Russian chef Vladimir Mukhin has one foot in the future and one in the past, but he’s standing tall. At White Rabbit, his 16th floor restaurant overlooking Moscow, he is resurrecting traditional recipes from his homeland and using all the techniques of modern gastronomy to reinvent them in the 21st century.
In his world, tradition and technology are finely balanced, as is a sense of artistic design and a dedication to hard work - just the right qualities to be a mentor for Hezred Berdiev, finalist for the Russia region at S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2016.
Fine Dining Lovers spoke to Chef Mukhin ahead of the big event.
What inspired you to become a chef?
My family is my inspiration. Being a fifth generation cook, I never doubted my future profession when I was a kid I had already decided to devote my life to working in the kitchen. And my family keeps inspiring me. When making a new tasting menu, I read through my grandmother’s culinary notes about Russian traditional ways of baking bread. It’s very useful to me.
Why is tradition such an important aspect in cooking?
Because tradition nourishes us. We all grow up on traditions; we look to them for inspiration and try to make them even better. To lose your tradition is like losing your roots. And it’s clear that you can’t live without roots.
How would you advise a young chef to achieve a balance between tradition and creativity in their cooking?
First of all, you need to know your traditions very well. For art of any kind you need a basis. And it’s important to keep the taste. No matter how far you can go in your experiments, keep the traditional taste of your national cuisine.
What are your favourite traditional regional Russian ingredients?
These are rye bread (we call it “black”), lightly salted cucumbers, buckwheat, and Kostroma salt. They all have a very distinct flavour, unlike anything else. For example, you can cook pasta in many diverse ways, but when you cook buckwheat porridge - you taste it and you can feel this specific Russian cuisine taste.
Why is it so important for young chefs to understand their culinary heritage?
Now the whole world is globalized, and I believe this is dangerous for cooks. Just imagine - you travel the world and eat the same burgers, Bolognese sauce and fries everywhere. Would you enjoy living like this? We cooks should help our national culture to stay unique, pass our traditional cuisine to future generations, and, yes, sometimes surprise our foreign colleagues and tourists. Otherwise we have nothing to say to each other when we meet.
To what extent do you think Russian cuisine gets the credit and respect it deserves on the world stage?
I believe Russian cuisine has everything it takes to become the next world trend: unique ingredients, our own techniques of cooking (salting, soaking and baking in the Russian oven) and original dishes that are practically unknown outside Russia. In foreign countries, Russian cuisine is often associated with Soviet cuisine, which is very different. Traditional Russian cuisine is much more interesting, much richer. We have a lot to surprise even sophisticated foodies.
Your food and restaurant are both very visual. Why is presentation so vital to the dining experience?
Presentation is a significant part of gastronomy. A person sees the dish before they get to taste it, and that’s why the first impression is always visual. At some period I took fine art lessons specifically to learn how to present my dishes best. And now at the White Rabbit we have not only workshops for our cooks but we also teach them how to draw and paint. It’s even in the language that “you eat with your eyes”.
Are you working on any exciting projects at the moment - what’s next for you and White Rabbit?
At the end of last year I opened a very interesting new restaurant, Kutuzovskiy 5, whose menu is based on 17th and 18th century recipes. While preparing this project, I read a lot of old culinary books, and at the same time I got the idea for my new tasting menu for White Rabbit - to recreate the taste of pure Russian cuisine without foreign influence. The cuisine before Peter the Great and the 17th century had a pure clean taste. I recently presented this menu in my new White Rabbit laboratory - it is my premiere, my pride and my New Year present to myself.