The Russian Chef Who Is Bringing Back His Homeland's Colorful, Classic Cuisine : The Salt Before the Soviet period, "Russian food had color," says Vladimir Mukhin of Moscow's world-famous White Rabbit restaurant. He aims to honor those flavors, as well as locally source his ingredients.
NPR logo

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/594310548/594364527" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Russian Chef Who Is Bringing Back His Homeland's Colorful, Classic Cuisine

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/594310548/594364527" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

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.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.