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The Russian Chef Who Is Bringing Back His Homeland's Colorful, Classic Cuisine

Mar 16, 2018
Originally published on March 16, 2018 7:20 pm

Chef's Table restaurant in Moscow is a cozy space. There are about 20 seats at a horseshoe-shaped bar with a kitchen in the middle. It's a small room, but the man who runs this place has a big personality.

Diners seated around the horseshoe burst into applause when chef Vladimir Mukhin sweeps into the room in a snow-white, short-sleeved chef's jacket, his long hair tied back in a man bun.

And why wouldn't they applaud? Mukhin is about to serve a 13-course tasting menu with dishes like lardo made from strips of coconut, scallops with something called eucalyptus snow on top and homemade black bread with three types of caviar.

Mukhin owns more than 20 restaurants, mostly in Russia, including Chef's Table.

But his most famous space is called White Rabbit, named one of the world's 50 best restaurants last year. It's an over-the-top, multi-level glass atrium at the top of a skyscraper. The furniture is upholstered in lush suede; there are velvet pillows everywhere, jewel-toned accents and paintings of anthropomorphized white rabbits in royal regalia. It's like Alice in Wonderland meets Imperial Russia. And that nod to pre-Soviet Russia is not an accident.

"I hate [cooking from the Soviet] period because it totally killed Russian food," Mukhin says. "Before, Russian food had color. The Soviet period was gray. Everything was gray. Everybody was gray."

He says that Soviet food was heavy, drab and smothered in mayonnaise. Fresh ingredients were rare. Food was just sustenance, nothing to be celebrated.

But there were vestiges of pre-Soviet cooking where Mukhin grew up. He's a fifth-generation chef, so his grandmother would cook recipes that had been in the family for decades.

Her honey cakes were sublime, he says. Her borscht with crayfish was a revelation. No one could beat her Russian black bread.

When Mukhin opened White Rabbit in 2011, he did so to celebrate and elevate these classic flavors. He sourced his ingredients from Russian farms. He even bought farms so that he could grow whatever he wanted.

But high-end Russian cuisine wasn't an easy sell to the urbane population of Moscow. The sophisticated set dined at French, Japanese and Italian restaurants.

Then help arrived in the most unlikely way — through sanctions. In 2014, the Russian army invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. The U.S. and its NATO allies responded by slapping sanctions on Russia. Russian president Vladimir Putin hit back with an embargo of goods from Western countries. No more French cheeses, Italian olive oil or Spanish tomatoes for Russian chefs.

But Mukhin, with his farm-to-table business model, sniffed opportunity:

"So now we start to make some cheese from Italy in Russia. Because we have beautiful milk, why can't we make the cheese here? That's why my idea is: We must grow Russian cuisine."

And he's taken that idea on the road. Mukhin's been all over the world preaching the gospel of Russian cuisine. He recently caught up with a barbecue chef in Dallas.

Mukhin tried American-style coleslaw while in that Texas city and was not impressed. So he turned the barbecue chef on to Russian-style fermented cabbage as a side dish instead of coleslaw." He tried it and said, 'Oh, yes. This will work well.'"

The diners who recently gathered at Chef's Table were treated to a universe of ideas presented via ingredients grown in Russia. The name of the tasting menu that night was "Russian Evolution."

Mukhin's cuisine speaks to both the future and the past.

"Russian food is me. I have borscht in my blood. I think and hope that my children, and the children of my children, will grow up with the new Russian cuisine. With a Russian cuisine evolution."

Freelance journalist Anna Shpakova contributed to this report.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

I'm Mary Louise Kelly on assignment in Moscow, where you might imagine we are subsisting on potatoes, blinis, borscht, heavy Soviet cuisine - oh, no, no, no, no, no.

(APPLAUSE)

KELLY: That is Russian diners cheering their chef as he enters the room. And why not? He's about to feed them a 13-course tasting menu. The theme tonight - Russian evolution.

VLADIMIR MUKHIN: My name is Vladimir Mukhin. I am from Moscow. I'm from the restaurant of White Rabbit.

KELLY: White Rabbit is one of the top restaurants in Moscow, one of the top rated restaurants in the world. This is in part because Vladimir Mukhin had a vision, a vision that involved two sources of inspiration - one, his grandma. She made a mean loaf of black Russian bread like rye bread. Mukhin hails from five generations of chefs.

MUKHIN: I grew up with my grandma and great-grandfather. I start cooking from 12. And I starting from the dishwasher area in the restaurant of my father.

KELLY: Mukhin trained in Moscow, then moved to France to study under a Michelin-starred chef. And by the time he returned to Russia, he had hit on his second big idea - farm to table Russian-style. Mukhin's quest - erase the cuisine of Soviet days. If you can eat like Peter the Great, he figured, why eat like Stalin?

You've talked about how Russian food and Soviet food are really different things.

MUKHIN: Really.

KELLY: And you're trying to take it back to before the revolution.

MUKHIN: That's why.

KELLY: But - so give me an example of something - a recipe from the way Russians were cooking a century ago that you're now serving in your restaurants in Moscow today.

MUKHIN: It's like soup from fermented cabbage. Very simple, but with a lot of influence from the countryside of Russia inside. And when you try it, it's 100 percent of Russian tastes, for example. But we make it not from the cabbage. We make it from the grapes' leaves. So we take the grapes' leaves, fermented the same like cabbage, and make the soup from this.

KELLY: Mukhin admits that when he first opened White Rabbit, it was a tough sell. Russian diners craved French food, Italian, Japanese, not Russian. Help arrived in the unlikely form of sanctions. What happened was Vladimir Putin made his move in Ukraine in 2014, annexing Crimea. In response, the U.S. and NATO allies slapped sanctions on Russia. And in response to that, Putin hit back with an embargo - no imports from the West. No French cheese, no Italian olive oil, no Belgian chocolate. Russia's restaurant industry was hit hard. But Vladimir Mukhin with his farm-to-table business model sniffed opportunity.

MUKHIN: Now we start to make some cheese from Italy in Russia because we have the beautiful milk. Why we can't make the cheese here?

KELLY: But it's not like this is isolationist cuisine. Mukhin travels all over, swapping ideas with other chefs and preaching the gospel of Russian food, like the time he visited Dallas, Texas.

So what did you teach the barbecue chef from Dallas?

MUKHIN: Me?

KELLY: Yeah. What'd you teach him?

MUKHIN: To make the fermented cabbage good way.

KELLY: (Laughter).

MUKHIN: Because I tried the - how this - the name of this salad with the...

KELLY: Cole slaw.

MUKHIN: Yes, coleslaw. Yes.

KELLY: Coleslaw. Yeah.

MUKHIN: Yes. And we...

KELLY: You like it?

MUKHIN: No.

KELLY: Yeah, me neither.

MUKHIN: But - and I like the fermented cabbage. And I teached Aaron (ph) to come on, try. He tried - oh, yes, this is interesting. You know, it's sharing ideas. And it's so cool that Russia can do it as well.

KELLY: Will you go cook for us now?

MUKHIN: Yeah.

KELLY: Back at his chef's table, Mukhin gets to work. First on the tasting menu tonight a dish he has christened coco lardo. Instead of lardo, salted pork fat, Mukhin is whacking a coconut with a mini machete and slicing ribbons of coconut flesh.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUDDING)

MUKHIN: This is the lardo, black caviar. And this is polugar. Polugar is like moonshine.

KELLY: Oh, all right.

We move on - pumpkin soup, sea urchins, eucalyptus snow. I have no idea how to describe this other than eucalyptus leaves dried, crumbled, frozen, drifting onto my tongue like icy snowflakes. And then I lift one more item from a sleek stone dish. It's white and it looks like sorbet.

I don't know what this is. Oh, that's my napkin (laughter).

Actually a dehydrated towel, which apparently I'm supposed to be using to cleanse my hands between courses.

That one could easily think was an amuse-bouche.

Yeah. Should we get back to the food?

So make the case to me. Why should Russian food be the next big thing?

MUKHIN: Why? Because Russian food, it's me. And I have borscht in my blood, you know?

KELLY: Borscht in your blood?

MUKHIN: There is. I think and I hope that my children and the children of my children will grew up with the new Russian cuisine, with the Russian cuisine in evolution. We look at this and try to make it nice.

KELLY: Vladimir Mukhin, the chef with borscht in his blood. His signature restaurant here in Moscow is White Rabbit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.