“When I see a Russian herring salad, I know it’s rubbish. But I still eat it,” said chef Vladimir Muchin a few years ago in the Netflix series Chef’s Table. As with many other facets of their daily lives, Russians maintain a love-hate relationship with their cuisine. It is not that ingredients or recipes for a good meal are not available in Russia. But the introduction of state canteens in the Soviet years—where potatoes, lots of mayonnaise, and a soggy fruit compote predominated—seemed to have crushed every culinary ambition.
The Michelin star rain that descended on Moscow came as a surprise to many. For the first time in its 120-year history, a delegation from the Guide Michelin, the French bible of gastronomy, a drive north. Nine restaurants, all in the capital, were awarded one or even two coveted stars. For example, restaurant White Rabbit, where the 38-year-old Muchin is the chef and where, under a glass roof at the top of a luxury shopping center, the Moscow elites dine. As an extra push in the right direction, the French awarded 69 restaurants with an honorable mention. “There is an evolution going on in the Russian culinary scene, it is becoming more and more dynamic,” said Gwendal Poullennec, international director of the Michelin Guide.
That is not a word too much, as a glance at the menus shows. In addition to exquisite Kamchatka king crab, Sakhalin scallops and bull tartare with cherry sauce, the award-winning restaurants serve a variety of traditional Russian dishes, such as blinis, pelmeni (stuffed noodles), buckwheat and cabbage leaves, marinated in peach-truffle sauce, that is. The success lies in the combination and quality of ingredients, according to experts. For example, the brothers Ivan and Sergei Berezoetski from restaurant Twins Garden grow their ingredients on their own farm. It gave them an extra green star op, the annual award for chefs who are committed to ethics and the environment.
That Russians their culinary rediscovering roots is a rare bright spot in Russia’s increasing political isolation on the international stage. Plagued by Western sanctions, self-imposed import restrictions and the borders closed by the pandemic, Russians have been devoting themselves to rediscovering their immense and diverse country for some time now. That trend can count on Vladimir Putin’s approval. The president is not known for his refined taste. He loves porridge and cottage cheese with honey and started a riot this summer by relegating French champagne to ‘sparkling wine’. The French have not yet forgotten that insult, but with the Michelin stars it seems that something of the fracture has been glued.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of October 20, 2021
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