European Food Summit - Vladimir Mukhin – mastering contrast between the two Russias

Vladimir Mukhin – mastering contrast between the two Russias

Ljubljana, 6. 2. 2020

Even though Russia’s food scene has come a long way in the past couple of years, people still have preconceived, stereotypical notions about it. Heaps of caviar, maybe some lardo on top of thick rye bread, a hearty borscht, all downed with absurd amounts of vodka. And, to be honest – to some extent – this notion is not completely off.

But there’s also this other Russia, immense and diverse country that offers abundance of prime, up until recently underused or completely unused ingredients – creamy honey from the Altai mountains, the sweetest langoustines from the Baltic, huge meaty sea urchins from Vladivostok, goat kid from no-go zone of Dagestan republic, moose, bear, even swans, pungent farm cheese from small producers, tangerines from the Black Sea coast, Kamchatka crab roe that the fishermen used to discard.

Ironically, the best thing that happened to Russian cuisine, were international sanctions, imposed by the West in 2014, after Moscow annexed Crimea. Gone were the days of imported French cheese, Swiss chocolate and Italian truffles, Russian chefs had to go explore their own country for produce and they had to get creative – fast.

At the very front of this new, going back to the roots, movement was Vladimir Mukhin of Netflix’ Chef’s Table fame. “One pil makes you larger, and one pill makes you small …” The haunting tune of Jefferson’s Airplane’s White Rabbit announces the end of feast at Chef’s Table, just as Mukhin in pitch dark, drops the 3-D printed sculpture of rabbit, filled with tiny fluorescent rabbit models.

It’s a show, but preceded by an impressive, well thought through menu based on “contrasts” – contrasts between textures, sour and sweet, the spines of sea urchin vs. the spines of chestnut bur, past and present, poverty and luxury. The two Russias, the struggling class and the ultra rich. One of Mukhin’s now signature dishes was created exactly with this dichotomy in mind – the star of the dish is cabbage, the most mundane and cheapest of ingredients, burnt in Russian wooden oven, then cut whole in front of you and generously doused with creamy, velvety beurre blanc sauce, decadently enriched with caviar and roe of all sizes and colours.

Sitting in the main White Rabbit restaurant, in the velvety sofa, bottomless glass of bubbly in your hand, way up above Smolenskaya Square with stunning views over Moscow skyline, rabbits peeping from the paintings and from the wine labels, it’s easy to dismiss the restaurant as just another Russian extravaganza. There’s Beluga caviar, check, vodka shots (Polugar shots, to be exact), check, gigantic Kamchatka crab, brought whole to the table by the chef, check. With a different chef, in a different place, all this could quickly end up being banal, just another display of wealth being thrown at you, disguising the lack of creativity and purely relying on luxury ingredients to do the trick. Why not, it works so often.

And White Rabbit, the gigantic group comprised of 21 restaurants, is not exactly shying away from flaunting its worth. So sometimes that makes the critics of this Russian opulence quick to forget that Mukhin is actually a very talented chef, chef who very early on demonstrated his vision to create new Russian cuisine by revisiting the past. The past pre-socialistic times, pre uniformed, bland and mushy, starchy food served in stuffy canteens all over the country. Food with no sophistication, no finesse, no soul and the general approach of “food as fuel” that bulldogged over the traditions and care being attributed to dining in the old Russian empire.   

Mukhin was the one who stood up to this and almost single-handedly started reviving the old ways, burying himself in old recipes, scouting his motherland for interesting, amazing ingredients, unknown not only to the world outside, but unknown to Russians themselves.  

He used moose lips for ravioli filling, he flambéed swan liver, he paired persimmon and sea urchins in a delicate petal. And he has been able to create masterpiece with three most common Russian ingredients: lardo, rye bread and caviar from which he created a to-die-for “Napoleon” by combining thin layers of bread with a layer of paper thin lardo, topped with a scoop of black caviar.

But perhaps nothing attests more to his talents than his “coco lardo”, a straight-out genius dish he came up off the top of his head when he did a 4-hands dinner at Gaggan in Bangkok. While testing local Thai produce he noticed the texture of young coconut flesh very much resembles that of lardo – fatty smooth, slightly chewy. He didn’t need much to turn it into fake lardo – he just rubbed the thin slices of coconut with some salt, garlic and dill and served it on rye bread. Coco lardo.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt Mukhin is a charismatic chef, well skilled in selling the White Rabbit story to guests, gathered around the chef’s table. He is aware of the stereotypes foreigners have towards Russia and Russians and doesn’t push them aside, but makes use of it, turns it to his advantage. There’s Russian rock and rap that blasts from the stereo, there’s a full gigantic crab display, there are sunflower blossoms being served, filled with glistering pearls of black caviar, there are flower petals that end up on your head when Vladimir unexpectedly showers you with them, there’s even a witty perfume he produced, inspired by his visit to Copenhagen’s dodgiest parts, called Christiania and smells like weed.   

It's all part of a performance, a skill perfected precisely by the Russians. And Mukhin isn’t a lone rider anymore – in no small thanks to his example Russian gastronomy has really taken off in the post-sanctions years. There’s more and more young chefs following him, coming up with dishes that are creative, unique and unmistakably Russian be it with the produce they use or the inspiration that comes from Russian history, their childhood memories or their grandmothers’ hidden cookbooks.

Text by Kaja Sajovic.