On what connects the Russian cuisine of Vladimir Mukhin with the white rabbit
BY SABINE FUSS
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2018)
With the mad hatter, the Cheshire cat and the white rabbit we are probably connected to one of the most famous fairy tales of them all. “This is impossible – only if you believe it is”, as it is written in Alice in Wonderland. That is exactly what Vladimir Mukhin thought and subsequently did. His restaurant, the White Rabbit, not only takes its name from the famous rabbit from the fairy tale of Lewis Caroll, but the interior also allows us to immerse ourselves in exactly these grandiose fairyland worlds. No less impressive than the view from the 16th floor of the restaurant overlooking Moscow are the dishes Vladimir conjures up for his guests. Bringing Russian cuisine closer to the world is just one of his goals.
Vladimir, how did you get involved with cooking?
I am a fifth generation cook and I have been in the kitchen since I was twelve. So I always wanted to cook – like my father, like my grandfather. I remember when I was about nine or ten years old and I won the school cooking competition – I had to prepare a salad. The ability to use a knife and the ingenuity of the young chef were evaluated. And with the first, and with the second I had everything in order. My grandfather taught me to cut as soon as I was old enough to chop weeds on a country bench. At the same time, he gave me my first knife on which “Vova Mukhin” was inscribed.
Your grandmother is a great role model of yours. How did she influence your work?
My grandmother fed me every day. In fact, she raised me while my mother and father were at work. She was just making delicious food and I watched her do it and then ate it. And I still remember the taste of her dishes, they inspire me. For example, she cooked a dish called “small fry” in Kuban: she chopped tomatoes and fried them with any small fish. And then on this roast she cooked borsch. Now borsch with crucians is on the White Rabbit menu. Of course, I remade it in my own way – with the crucian carp served separately, after having pulled out all the small bones with tweezers. But otherwise it has the same traditional taste.
Many of your dishes have a personal back story, too. How important is it for you to be personally attached to your creations, and why?
Of course, each dish has something personal – I make the author’s cuisine. For example, one of the latest innovations on the White Rabbit menu is okroshka with mushrooms. Mushroom okroshka – an almost forgotten monastery recipe. I was inspired by a trip to the north of Russia, to Vologda. There, in the Spaso-Prilutsky Monastery, I met with Holy Father Nikandr, a cellarer, who carefully preserves the recipes of the monastery’s cuisine. And in a nearby town fate brought me to an amazing woman who is restoring the Russian salt-works. She taught me how to salt cucumbers and mushrooms in natural salt solution. The result of these two meetings is combined in my okroshka.
What significance does cooking have for you in this regard?
I think I’ve already answered that question. Every chef should tell a story. My story is about the love for my family, loyalty to traditions and a great desire to tell the whole world about the present day of Russian cuisine.
You enjoy travelling in search of inspiration for new recipes – it’s something you do a lot. What culinary discoveries have you already made?
All my culinary discoveries are made during my travels. My team at the White Rabbit travel a lot for our country and studied culinary experience. Sakhalin, Kamchatka, Khabarovsk, Sochi, Krasnodar, Saratov – from some places we bring products, from others recipes, from somewhere else an unusual combination of flavours. So, in Vladivostok the sailors taught me to eat sea urchins with sea water – today I serve them at the Chef’s Table with sea-buckthorn. From a trip to Kolomna I brought an old recipe for apple Russian pastila which is served with swan’s liver. And grandmothers in the Vologda region, where I went this spring, taught me to bake pea sochnik (a type of Russian cake) in the oven, prepare the filling for the pie from rutabaga and turnips, and to infuse oat flour with the clabber. We have a very large country, and each region has its own traditions and recipes – now you still have time to learn and write them all. Soon it may be too late.
Besides Russia, which country inspires you the most to invent new recipes, and why?
China, Japan, and Italy. Italy for me is Massimo Bottura, an artist and a revolutionary. I like the modern style of his cuisine. I love Japan for its pure taste. China – for the unusual combination of flavours and a responsible attitude towards the products.
How do you manage to take old dishes and turn them into something completely new without losing sight of their traditional background?
I try to make my dishes look like they are from the future, but at the same time they have a taste from the past.
You worked in France for a while. What was it that prompted you to take up Russian cuisine again?
I was working at Christian Etienne (a Michelin-starred restaurant) preparing Russian cuisine. I came to Avignon to train with him in winter, and in January he told me that every year he prepares a dinner in honour of Russian Christmas and invited me to take part in it. It was he who changed my idea of Russian cuisine as a result. I realised that it needs to be modern so that it will appeal to foreigners.
What sets French and Russian cuisine apart from one another?
Traditions, products – a lot. It’s easier to talk about what they have in common. This is part of the Catherinian era – there has always been a special relationship between France and Russia, and after twelve years of the Russian revolution, there was an influx of French cooks who served in the noble houses. The French taught us to write the first cookbooks. It is not surprising that you can see a lot of French borrowings in Russian cuisine. But today we are trying to dig deeper – we go to the regions that this French expansion has not touched, we are trying to restore the taste of Russian cuisine before foreign chefs begin to influence it.
One of your most successful restaurants is the White Rabbit in Moscow, which is reminiscent of the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ fairy tale. Please tell us more about your vision for this restaurant.
We never tried to connect “Alice” and the White Rabbit directly. Remember the phrase “follow the white rabbit”? That applies to us. Finding the way to the restaurant for the first time is not easy. Of course, the magical world of Carroll inspires us. We dedicated a special gastronomic performance in the White Rabbit gastrobar – twelve chapters and twelve phantasmagorical dishes and cocktails which inspired us.
How would you describe a visit to one of your restaurants?
A new impression. My partner and I and the restaurateur Boris Zarkov long asked ourselves “why do people go to a restaurant? To eat something good?” Of course not - you can eat at home. For status? There are also many restaurants where people go to feel “among themselves”. And we try to give our guests new experiences, to satisfy their curiosity, to give them the opportunity to feel happy, at least for a few hours.
Vladimir Mukhin was born in 1983 and grew up as the fifth generation of a family of cooks. In 2013 he was awarded the “Silver Triangle” in the category “Best Young Russian Chef”. Since 2016 he has been ranked in the list of the World’s Best Restaurants with his White Rabbit restaurant. Today, Vladimir owns over 20 restaurants, most of them located in Russia.
Picture credit © Vladimir Mukhin