One of the more glamorous food events on the global circuit, the second ever IKRA gastronomic festival sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna took place in the pristine surroundings of Rosa Khutor, close to Sochi, a ski resort purposefully built for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Bringing together some of the world’s best chefs and food leaders, along with the many stars of new Russian cuisine, the scene was set for three days of relentless cultural exchange, with the intention of showing the world just where Russian gastronomy is at and hopefully sparking new collaborations and of course, friendships, as a series of workshops, masterclasses, lectures and exclusive dinners unfolded beneath the jagged peaks of the Western Caucasus.
Here are five top talking points from IKRA 2018.
The Fortuitous Embargo?
The rise of new Russian cuisine and the very existence of an event like IKRA has a watershed moment: the Russian embargo on Western produce introduced in 2014 in retaliation for sanctions resulting from Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. It forced Russian chefs to reassess what was on their doorsteps and encouraged them to travel to all corners of their vast country in search of inspiration. Before the embargo, up to 90% of meat, fish, dairy and vegetables were imported, though the Government had been taking steps to reduce the reliance on imports since 2010.
Chef Georgy Troyan of Moscow’s Severyane restaurant told us that the potential of Russian chefs had been “unleashed” by the embargo, which looks set to continue throughout 2018. What was clear was just how much respect for and interest these chefs pushing Russian cuisine forward have in tradition, from Troyan’s use of a traditional wood burning Russian oven, to Vladimir Mukhin’s exploration of the evolution of rye bread. It was a chance for them to show the assembled culinary heavyweights just what Russia has to offer the food world and, as Mukhin put it, how Russian cuisine can “become part of the context of world gastronomy.”
A New Restaurant Model?
Having introduced the crowd, energetically, to the smells, colours and flavours of his contemporary Indian cuisine, food that has seen his restaurant Gaggan in Bangkok claim the title of Asia’s Best Restaurant three years in a row – “Curry is not a cuisine, it’s a flavour,” he implored – Gaggan Anand shared some details about his planned new restaurant, set to open in 2021 in Fukuoka, Japan after Gaggan closes in 2020. The restaurant, a collaboration with chef Takeshi Fukuyama of the La Maison de La Nature Goh restaurant, also in Fukuoka, will have just 10 covers and will only be six months a year, one month on, one month off. It was for him, he said, “the only way not to get burnt out.” Which leads us onto...
The Sustainability of the Chef
Burn out and work-life balance have been hot topics at various food events, particularly at the recent Food on the Edge symposium in Galway, Ireland. Having spoken in Galway, Esben Holmboe Bang of the three-Michelin-star Maaemo restaurant in Oslo, Norway took to the IKRA stage to again highlight his thoughts on the sustainability of the chef. At Maaemo, chefs work a three day week and it has had an incredible effect on energy and morale says Bang: “We need to make it okay to say the human mind and body can’t cope with kitchen stress,” he says. Virgilio Martínez made time during his cooking demonstration with wife Pia León to emphasise how important the staff were to the success of Central, his three-time Latin America’s Best Restaurant in Lima, which is soon to relocate. “We’re lucky to have people working with us that have the same passion as we do as cooks,” he said.
The Future of Chef’s Table
Despite the audience’s attempts to prise more details out of Chef’s Table producer Brian McGinn (above) about the upcoming season focused on pastry chefs, he wasn’t budging an inch, refusing to name any of the chefs apart from Christina Tosi, which is already in the public domain. Oh well, we’ll just have to wait until April when it airs on Netflix then. There was much discussion too about where he and director David Gelb would like to go to next, with McGinn saying there are at least a couple of years life left in the format yet. Could an Asian street food edition be in the offing? Amazingly they haven’t visited Spain yet, a fact McGinn blames on having “fallen in love” with Italian chefs. Those Chef’s Table parodies we’ve all seen and laughed our heads off at? Well it turns out McGinn loves them too and was well aware how Chef’s Table at one point was veering dangerously into cliché. “By season three we didn’t want to be pretentious anymore,” he said. “We discovered that food was about communication and sharing.”
You Have to Start Somewhere!
The opening day of IKRA saw five of the biggest names in Russian restaurants – restaurateurs Alexander Rappoport, Boris Zarkov, Arkady Novokov, Aram Mnatsakanov and Ilya Tutenkov – come together for a roundtable to discuss what exactly it means to be successful, while they mostly all spoke separately during the event too. Revealingly, both Novikov, who’s restaurant group has over 60 locations worldwide, and Zarkov, founder of the White Rabbit Family group and co-founder of IKRA, both got their start in the business at McDonald’s, in a way: the former got his first taste for business by selling his place in the line outside the first ever McDonald’s in Moscow, while Novikov, crying with laughter at the memory, recalled how he was rejected for a job by the restaurant chain in the 1990s. Interesting fact: in 1989, with a population of nine million, Moscow only had around 450 resataurants, bar and cafes; now, they number in the tens of thousands.