Elgiz Abdulhakov on gastronomic shows and Flemish cuisine
Elgiz Abdulhakov used to be the chef at the famous restaurateur Mikhail Zelman’s acclaimed project Goodman. He has also worked as a consultant, and his workshops were highly anticipated in just about every corner of the country even back when chefs weren’t trendy public figures of the restaurant business. Elgiz has worked abroad, in Estonia and Finland. People assumed that he would continue pursuing his career in the West, and would leave his position as a brand chef at Oxton Group OY in Helsinki to work with his old friend Mikhail Zelman in London. However, in a surprise to everyone, Abdulhakov appeared in Moscow and started working on Bird BQ – a restaurant with a focus on grilled poultry. After a successful opening and a spike in popularity, the new restaurant suddenly adjusted the menu. Along with poultry, it started offering Flemish cuisine, with a focus on mussels. Capital Ideas decided to chat with Elgiz about the details in person.
How did you become interested in Belgian cuisine?
I was always interested in experimenting with products and unusual presentations for different dishes. It’s working at the intersection of art and cuisine in a very direct sense of the word. When I got an offer from a well-respected European state organization responsible for developing tourism in Belgium, I accepted it right away. The Lambic beer restaurant chain, which was selected to be Finland’s ambassador in Russia, is managed by the company Upster, which also owns the brand Bird BQ. This is why we made the decision to jointly focus on topics related to artists – great Flemish masters. And we changed the sign in front of the restaurant, which now reads “Lambic” instead of Bird BQ. In the very near future, the space will host a number of events dedicated to Belgian culture.
For a whole month, we had an original menu with dishes from the era of Pieter Bruegel. And the presentation was creative as well. For example, the “Three Appetizer Palette” looked like a real palette from a Renaissance-era workspace, but instead of paints the board had different kinds of sauces on it. I like to be creative in this respect, and am especially excited about events dedicated to the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte. We already have a few unusual culinary ideas that reflect the spirit of his art.
Where do you get the inspiration for your gastronomic experiments?
I’ve been lucky enough to travel to many places, and I advise people who have decided to dedicate their lives to the restaurant business to find opportunities to travel and see different kinds of restaurants. This really changes the way you think and your attitudes toward the hospitality industry. This can be special educational programs or tours of the best restaurants, which you can easily find online these days. Of course, everything depends on the type of sphere you work in. But it’s undeniable that there are still gastronomic centers, like France or the US, where I really recommend going. The US is completely different – New York has its own culture, Chicago has something different, and California is unlike anything else. In the US, people really like to turn the kitchen into a stage, putting on an endless, vibrant culinary show. And I share this take on restaurants, I like this approach where I can feel like I’m behind the stove together with the actors and director of a gastronomic theatre. I’m ready to grab a whip and chase after cooks in the kitchen if this makes sense within the scope of a performance. My colleagues and I gladly get creative in this respect, generating ideas, each one bolder than the one that came before it. Our restaurant has a unique horizontal turnspit, and once a week I’ll be using it to cook a whole lamb. We’ll arrange all the tables in a way that lets all of our guests see me doing it. I plan on putting on a show that’s even better than what they do in the US.
After two years of working in Finland, you decided to come back to Moscow…
I got a really interesting offer – to take part in developing a new concept for a restaurant based on poultry. I wanted to immerse myself in this and to start introducing guests to unusual marinades and the art of cooking over a fire. But now that we’ve worked out a menu and thought of many ways to cook poultry, I want to move on. I’ve already learned how to cook chicken in a way that makes it taste like Peking duck. Now I want to do something new within the scope of Flemish traditions, and I’m discovering the opportunities a product like mussels has to offer. As is my usual custom, I’m trying to genuinely master this subject. There are people about whom others say “he will go far,” but in my case people say “he’ll dig deep”!
By the way, mussels used to be one of the most popular foods for prehistoric humans. The thing is that gathering these mollusks in no way put people’s lives in danger, unlike hunting, which could easily wipe out a third of a tribe. Our ancestors ate mussels every day, so if anybody ever wants to return to their roots, they can revive this practice. I think this makes a lot more sense than raw foodism and other popular healthy lifestyle trends.
Where are the mussels shipped to your restaurant from?
I’m a fan of Russian products, so frozen food from Chile or China don’t interest me much. I like domestic products, from the White Sea. By the way, the mollusks that live in cold waters taste better than the ones that live in warmer temperatures. And one of the many factors that impacts the size of a mollusk is how salty the water it. This is why the species from the Baltic or Black Sea are much smaller than the large mussels from the White Sea. They come to us live, and I highly recommend making space in your busy schedule to pop into Lambic on Gogol Boulevard!