To get to White Rabbit, the Moscow restaurant ranked at No23 in the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, you need to get two lifts to the 16th floor where a 360-degree vertiginous view over the city awaits you.
Vladimir Mukhin, 32, the young chef in charge of White Rabbit, prides himself on his mix of old and new Russian food at the restaurant, which he has sourced from all over the country.
His tasting menu lists the dishes on one side, such as Rapa whelk beef stroganoff, with baked parsnip and pot-bellied pig skin crisps, and ingredients, turkey, chestnut honey and bamboo, on the other side, with the town or area in Russia where they come from and how many kilometres they are from Moscow. By the end of the 7000-ruble (72 pounds) meal, you, or rather, your meal will have travelled close to 10 thousand kilometres.“I use only Russian food and Russian products,” said Mukhin, fresh faced with a black beard which makes him look like a Moscow hipster DJ rather than a chef.
He travels the country looking for the local delicacies and can quickly reel off places and their specialities; striped mullet in Sochi, fish soup in Rostov-on-Don, beetroot and cucumber in Suzdal, kasha, a Russian porridge dish, in Nizhny Novgorod and on and on.The menu provides a peek into Mukhin’s obsession with Russian cuisine, which is rooted in his family, which has chefs that go back five generations.
Mukhin learned to cook from his grandmother, other relatives and the family recipe books, but he was also lucky enough to have a father who was rich enough in post-Soviet Russia to have his own restaurant and let his son cook there.He was only 12 but he would go to the restaurant in his home town of Yessentuki in the south of Russia, to cook before and after school and “sometimes instead of school.”“He did it for me, as he wanted to teach me very well. All my friends played football and I cooked.”
It was also inadvertently a good training for what he does at White Rabbit today.The restaurant was based on the cuisine of merchant families from before the revolution.All the ingredients were bought from the local market, as it was too expensive in the shops. “We used all Russian products then, too; all from markets. We had no different way [and] only now I understand about that.”
White Rabbit was listed as No71 Best Restaurant in the World by Restaurant magazine in 2014 and its stratospheric rise to 23 this year was in part due to a strategic game plan. After the ranking came out in 2013, Mukhin created a specific menu and went on trips to some of the best restaurants to show off Russia and his cuisine.“They all said: ‘We know only one man, Anatoly Komm,’” said Mukhin, talking of the only other Russian chef to have his restaurant, Varvary, named in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants with his Russian molecular cuisine, “We don’t understand what it is.” Komm’s restaurant was named 48th best in 2011.
Mukhin is the rising star now though, and has no time for his predecessor on the ranking. “I say no, no [to] molecular cuisine. I only do old style cooking with old recipes and an old taste of food, but, of course, I use new technology.One seminal moment before he joined White Rabbit three years ago came in France when Mukhin was working at Christian Etienne’s Michelin-star restaurant in Avignon. He saw the Russian food, pirozhki and borsch, that the restaurant cooked to mark the Russian New Year.
“I asked: ‘What is it?’‘It’s Russian food.’And I say [to him]: ‘It’s not Russian food. If you want, I can cook it for you.’”
So Mukhin cooks up his version of borsch, which so impresses Etienne that he says: “I can do something with this.” He makes a jelly out of the borsch and beetroot chips and other dishes, says Mukhin, “But it tastes like my food.”When he returned to Moscow, Mukhin still thought about this moment in France, and “how Europeans want to understand what Russian food is, [but] they do not understand.”
The borsch he made was based on his family borsch and it is not your usual beetroot soup.He explains how his grandfather came home every day with fish and his grandmother would take the smallest one and fry it in sunflower oil with onion and their own tomato purée, made with a meat mincer. The fish would be used with the borsch.
His version of that dish, borsch served with beans, fried crucian (carp), sour cream and turnip chips is now served at White Rabbit.His current project is a tasting menu based on the river Volga, the largest river in Europe, which winds through central Russia before emptying into the Caspian Sea. Mukhin sailed along the river, which has a mystical status in Russia, sourcing food and picking up recipes.
He talks of birch bark, which can be made into flour to make bread, traditional along the river, where good flour was often not available; birch juice; butter from the town of Vologda; dandelions; mushrooms; pickles and cucumbers.The birch bread appears in the first dish in his Russian tasting menu, baked into a roll, which comes with a large pot of Vologda butter and a traditional fish paste.
When he recently cooked in Rimini, Italy, he served birch juice, but made it sparkling birch juice, because “everyone drinks sparkling drinks there.”Part of the fascination with Russian cuisine for Mukhin is not only the different food that can be found all over the country but the different kinds of diet.“They are all different—different for nobles, for the church, another for the tsar, [another] for the peasant. Some people ate only meat, some only fish, some didn’t eat meat or fish only kasha (a type of porridge) and herbs and bread.”
He recalls with glee another ancestor cook, a baker, who used to cook swan, which he ate together with a croissant-shaped bread he made that he dipped in melted butter for breakfast.Mukhin is a new generation of Russian chef, but the dining world turns fast in a country which has changed so dramatically in the last two decades, and he sees his intelligent cooking as a new order not just in the kitchen.“Before people went to restaurants to show off, not to eat. Everyone did it. Very beautiful dresses, and some guy comes and shows off,” he said, “Maybe [eating] one salad.”“Just five years ago, we had chefs who worked in the kitchen and never saw customers,” said Mukhin, emphasising how he speaks, greets and listens to those who come to his restaurant.
As a way of explaining how clientele reacted when he first started at White Rabbit, he tells of a man who ordered scallops from the restaurant’s aquarium. Mukhin had learned how to cook scallops in France but the customer wasn’t happy and asked them to be deep-fried.“I said I can’t do that because its alive,” said Mukhin, opening up the shell and squeezing a lemon on to the scallop so the customer could see it twitch, “It’s fresh, this is not for deep fry.”“It’s very important to discuss with customers, although of course it’s better to discuss before you cook it,” said Mukhin smiling.Persuaded, the diner ate the scallops without them being deep-fried.
The restaurant also tries to educate its clientele with a gastronomic bar once a week, which links dishes and cocktails and a gastronomic theatre performance, called Alice in Wonderland.“Now, people come to eat. It’s really changed and White Rabbit is a trend maker,” he said proudly. When he joined the restaurant three years ago, he was selling one to five tasting menus a day, now it is 15 a day. “People come and want to eat something new and they want to try Russian products, too,” he says.
Mukhin is missing something when he says the restaurant only uses Russian products. That is true for the Russian tasting menu but White Rabbit, like the rest of the restaurant world in the country has had to wean itself off European, American and Australian food imports, after Russia banned exports from those countries in response to sanctions against Russia over the conflict in Ukraine.“It is a big push for us, for all of us,” he says. “We start to work with Russian cheese, milk, meat, fish.”It is a long term process, he says, impossible to do in a few years, what was done over hundreds of years abroad, but he is searching and has found one man who “does ‘not bad’ cheese.”Asked about having his own place, he says: “All chefs want to have their own restaurant. Maybe in the future, but [for] now I work with Russian cuisine. I’m like a flag-bearer, I’m raising it higher.”
With Russia not the most popular country in the world right now, in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, Mukhin feels he is doing something worthwhile. “Russia has no good PR in the world now. Every moment like this is a good chance for Russia.”