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At 7am every morning, one of the two large traditional wood burning ovens at Severyane restaurant in Moscow is fired up, while the other is brought to life for dinner service. It’s not something you see much of anywhere in Russia, let alone Moscow. The wood is from Kazakhstan, from the small saxual tree and is soaked in water for two days and then dried. When it’s burnt, it infuses everything, animal, vegetal, or otherwise with a wonderful aroma. It’s perfect for slow cooking in cast iron pans the kind of smoky comfort food that will keep you warm on a bitterly cold Moscow night: think whole baked chicken or thick root vegetables, sweet as candy after an extended slow roasting.
“The oven is a traditional Russian story that is associated with the slow cooking of the product at low temperatures, like sous vide,” says the young chef George Troyan, who on a daily basis is the man tending those fires. “Our goal is to offer something to people that is easy to understand. They come to our restaurant after a hard day’s work and like to see and understand what they’re eating. We don’t want them to feel stressed.”
Troyan was recruited to help open Severyane by restaurateur Ilya Tyutenkov. It was Tyutenkov’s idea to base a restaurant around traditional Russian ovens (quite literally – they sit in the middle of the restaurant), which had fallen out of fashion long ago. The kitchen team, led by Troyan, had to learn how to use them from scratch and they still only use the oven and a grill, no burners. But this is Moscow and in case you haven’t heard, there’s something of a food revolution going on, with a host of young chefs spearheading a New Russian Cuisine movement that has rediscovered traditional Russian recipes and ingredients, partly inspired by the Russian Government blockade on Western produce that has been in place since 2014, and given them a contemporary twist with an eye to exporting Russian gastronomy to the world. And Troyan is part of that too. “If you look at our menu of course you can find food that you can easily classify as comfort food – those dishes account for 80% of the menu. As for the other 20% that’s an experimental story.”
Troyan's experiments are informed by the French techniques he picked up over two years at the Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and his admiration for René Redzepi, plus Asian influences too. He mentions one particularly out there dish of beef bone marrow with chocolate, chocolate ice cream and ‘crispy meat,’ as an example of how far he’s willing to go within that 20% framework. It was on returning from Paris, via a stint in a French restaurant and the Four Seasons in Moscow, and winning the Silver Triangle award for young chefs in 2015 that he eventually met Tyuentekov. “I realised working as a hotel chef would probably be too boring for me,” he says. “I had meetings with many restaurateurs and Ilya was actually last on the list. He shared his concept with me, I took some time out and thought actually, it could be a really interesting idea.”
You wonder whether, for an ambitious chef like Troyan, the concept of the restaurant may be too restrictive, but he believes in the project and seems happy. “If you look at the restaurant business in Moscow, job hopping is very typical for today’s chefs,” he says. “They leave for better conditions, better potential, or sometimes they have better prospects for travel abroad, for undergoing training, and so on. Many chefs work for a year and then switch. As for myself, I look at how it works in Europe and I see lots of chefs that work in the same restaurant for 15 or 20 years and that restaurant eventually can get a Michelin star and they feel very comfortable where they are. I have chosen this path that is very different from what you see in Moscow. I believe in my partnership with Ilya and that it’s going to be long term, and together we can do a lot.”
Troyan feels the embargo on Western produce has “unleashed the potential” of some Russian chefs, many of whom I meet, along with Troyan, at the IKRA Gastronomic Festival just outside Sochi in late January of 2018. They include the likes of Vladimir Mukhin, who Troyan describes as the “outright leader” of the new Russian cuisine movement and a “great patriot” and S.Pellegrino Young Chef Mentor Andrei Shmakov. IKRA is a chance for the chefs to “get together, become closer and feel united,” he says – and possibly discuss how to top bone marrow with chocolate ice cream.