Modern Russian cuisine is similar to European cuisine in many ways
Mircko Zago is an excellent example of a person who brings his talent, energy, and enthusiasm to absolutely everything he does, not just his job. He started his career early, working as a chef in different restaurants in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and other countries. He is originally from Italy, but has been living in Moscow for the past 16 years. He won the culinary competition “Vlastelin Vkusa” on Channel One. He was also a host on the first two seasons of the culinary show “Master Chef” on the TV channel STS. In 2006, he organized the first Italian cuisine banquet at Vladimir Putin’s summer residence.
Fate introduced him to the Russian restaurateur Arkady Novikov, and Mircko has headed up the kitchen of the restaurant Syr since 2001.
We talked to Mircko and found out how he likes living in Moscow and where he draws inspiration for his culinary experiments that Syr guests love and appreciate so much.
Mircko, could you tell us how you ended up in Russia?
It happened many years ago. Arkady Novikov invited me to come to Moscow to do a tasting through mutual friends. I thought, “Hey, this is an excellent opportunity to go see the Red Square.” And now I’ve been living and working here for 16 years. By the way, I did get to see the Red Square a couple of times. In the end, everything, both resources and circumstances, came together in a way that Moscow became my second home.
How did you imagine life in Moscow?
At first I thought that it would be difficult for me to adapt to Moscow. It was a completely new city for me, with a new language and new people. And in big cities, regardless of where they’re located, people are usually under a lot more stress and pressure. Moscow is no exception. You have to admit, there are a lot more people here, and more competition in any profession. The weather in Moscow was an even bigger challenge for me. The weather here is cloudy for most of the year, which is a change for me. In Italy, I live in the mountains, where there a lot of bright, sunny days. I still miss the Italian sky. But when it comes to everything else, it’s worth pointing out that Moscow has noticeably changed over the past few years. It’s become more comfortable, there are a lot of parks and pedestrian areas, and significantly fewer cars in the center.
Have you been to other Russian cities? How are people there different from people in Moscow, in your opinion?
They’re calmer than people in Moscow, which is immediately obvious. I’ve been to Nizhny Novgorod, Saint Petersburg, Rostov on Don, Penza, Yekaterinburg, and Khabarovsk. I came across friendly and welcoming people everywhere, who lead calmer lifestyles than people in the capital. It’s amazing that even the way they talk is calmer and slower than Muscovites.
What do you appreciate most about Russian culture?
I like Russian architecture from past centuries, which, by the way, has borrowed a lot from Italian traditions. A lot of great Italian architects worked in Russia. But in terms of architecture I prefer Saint Petersburg over Moscow, since Moscow has more modern buildings. I also really value Russian paintings. I’m a big fan of Kandinsky, and after coming to Russia I’ve also become a fan of Malevich. I’ve read a lot of Russian classics and like works by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov, Pasternak, and many others. When it comes to Russian composers, I prefer Tchaikovsky. To me, his compositions are a special kind of pleasure. In general, I can talk about Russian culture for hours, I am amazed and impressed by it. And one has to admit that a lot of the metro stations in Moscow are also a kind of work of art.
Mircko, what advice would you give to a foreigner who is planning to move to Moscow?
I’ve realized that in order to live in Moscow, you have to love this city. There is no other way! And you probably won’t be able to prepare for that in advance. I think that you can love or hate this city, but there is no way to remain neutral. So that’s what every foreigner who is planning to stay in Moscow for a long time should be prepared for.
What would you do if you weren’t a chef?
I would still be a chef (laughs). But seriously, I’ve always loved and continue to love writing. I also really like film. So if I weren’t a chef, I would probably choose a career as a director.
Where do you get the inspiration for your work and your experiments?
It’s something different every time. Sometimes I’m inspired by paintings, sometimes by people or unusual life situations. Often I’m inspired by the food products themselves. For example, you see good tomatoes and start thinking about what you can make with them. Generally, I’m of the opinion that being a chef is a profession without limits. Mastery depends on how open you are to new experiences and new experiments.
In your opinion, how is Russian restaurant culture different from European restaurant culture?
Right now I don’t see a lot of major differences. These days, any person can easily find out or see what people cook in European restaurants, or explore the culinary traditions of any country. Modern Russian cuisine is in many ways similar to European cuisine in terms of style and presentation, but at the same time has its own uniques and rich history.
In your opinion, what is the key to Syr’s success?
The thing is that I didn’t become Syr’s chef right away. Arkady Novikov invited me to Russia to work in a completely different restaurant. But then I became the chef at Syr. For me, popularity is not how I judge a restaurant. For me, what’s most important is the good attitude of people who come here, their positive experiences with the place and the food. The enthusiasm and desire to work and be helpful of the people I work with here is also important. This honest and attentive approach is really appreciated by both clients and coworkers. And that’s the foundation of success.
In your opinion, are Russian guests at your restaurant different from European guests?
Not anymore, but 16 years ago Russian guests were a bit different. There were more wealthy people than there are now, they were more demanding, and sometimes asked for the impossible.
Mircko, why do people call you a provocateur?
Honestly, I don’t know (laughs). Maybe because I’m not afraid to try new things at my job and experiment often!
How do your television appearances help you in your main line of work?
It keeps me on my toes and gives me the opportunity to diversify my work. Though I wouldn’t call myself a television personality. But working on TV is interesting to me. And it’s a kind of accomplishment for me. If someone had told me when I was a kid that I would be on television, I would never have believed them!
What else would you like to try your hand at?
I’m never short on plans and ideas! I would like to open my own restaurant. In Italy, of course. And definitely in Russia. I also may open a culinary school. This line of work is also appealing to me.