The youngest star in Russia’s gastronomic firmament is Vladimir Mukhin – the head chef of Moscow’s White Rabbit has made it onto the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants with his radically regional cuisine
Mukhin thrashes a rib-eye steak with wet linden twigs, a technique he picked up in the banja, the Russian version of the sauna: Banjagoers traditionally whack themselves with a wenik, a bundle of twigs. Mukhin is coolly unshaven and wears his dark hair tied back. “Banja for the steak,” he says. The twigs pass on drops of water and taste to the meat, “giving it a gorgeous balanced flavor.” Once again, the wenik swishes through the air and Mukhin smiles contentedly.
At 35, Mukhin is currently Russia’s trendiest chef and a star. He is revolutionizing the Moscow restaurant scene – and his country’s cuisine at the same time. In a land with not one Michelin-starred chef to its name, he is a veritable phenomenon. The White Rabbit, his flagship restaurant, placed 23 on the British journal Restaurant Magazine’s 2017 list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
He’s a real character, one of the guys, and each morning greets his kitchen staff like buddies with a ghetto fist. He has a mischievous, boyish grin that belies the determination, courage and strength he’s poured into his career. Mukhin’s story is that of a climber – someone who’s come all the way from a lowly kitchen in the Russian provinces to the heights of world class. He was raised in southern Russia, in a small town called Jessentuk, at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains. Once home to 100 000 people and several mineral springs, today it boasts the faded glory of an old spa town. Before Mukhin came along, four generations of men and women in his family worked as cooks, so the boy practically had no choice but to become a chef, too. As a teenager, he spent most of his school vacations at the sink. Once all the pots and pans were clean, his father would allow him to learn his trade at the hob, but after a while, he would find himself back at the sink. “There would be mountains of dirty dishes waiting for me again.”
Mukhin went to a culinary academy in Moscow and before long had a certain reputation. He was not the only student there capable of good cooking, but he had an insatiable appetite. One teacher recommended him to Michelin-starred chef Christian Étienne in Avignon, France, and to Michel Philibert, the truffle expert. Mukhin sold his car to pay for the internships, and Étienne then took him on as an apprentice. “Everything I know about balancing flavors, experimenting with colors and shapes and about presentation, I learned in France,” says Mukhin.
Right now, he’s sitting at a table in the Gorynych, one of his meanwhile 24 restaurants, which resembles the engine room of a ship, with steel supports on the ceiling and lots of concrete. Flames leap out of open ovens. The cooks wear baseball caps and have their sleeves rolled up. Mukhin pores over the menu. “That needs to go; we’ll change this,” he tells the restaurant manager. He pauses briefly, mulling the alternatives. “I’d like to have something else here, that’s not right for us.” He strikes the bruschetta in favor of sandwiches.
Homesick for Russia, he returned to Moscow from Avignon and took a job in an upmarket restaurant where the menu included spaghetti carbonara and baked Camembert. Mukhin went to the tables to persuade people to order borsch instead of pasta. “Back then, no one wanted to have anything to do with the cook,” he said, “who just sat in his filthy kitchen, at worst, drunk.” Mukhin wanted to change that image. His motto: “Cooking is a vocation similar to art.” One day, he ventured out of his kitchen again – and encountered Boris Zarkov, a knowledgeable, inquisitive guest who was interested to give Mukhin’s fare a try. Neither Mukhin nor Zarkov still know what the head chef prepared that day in 2010, but it made such an impression on Zarkov that he offered him a job a few days later.
Zarkov, who is not much older than Mukhin, had made his fortune with car-wash outfits and repair workshops, so initially, restaurants were just a hobby for him. He had recently bought a building in a top location and opened a new restaurant there, the White Rabbit, a place that aims to be an enchanting to its guests as Alice in Wonderland., and Mukhin, as Zarkov decided at their first encounter, was the right chef for it.
Some years later, the two gentlemen officially became business partners, too. Zarkov, the cool head and planner, takes care of the financial side of the business; Mukhin is the poet and artist. The White Rabbit Group’s ongoing expansion is down to Zarkov’s strategy. He builds a playground for his star chef, and he then has a free hand to pursue his mission there: namely, to take Russian cuisine back to its roots.
From the White Rabbit on level 16 of a Moscow tower block, guests have a great view of two different faces of the Russian capital: on the one side, there’s Old Arbat street, the popular haunt of artists and writers in the olden days, and on the other side, the office towers of Moscow City. History and renewal also come together in Mukhin’s culinary creations, his fresh interpretations of traditional Russian fare. “Russian evolution,” is what Mukhin calls it when he serves up cod from the Arctic port of Murmansk with winter radish and topinambur cream. Mukhin prepares his shchi – traditional Russian cabbage soup – with vine leaves instead of white cabbage. And now that he serves it with sheep’s cheese and a sauce made from roasted hazelnuts, kvass, a kind of wine made from fermented bread, has gained new popularity.
Like a hunter and gatherer, Mukhin spent the early years traveling his vast native country, always on the lookout for recipes that were believed lost. He traveled to Siberia, through the Altai Mountains to the farthest eastern stretches of Russia on the Pacific Ocean. He visited snack bars and luxury restaurants and struck lucky almost everywhere he went, finding sour dough at a monastery on the White Sea, honey wine in Yaroslavl, black bread in Borodino, and shrimp in Kamtchatka.
While regional cuisine has long been celebrated from Peru to Lapland, it took a special impulse to gain recognition in Russia for its old recipes and ingredients. That impulse came in 2014 from an unexpected quarter, namely world politics. When the imposition of EU sanctions on Russia left entire supermarket shelves bare, with not a French cheese or an Italian wine in sight, Moscow restaurants attempted to obtain their urgently needed imports via back routes.
Suddenly, Mukhin’s way was the way out, a smart solution because he already had a long-established network of domestic suppliers. “Basically, the sanctions helped us; suddenly we were the stars,” he comments, amused. A short while later, the White Rabbit turned up on the prestigious The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for the first time, as the highest-placed newcomer and first-ever Russian restaurant – and it has since featured in every new edition.
Mukhin could now sit back and rest on his laurels. He himself says that his two children rarely get to see him. But he simply adores cooking – and success. Again and again, he travels the country in search of culinary gems. He recently brought ash salt back from a tour, and now the butter that comes with the black bread at the Gorynych is dusted with it, lending it a smoky flavor. But despite his great homesickness, the man has also been flying abroad more often. This year, he opened his Crab Market restaurant in Dubai – it was the first time both Mukhin and the Rabbit had ventured outside Russia. Standstill is not something Vladimir Mukhin is planning in his life. A Russian conquers the world with food; with cod and sandwiches.