Interview - Vladimir Mukhin

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We met chef Vladimir Mukhin at his restaurant, White Rabbit, in October 2018. White Rabbit is located in Moscow, Russia.

T.F.: Can you tell us why your restaurant is called “White Rabbit”?

V.M.: It’s a story about Alice in Wonderland, it’s like a magical place. Actually, we opened the restaurant when it was the year of the rabbit in the Chinese calendar. Me and my partner, we really like the story of Alice in Wonderland so we thought, “let’s do the White Rabbit concept”.

T.F.: What can people find when they come here?

V.M.: A lot of people come here to celebrate everything, every day something is happening here. But first of all, White Rabbit is not just a restaurant. You have a lot options. You can choose menu à la carte, it’s comfort food with modern style but the taste is 100% Russian, that’s very important. There’s a degustation menu. There is also a menu about the Russian evolution.

Also, we have special bar, like a gastronomic theater, in the first floor near the sea aquarium. Great cocktails are served with small food.

We also have the “chef’s table”, it’s a table in the kitchen. It was created four years ago. There, we are cooking degustation menus, the same than in the restaurant but not only. We have different types of degustation menus.

We have also a meat menu and a vegan menu. The vegan menu is very old Russian style, with vegetables and fruits.

I travel a lot in South Russia, I choose old recipes and then, I come back to the lab. We have a lab in White Rabbit and we transform these recipes with new technologies. But the taste stays the same.

T.F.: What do you want people to remember from White Rabbit? 

V.M.: I want them to say that Russian cuisine is not heavy anymore. Russian cuisine is very seasonal, you have a lot of good combinations of ingredients.

My intention is to bring Russian traditions in a new way. Bortsch is in my blood you know? I really like cooking Russian ingredients with Russian techniques. We do a reconstruction of Russian cuisine.

When I was working in Avignon, France, Christian Etienne celebrated the Russian New Year with Russian food and he asked me to taste the food. I told him it was good but that it was not Russian cuisine. Then I cooked Russian food for him and he changed the presentation of the dishes to serve to his guests. At this moment, I thought that people outside of Russia want to see Russian food in a different way, lighter, not too big portions. Something very different than what you could find at my grandma’s! But the taste should stay the same. I came back to Moscow and started my project.

T.F.: That’s the moment you realized that Russian cuisine has a place in international gastronomy?

V.M.: Yes. When we were listed in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, everything changed. A lot of people started to come to the restaurant. Five years ago here, nobody was speaking English, French or Chinese, just Russian. But now every waiter can speak those languages.

We also started working on our services, we’re only open for two services now.

The chef’s table we built is art for me. There is no menu, you find inspiration from the ingredients. This is a new concept and, according me, the future of gastronomy because there is nobody between the chef and the customer, no waiter for example. 

I always have new ideas. For example, at White Rabbit we have built something new, it’s not done yet, it’s an immersive restaurant. Just like Ultraviolet but Russian style. Russia is so big of a country that going from one town to the other is difficult. The experience would allow you to do that. You’ll forget about where you are for real, you’ll be served Russian food from the place you think you are in.

T.F.: How do you work with your producers, the farm?

V.M.: We started working with a farm about seven years ago, at the beginning of White Rabbit.

We already had the Red Fox restaurant. Same concept but different food, in the mountains of Russia, in Sotchi. We used ingredients only from this region. And we started a farm there. I brought these ingredients to the South, at White Rabbit and we made a special menu from this region. We wanted to give people a new experience at the restaurant.

Because in Russia, after the Soviet-Union period, every restaurant was serving the same food: pizza, pasta, Japanese food, etc. It was crazy! We wanted to break this system by using only Russian ingredients. And now, we have 7 farms. 

More and more, chefs are doing the same. Terroir is important, especially here, with such a big terroir.

T.F.: What do you think about globalization in the gastronomy?

V.M.: I hate it. I don’t want to eat the same food in different cities or countries. I think it’s crazy. My intention is for people to taste real Russian food. When you come to Russia, you need to eat Russian food.

Russian chefs follow this idea more and more with Russian ingredients, Russian cuisine. They travel inside the country to find inspirations. That makes me happy, the system is changing.

T.F.: Do you think being a chef is a hard work?

V.M.: Actually, my daughter asked me yesterday “Papa, is your work hard?”. And I said “No, it’s easy because I really like it”. It’s like a hobby and you’re paid for. It’s my whole life.

T.F.: According to you, what is the mission of a chef?

V.M.: My mission is to be better than yesterday, progress is important. We can make the world better. You also need to inspire people and make them happy. A restaurant is not just a place for eating anymore.

T.F.: Who are the chefs you admire the most?

V.M.: Massimo Bottura and René Redzepi, they are incredible. We cooked together lots of time. Also, Alain Passart. These guys are working very hard and inspire me.

For me, the future of gastronomy is the signature dish of every chef. Because when you come to White Rabbit, you have to eat Russian cuisine, if you go to Massimo’s restaurant you have to eat Italian cuisine, and so on.

T.F.: Can you describe the tastes of Russian cuisine?

V.M.: First of all, the smells. Then the tastes are savory and sweet, never bitter. Very elegant. Similar to French tastes, due to cultural influences.

T.F.: Do you think it’s a good thing for chefs to travel so much? What is the balance they have to find?

V.M.: You must travel to meet people and find inspiration but it’s very important to come back and to create in your restaurant.

For me, good balance is to travel once a month outside of Russia, I decide where I want to go. It’s better to go to a new destination and not every time the same place.

T.F.: Travelling is what brings inspiration to your food?

V.M.: Not only but also. You can be inspired by the people, by the chefs, by art, by everything…

T.F.: What is your dream?

V.M.: You know, I want to build a very good team around me. And I did. I have a lot of good chefs around me and we work united, I’m really pushing them. I don’t want to be just one star in my country, the chefs around me must also have inspiration. I want to be an inspiration for them.

I want to make my job very popular, I want my son to be a chef as well. I want to inspire him. The young chefs need inspirations. I got my inspirations from great chefs like Massimo Bottura, René Redzepi, Gaggan, Alex Atala, etc. And I wish it will be the same in Russia. We’re working hard on it, we want to show everybody that it’s possible. This profession is unique, you work near the arts. You must create to be a good chef.

T.F.: And now, more personal questions, what would be your last meal before you die?

V.M.: A big piece of good meat and a lot of tomatoes.

T.F.: What is your comfort dish at home?

V.M.: Soup, bortsch, a kind of breakfast like porridge or maybe some fried eggs, omelets.

T.F.: What is your favorite ingredient that you cook at White Rabbit?

V.M.: I have a lot of favorite ingredients, it’s seasonal. Now, I can say kaki.

T.F.: What is the most special product that you have cooked?

V.M.: Black bread for dessert maybe, the mold. Any Russian ingredient with a signature taste.

T.F.: What are your three favorite restaurants around the world?

V.M.: Noma, Osteria Francescana, El Celler de Can Roca.

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Amélie Vincent

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