Moscow are interested in Russian cuisine. We often hear the same thing in conversations with expats from all over the world, be it Italy, Japan, France of England: “We really want to try real Russian food. But it’s impossible to find a restaurant like that here. There are Japanese restaurants, Italian food, Georgian, even Serbian.”

Konstantin, do you think foreigners are interested in Russian cuisine?

Foreigners are definitely interested in Russian cuisine. Why? Because they see that Russia is developing and a lot has changed in our country in the past 10-15 years. There are changes in the economy, sports, literature, theatre, film and everything else. Same goes for our cuisine. Food has always been a powerful PR tool for any country. Foreigners are curious to know what we eat, other than borscht. Unfortunately, a lot of restaurants have stopped at borscht, caviar, meatpies and pelmeni. They can’t offer anything else.

But it’s not all bad. My colleagues and I are gradually working to remedy the situation in Moscow. We want to bring joy to both foreigners and Russians.

Just 10 years ago we announced that we are going to start working on “new Russian cuisine” in order to show that we are capable of more than just borscht. I started to think about what can be done with those forgotten products that have been lost under a thick layer of sea bass and mozzarella.

It all started when we were opening GQ bar in Moscow with the famous restaurateur Arkady Novikov in 2007 (it has since closed, unfortunately). Arkady asked me to make kotleti (burgers). I refused: “I won’t make kotleti.” He asked me to think of a substitute. I found a store that sold cans of different types of juice, and came across a can of birch sap. I liked it so much that I cooked sterlet stewed in birch sap.

Did you know what this dish would taste like when you thought of it?

The inside of a chef’s mind is like a library of different flavors. When I think of something and my mouth starts watering, there is a one hundred percent chance of this dish turning out great. If not, I keep working on it. And the first thing I do is put a dish together in my mind. What is birch sap? It’s a combination of water, lemon and sugar. What is sterlet? It’s a fatty fish that can be found in Russian lakes. Sometimes it smells like algae. In Russian cuisine, we like to combine citric acid and fish.

For example, we marinade shish kebabs made out of salmon and sturgeon in lemon. This is because lemon partially neutralizes that prominent flavor fatty fish have. So I thought, why not? The fish can cook in birch sap and absorb its flavor. And it turned out to be delicious. This dish is an example of what “new Russian cuisine” is. It’s based on three key principles. The first: we use domestic products. Of course, it’s impossible to only use domestic products here. That’s not necessary. But the main product in the dish must be a domestic one.

The second principle of “new Russian cuisine” is to use modern culinary techniques. During the USSR, all of our chefs could only fry, boil and bake. Now, on the other hand, we have access to cooking utensils and methods borrowed from our foreign colleagues. There is blast freezing and vacuum seal bags.

And the third principle: an original presentation of the dish. You can put the dish on a plate, or you can choose to use different symbols of Russia - birch bark, khokhloma, gzhel. Once I arranged a pretty original presentation of sashimi: I found a 2.5 kg blue brick in a store that sold construction materials. It symbolized the ocean to me. I put salmon on it, and it symbolized the fish. I really love birch sap. When you wrap a pig in it and leave it to stew, it smells like you’re in a sauna. An original presentation is very important.

Another important point: there is Russian cuisine, and then there is Soviet cuisine. Soviet public catering was a staple of life in the USSR until the 1980s and included dishes like the Stolichny salad. And another nuance: technically borscht is a Ukrainian dish, and pelmeni are Chinese. These are not Russian dishes, even though they are considered to be. But pirogis, kulebyaki and rasstegai were dishes served at feasts during Ivan the Terrible’s reign. We’ve gotten everything mixed up. I’ve been joking that Ceasar salad and tiramisu are going to be considered Russian cuisine soon, since you can find them at any restaurant in our country.

You have a lot of experience talking to foreigners. What kinds of Russian dishes do they prefer? What are the top five, in your opinion?

Borscht would be in second place, or shchi. No way of getting around that. Russia is famous for our soups. In the summer, foreigners like to try okroshka. Pelmeni are definitely in third place. Everybody loves them, the Chinese and the Italians alike. The Italians compare them to ravioli. Fourth place...


No, I wouldn’t say so. It would either be game meat like deer or wild boar or Russian fish, like sturgeon.

Is there traditional Russian dessert?

It used to be kisel. Now...there are a lot of different things. I experiment, for example. I really love our caramel candy called “Rakovaya Sheika.” I made cream out of them, splitting these sweets into tiny pieces. So you eat cream that tastes like this candy. I want to make a dessert for the spring menu at the Profil Professional Club restaurant: add kozinaki (nuts-and-honey bar) made out of pistachios and hazelnut to prostokvasha (a type of yogurt) and decorate it with mint and berries.

What other interesting dishes do you make at your restaurant?

I’m the concept chef at this establishment. There was an interesting idea to combine a beauty salon and a place to eat. Clients who come in for sessions that last several hours (massages, haircuts and styling, pedicures, etc) can get hungry. They don’t come in for just five minutes. Usually all of them want to eat. Before the sessions, during and after. The vast majority of clients are women, so the food has to be beautiful, interesting and healthy. We have combined three types of dishes in the menu: new Russian cuisine, European dishes and Pan Asian cuisine.

What is your signature dish?

I really like Caucasian and Central Asian cuisine: lobio, khachapuri, chebureki, manty, plov and much more. I make a crazy dish here: chicken breast (Yaroslavl broiler) at a low temperature (45 minutes at sixty degrees), then I spread it on caramel satsivi. I add sugar syrup to create an unusual flavor. Then I top it off with tomatoes, a bit of basil, olive oil, and some garlic. And I decorate all of this with fried basil.

But this isn’t a Russian dish?

As a person who was born in and raised in the USSR, I still can’t really separate Russian cuisine from Belarusian, Ukrainian, Georgian, and Uzbek cuisine.

When you come to a new restaurant, how can you tell whether or not it will be a good place to eat? Is it the smell?

I feel the energy of the place right away, as soon as I open the door. That’s the first thing. Second, when I see the people working there I immediately know what their attitude toward their business is. Third, the menu. If I see a big selection, I immediately get up and leave. I won’t eat at an establishment like this. As a professional, I can tell you that it’s impossible to control for quality if there are over 60 items on the menu. And some restaurants have 100-140 dishes! You start reading it and forget what appetizers you wanted by the time you get to the soup. This is madness! For me, the optimal amount of dishes is 50. 42 is even better. It’s best to have 6-7 salads, 2-3 soups, 5-6 main dishes with fish, and just as many with meat and poultry. Some desserts and fruit. And you can change the menu depending on the seasons. This is an option in our country.  You make a small menu and, to make sure guests don’t get bored, add something new once every four months. You can host a festival featuring some specific product or wine. Then the chef won’t get bored either, and the guests will see that the restaurant is alive. There is always something new.

Just three years ago, eighty percent of products in Moscow restaurants came from other countries...

Now it’s a fifty-fifty split. Not all Russian products can compete with their Western counterparts. For example, there is this white fish of the whitefish muksun family. It comes from the rivers and lakes in Siberia, and it’s fairly inexpensive. It’s about 360 rubles per kilo. But it just didn’t go over well. It wasn’t so popular. It’s not bad, but people prefer the sea bass and dorado definitely. Even if you cook muksun right, it’s still a little bit dry. And then you go to a food fair, for example, and representatives from a fish factory say: “Get a ton of muksun.” What am I going to do with that much fish? They haven’t found distributors yet. But it’s not so bad. There is some progress, and this makes me happy. But honestly, I use the old grandpa method. For example, I have friends in Sochi and they ship products to me on the train from there.

Through the conductors?

Yes. For example, say it’s wild garlic season. They send bags of it to me. We don’t have some things, like French cheese, for example, But we have forests full of wild animals and birds, mushrooms and berries. We have lakes, rivers and seas with plenty of fish. We have things to show foreigners. There’s just not a lot of it. There are about 9,000 restaurants and cafes in Moscow. And only about a hundred of them, in my opinion, have a good price to quality ratio. And I only go to five of those.

Can you tell us what they are?

I go to restaurants as a consumer - not to try new things, but just to eat. When I want fish, I go to “Porto Maltese.” If I want shish kebab, I go to Arkady Novikov’s restaurant “Kavkazkaya Plennitsya.” I go to “Mister Lee” or “Yoko” when I want Japanese food. When a new restaurant opens in Moscow, I go to support my colleagues, shake their hand and cheer them on. Us chefs are all in the same business and I have a lot of colleagues and friends. We argue sometimes, but we still talk. My guiding principle is mutual respect. But I’ll be honest, I get more fresh ideas when I’m travelling: in New York, Paris, Singapore. In London, which is a trendsetter when it comes to fusion cuisine. The English had colonies in India and in other countries. They started combining different flavors a long time ago, adding Indian spices to European dishes, for example. That’s interesting. New York is a megacity that brings together everything. There are chefs from all over the world in that city. The French are powerful in terms of classics. But in Europe and the US the chefs dictate what guests want to eat and set trends. Here, it’s the opposite. Once, I was working with a restaurant that was about to open. The owner told me: “No borscht, Konstantin! Do what you want, just make it modern and edgy!”. We opened the restaurant. The first night, he called me and said: “Hey, Semyon Petrovich came by, didn’t see borscht on the menu and left. So let’s put borscht on the menu tomorrow.” I decided to stop working with him. First, he broke our contract. Second, I need the restaurant owner to trust me. I’ve been trying to change attitudes toward chefs in our country for the past 15 years. We’re not drunks or thieves who go home with bags of groceries we steal from the restaurant, which is how things used to be in the USSR when I was a kid.

In France and Japan, chefs get less sleep than lawyers. What kind of training to Russian chefs get?

We still use programs from the 80s and 90s at culinary schools here. We teach the classics: Russian and Soviet cuisine. But we don’t teach the basics of modern cuisine. So all young chefs suffer from borscht syndrome. Thank God, there is a new generation now. They are interested in experimenting and, most importantly, the restaurant owners trust them now: “Do whatever you want!”. Unfortunately, modern Russian cuisine is hard to find at restaurants in Moscow. These dishes aren’t commercial food yet. Borscht, oliver salad, herring under fur coat - this is commercial food. These are real brands! Sometimes people will say they opened a restaurant featuring new Russian cuisine, but you go there and realize that it’s the same old song. Just the chef put it on the plate in a different shape. Or a friend calls me and says: “I came up with a new kind of borscht. I whipped it into a foam.” I ask him if he has lost his mind. There are some dishes that don’t need to be transformed.



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