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Anton Kovalkov on Russia’s emerging food scene

Anton Kovalkov on Russia’s emerging food scene

by Tom Shingler 08 June 2017

Russian food isn’t very well known in the west, but chef Anton Kovalkov thinks that’s about to change. As he comes over to the UK for a one-off collaboration at Alyn Williams' CHEFstock, Tom Shingler finds out how the country’s traditional dishes are being reinvented.

Borscht and stroganoff aside, how many Russian dishes can you name? If you’re coming up empty, you’re not alone – the country isn’t exactly known for its food. In the times of the Soviet Union, food was more about sustenance than pleasure, and even in the years afterwards, a meal out in Russia meant eating French or Italian cuisine – Russian food was something you ate at home.

But there’s change afoot. Ever since Russia banned imports of food from the EU in response to sanctions, Russian chefs were forced to stop relying on luxurious ingredients from Europe and looked at what was available locally instead. But what started out as a major challenge has now sparked a new food movement. Russians are rediscovering their culinary heritage; chefs are becoming internationally recognised and words like ‘local’ and ‘artisan’ now take pride of place on menus. Vladimir Mukhin’s White Rabbit restaurant in Moscow is currently listed as the twenty-third best restaurant in the world, and a new generation of chefs is putting Russian produce first.

Anton Kovalkov is one of those chefs. Instead of following the crowd, he decided to work in restaurants all over the world before opening his own. ‘I was born in a small city about ten hours away from Moscow, and learnt how to cook in a small culinary school when I was young,’ he says. ‘After working in a few restaurant kitchens, I wanted to journey all around the world and see how things were done there so I spent a lot of time outside of Russia. I lived in the United States for three months, went to Copenhagen to work at Noma and did a stage at Claude Bosi’s Hibiscus in London. It was a great experience and it helped me to develop my own cooking style – modern Russian with an Asian twist.’

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Russian and Asian food isn’t one of the most obvious combinations, but perhaps that’s why Anton decided to pursue it. Pairing the humble, earthy ingredients of Russia with the bright, intense, fresh flavours of Asia is a delicate balancing act that was never really seen before until Anton opened Farenheit in 2014, his first restaurant in Moscow.

‘I think one dish that really shows off my cooking style is my take on a Japanese omelette. I make a borscht soup – an iconic dish of Russia – then set it with eggs and season it white white soy sauce. Then all the vegetables that would usually go in the soup like radishes, cucumbers and potatoes, I put on top. Then I finish it off with some sour cream and some Russian charcuterie which is a little bit like a spicy bresaola.

Anton left Farenheit in 2016 to set up something bigger that he hopes will cement Moscow’s reputation as an emerging foodie hotspot. Opening in the centre of the city in October, Les (‘Forest’) – although that’s a working title for now – will house a restaurant, a farmer’s market and street food stands that all champion Russian produce. While this is something we’ve seen in the UK and Europe for years, it’s revolutionary for Russia, and shows how much the country’s food scene has evolved over the past few years.

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The south of Russia is amazing for vegetables and herbs, while the west is home to some of the best crab and seafood like scallops in the world. I’m trying to bring those ingredients to Moscow, but there are chefs all over the country working with local produce and making the most of where they live. That didn’t really happen until very recently.

Anton Kovalkov

‘Eating out in Russia has completely changed over the past five years,’ says Anton. ‘There’s been a new wave of chefs in the country who have completely changed the way people look at food. Now we’re working with local farmers and making them the stars of the menu. The south of Russia is amazing for vegetables and herbs, while the west is home to some of the best crab and seafood like scallops in the world. I’m trying to bring those ingredients to Moscow, but there are chefs all over the country working with local produce and making the most of where they live. That didn’t really happen until very recently.’

Working with local produce means chefs have to follow the seasons – especially if they’re unable to import ingredients from European countries. And much like the New Nordic chefs of Scandinavia, Anton pickles and preserves as much as he can to use throughout the year with produce that’s available all year, like grains. ‘One of my favourite ingredients is buckwheat – it’s a food found all over Russia,’ he says. ‘I like to smoke it and combine it with a mushroom stock and pu’er tea, a fermented tea from Yunnan in China. It’s really earthy and gives the grains a very interesting flavour, especially if you add a few pickled herbs and mushrooms too.’

Part of Anton’s mission to put Russian food on the world stage means travelling all over the globe to showcase his dishes to new audiences. Later this month, he’ll be appearing at Alyn WilliamsCHEFstock, in London, working with the Michelin-starred chef to create a one-off eight-course menu. ‘I’ll be serving a beef tartare that’s lightly seared and paired with pickled herbs from Georgia, as well as my take on a Japanese omelette and a dessert made with millet and pumpkin, which was inspired by my grandmother. I want to show how local Russian ingredients and historical dishes can be made modern and interesting, and put them on the world stage.’ Other national cuisines such as Peruvian have enjoyed their time in the spotlight. Perhaps it’s Russia’s turn next.

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