Gastronomic pioneers

02 Mar 2020
St. Petersburg is one of Russia's biggest gastronomic hotspots and this is all thanks to young, energetic and creative chefs that are re-inventing Russian cuisine because it's not only borsch, pelmeni and blinis. We sat down with some of these talented chefs and innovative entrepreneurs to chat to them about all things food. 

Igor Grishechkin, head chef Cococo
- Igor, tell us about yourself, your career and how did you end up in Cococo?
- I don’t have a full culinary education: I actually graduated from art school. But after doing my studies and serving in the army, the question of what to do next with my life arose. At that moment, I understood that cooking would be my life’s work. Since I was a kid I enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen and I got immense pleasure out of it. So, at the age of 24 I completed a few culinary courses at the Smolensk Technical College and after working for about half a year at one of the city’s trendiest restaurants, I moved to Moscow. After working at a few restaurants there I moved to St. Petersburg and found a job as head chef at LavkaLavka. That’s where I met Matilda Shnurova who, at that time, was looking for a head chef for the nascent project that came to be known as Cococo.
- How would you describe Russian food in just three words?
- Filling, salty/sweet and long-suffering.
- What should guests try at Cococo if it’s their very first visit?
- Especially for this occasion we created the “Klassika Cococo” set that lets guests try 11 dishes that were real hits at the restaurant during different years. We brought them together in one place to give guests the chance to try those dishes that are no longer on the menu and thus delve into the philosophy behind Cococo. 

Olesya Drobot, head chef EM Restaurant
- Olesya, tell us about yourself, your career and how did you end up in EM?
- Of course, I started out as a chef's assistant because that's the way it works after finishing culinary school. My first restaurant was Giuseppe's Park, where I worked with an Italian chef and then after wandering for 13 years, I stopped at EM Restaurant. The way I ended up here is an interesting story: when EM opened its doors, my friend and colleague from Grand Cru started working here, he asked me to help out with one event. At that time I was leaving Grand Cru and was not planning on looking for a new job straight away so I agreed to help out. Once, twice – and then Eduard Muradyan (the founder of EM) offered me to stay. I thought why not? Why look for a job when it found me?
- How would you describe Russian food in just three words?
- First of all, it’s about tradition, of which probably some 50% is lost today. Many chefs are trying to pick up the pieces off the floor and put them back together and, I hope, that they will manage. Secondly, Russian produce. Russian produce is not what we find at the market or in the grocery stores with their small range. To get this produce you need to leave the city, find a babushka, help her out in the garden, listen to her stories. Many come to our restaurant and become surprised: “turnip? What’s a turnip? I’ve never tried it.” Russians not having tried turnips is a very strange phenomenon. Having said that, each Russian region has its own cultural values and, of course, unique products. It’s very cool to travel around the country and try something new in each place. In the end, I want to bring everything back to St. Petersburg but it’s simply impossible. That’s why the main task for us is to show our region – St. Petersburg, Leningrad Region. Maybe also more north like Karelia. And, lastly, a chef must love his/her job and love working with Russian products. 

- What is your favorite dish in EM?
- I don’t have a favorite dish, because our sets are always changing and it’s not simply just one dish that evokes emotions. Rather, I have favorite sets. For example, I really liked a set from last summer that had beef tartare with buckwheat and cucumber. 
- What should guests try at EM?
- At EM you need to try sets and drink wine. We don’t put certain dishes ahead of others, each set is unique in its own way. For example, not long ago we introduced a vegan set. So now they too can come and dine at our restaurant.

Alexander Dmitriev, vodka and caviar sommelier at “Caviar Bar and Restaurant”, Belmond Grand Hotel Europa
- Alexander, tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you begin your career and how did it happen that you became Russia’s first caviar sommelier?
- It all began 8 years ago when I started working in Caviar Bar at Grand Hotel Europa as a waiter in the hopes of gaining invaluable experience in St. Petersburg’s best hotel. The initial plan was to work here for a couple of years and then transfer elsewhere to a better position, but Caviar Bar did not want to let me go. What surprised me the most here was the restaurant’s concept, i.e. the wide assortment of caviar and vodka. At first glance one would think that these are two products that are fairly well-known but upon closer inspection, you realize that there is a lot more to them and, most importantly, they’re not that well-explored not only by tourists but us Russians as well. For this reason, during my master classes I explain to guests that caviar was, in fact, the food of peasants during the times of Rus’ and only gradually became a delicacy and that it can be eaten in a Russian or French way; vodka, meanwhile, can be “dead” or “live” and apart from vodka, there’s an equally interesting spirit called polugar. These master classes turn dinners at Caviar Bar into a cultural experience and a real immersion into the history and traditions of Russia. Later, when I was getting my sommelier qualification, I defended my diploma work that explored various black caviar and drink combinations. To this day, I continue to study this awe-inspiring question and can say that I’m still learning something new all the time.
- Many associate Russia with caviar. How would you describe Russian cuisine in a few words?
- Russian food is extremely varied and thanks to our rich history and moments of turmoil, it has changed a lot as the centuries went by. For me Russian cuisine is all about the “Russian table”, i.e. all that Russians lay out for grand events: cold appetizers, smoked foods, marinades, pickled vegetables and mushrooms and, of course, caviar. All this goes exceptionally well with vodka.
- What should guests try at Caviar Bar if it’s their very first visit?
- Our signature “Egg in Egg” dish with black caviar, of course. It consists of three egg shells, truffle flavored scrambled eggs and oscietra, bester and salmon caviar.  The Caviar Bar cocktail, a fine selection of Russian caviar (Oscietar malossol, sevruga, Pressed, salmon and pike) served with traditional condiments, blinis, toast, potatoes, sour cream and chopped eggs is another fantastic choice and it is accompanied by a tasting set of premium vodkas. Our Beef is prepared according to a family recipe that was given as a gift to the hotel by Baroness Helen Stroganoff. Leave room for dessert, namely the white chocolate mousse with yuzu and sturgeon caviar.

Stanislav Potemkin, head chef Petrov-Vodkin
- Alexander, how did you begin your career and how did you end up in Petrov-Vodkin?
- My career began back in 1999 at the Kempinski Hotel here in St. Petersburg and after I made my way up to sous-chef, I went on a long, albeit proverbial, voyage with Igor Meltzer to Matrosskaya Tishina, which is now called La Perla Fish House. Two and a half years ago we decided to open a Russian cuisine restaurant and I dived headfirst into the food I’ve been eating since I was a kid. 
- How would you describe Russian food in just three words?
- Plenty, filling, tasty.
- What should guests try at Petrov-Vodkin if it’s their very first visit?
- My favorite dish on our a la carte menu is the mushroom "kalya". There are many reasons to love it. Firstly, it’s an old Russian recipe for a thick soup that consists of meat, fish or mushrooms and pickled cucumbers. The recipe appeared back in the 16thcentury – way before the famed “Olivier” salad – and so you can say that kalya is one of the foundations of Russian cuisine. Second of all, this is a filling soup with a bit of a kick to it. We add star anise and cloves to our mushroom kalya, which gives it a very distinct flavor. The soup is very simple but, at the same time, the result is quite a unique interpretation of mushroom soup and a good alternative to the already traditional recipes.
Maksim Zabytin, head chef Severyanin
- Maksim, tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you begin your career and how did you end up in Severyanin?
- I’m quite a new addition to the Severyanin family because I’ve only been working here since February. I ended up here thanks to my determination to cross new culinary frontiers and a serious interest in Russian, northern and St. Petersburg cuisines, which together so very harmoniously characterize the restaurant’s concept. Before Severyanin I wasn’t too familiar with Russian cuisine but now, I’ve developed a very special relationship with it. Adapting ancient recipes to guests’ modern culinary preferences is no easy task but it is very interesting and together with my team we strive to give every guest an unforgettable gastronomic experience. 
- How would you describe Russian food in just three words?
- Modern Russian food can be described simply and laconically: varied, rich in terms of history and has absorbed the best traditions during the many centuries of its existence. 
- What should guests try at Severyanin if it’s their very first visit?
- I would highly recommend the stroganovsky meat with white mushrooms, a dish that really stands out thanks to its fine taste and which has, in a way, become the symbol of Russian cuisine. Here at Severyanin we serve stroganovsky meat with truffle butter and this, in my opinion, makes the dish absolutely unique.


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