Chef Vladimir Mukhin is the creative genius behind Russia’s most famed and arguably most famous restaurant White Rabbit in Moscow. He’s part of a new wave of young Russian chefs who are quickly climbing their way up the most prestigious lists of the world, Vladimir leading them all. His drive and dedication to putting traditional Russian cuisine back on the world map are admirable, his creations incredible. As a fifth generation chef the art of cooking simply runs in his blood, and with countless awards already under his belt it leaves no doubt this chef was born to be in the kitchen. We had the privilege of asking Chef Mukhin all about his prosperous journey, Russia’s culinary past, its present and what is left on his career wishlist.
White Rabbit is number 13 on the World’s 50 Best List creating modern Russian cuisine served in an opulent Alice in Wonderland setting. How, why and where was this successful idea born?
“As always in life, it was a combination of factors – big and small. The major idea belongs to my business partner Boris Zarkov. He is the owner of White Rabbit Family Restaurant Group. He is a former DJ, and one of his favorite songs was White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane. Also 2011 was the year of the Rabbit. We were both very fond of that magic universe created by Lewis Carroll and his Alice in Wonderland – that crazy never ending tea party.
It’s funny that previous chef Konstantin Ivlev interpreted the name “White Rabbit” way too literally and carnivore. He really cooked rabbit: rabbit tongues, rabbit brain, cabbage stuffed with rabbit… My dishes are not made of rabbit, but could be rabbit’s food: cabbages, carrots and a lot of other greens.”
Born and Raised in?
“I was born and raised in the south of Russia – Soviet Union at the time – in a city called Yessentuki. It’s famous for its mineral water springs and located in the mountain valley. It has a unique microclimate. It’s so green that people call it ‘Russian Switzerland’.”
What did your parents do?
“As you may have heard I’m a fifth generation chef. My father was a chef, my grandfather was a chef too. My mother was a food service process engineer. That’s how my parents met each other. My father has built a restaurant to teach me how to be a chef. I started working there when I was 12. Other boys were playing football while I was working in the kitchen. For the first two years I was washing dishes, then I went through the numerous kitchen positions that lay between a dishwasher and a chef.”
Being a fifth generation chef, was it ever an option to not get into the kitchen?
“When I was about to make the most important decision in my life, my father asked me: ‘Do you want to be a policeman or a cook?’ Now I understand he gave me the choice of absolutely opposite professions. In my opinion, being a chef is much better because this profession gives you the opportunity to create something new and to express yourself. I always felt that need to express myself. Maybe I would’ve become an artist if not a chef… I paint from time to time – but that’s a secret!”
What would you say is the biggest difference between your cooking and that of your father or grandfather’s?
“I’d say the ingredients and techniques are quite different. The attitude is different too. When I was a boy being a chef didn’t mean being prestigious, it meant severely burned hands up to your elbows and a permanent stink of burnt garlic which made people in the underground not want to sit next to you. Also, it meant being a businessman. All the recipes were standardized, only one approved cookbook existed. Chefs were wearing black leather jackets and thick gold chains outside the kitchen. They were all into semi-legal trade of products they took from restaurant kitchens and didn’t care much about creativity, self-expression or exploration of new ingredients. They were just making money.”
After spending time at Le Barone in France, El Celler de Can Roca in Spain and Khajimi in Japan, moving back to Russia to White Rabbit, was it an easy transition?
“I’ve spent most of my time abroad staging in France, when I came back from France my father met me at the airport in his car and asked: ‘How was it?’ ‘Absolutely different’, I answered briefly. Everything is different, upside down to what we think of as normal. Principles, expectations, techniques, opportunities, different ideas.”
What is the best part of living and working in Moscow?
“Living and working in Moscow is an honor for me. As well as being at the head of the so-called Russian gastronomic invasion into The World’s 50 Best list. Russian cuisine for me is my earth connection, my roots. Once upon a time, when I was younger, I was preparing a home tasting for one of the famous restaurant owners. I took Russian ingredients and used French techniques on them. He was pleased – though I smoked out his whole house from the bottom to the top – but he gave me the advice that I still value as one of the most important ones of my life: ‘Don’t be unfaithful to Russian cuisine, don’t cheat on it’, he said. I studied Russian cuisine deeply, it has changed a lot during last two hundred years, surviving intense French influence in the 1800’s when Russian high society frequently spoke French as their mother tongue and had to learn Russian as their second language. Then it was almost ruined and replaced with Soviet cuisine. Though Russian cuisine still exists. Russian taste exists too. My mission is to bring it to light, to show it to the whole world.”
How do you source for your products and make sure you get exactly what you want?
“White Rabbit is working with fifteen farmers, hunters and collectors, who are supplying us with fresh vegetables, fruits, berries, herbs, game, poultry, fish and mushrooms. We know every one of them by name, we stay in touch all year round. We have a seasonal calendar, so I always know what to expect from them for the next couple of weeks. When I find something I really like I call or meet with them and ask them to plant it especially for us. As we have no one between us and our farmers we can have that strong personal relationship and they grow super-good quality products for us. It’s not cheap but It’s worth every penny. My father always says: ‘When you start counting money, you kill your inner artist.’ I can easily distinguish chefs who think about food cost more than creativity – even if they have a God-given talent.”
Are there any ingredients you’re not able to source but you’d really like to incorporate in your dishes?
“I’m able to source everything, but in the beginning I was missing French oysters. After a while they created a scheme exporting them through Morocco. Sometimes I miss French cheese and Italian Parmigiano Reggiano. Sure, I can buy them on the black market, but it’s not what we are doing in White Rabbit. For almost everything else there are perfect Russian substitutes.”
What part of your personality you’d say comes through most in your work?
“It’s not a part, all of me is my work. I’m so dedicated to what I’m doing and because of that I don’t feel it’s my job. I’m just doing what I love to do. Other activities – learning languages, fencing, tai chi – are my job, while cooking and creating new dishes are my privilege and my greatest pleasure.”
Do you have a favorite dish you’ve ever made?
“For me it’s baked cabbage and caviar, one of White Rabbit’s signature dishes. It’s a combination of my childhood memories and coincidence. It was late autumn when overnight temperatures started to drop below zero. One of my suppliers who provides White Rabbit with vegetables forgot to harvest the last few cabbage heads, so they had gotten slightly frozen. She brought me these hopeless ones saying: ‘Vladimir, maybe you could use them somehow.’
Suddenly the recipe of the traditional Russian Thursday Salt came to my mind: salt is mixed with rye wort, packed in cabbage leaves and left in the Russian oven till the rye burns out. The smell of burnt cabbage leaves was always so pleasant. I’ve burned these cabbages on coals ‘till they became all black on the outside and sweet and juicy on the inside – due to them being frozen before. After that it only required a nice and smooth sauce.
I looked around me and found black, red and pike caviar in the kitchen. It was perfect for my a la Russe sauce, but I needed a base for it. I didn’t want to use heavy cream, so I took the outer mantles of scallops, which are considered to be leftovers in Europe, and cooked them slowly at 60C. Then I reduced the broth, mixed it with caviar and added some dill oil. Dressing my cabbage with the sauce and sprinkling them with Thursday Salt and ashes I realized what all this reminded me of. It tasted just like my grandmother’s open cabbage pies which we used to eat with sour cream and inexpensive caviar – like pike – and dill. So, the roots of that dish are in my childhood.”
What would you want your last meal on earth to be?
“It has changed with the years. Previously I’d answer: a good bloody steak with tomatoes on the side. Now I’d say just tomatoes. Or wait… a good plate of Moscow borsht with smoked brisket and pelmeni – Russian meat dumplings – with garlic and sour cream. Yes, that’s it!”
What advice would you give a starting chef?
“Starting chefs should find a chef who they believe in, bow their heads down, become information sponges and the most hard-working guy in the whole restaurant at the same time.
Also, they need to find their own style. Every great artist has his own style, that goes for painting, that goes for cooking. Look at René Redzepi or Massimo Bottura. When we mention their names we can easily imagine their personal styles. For example: for René Redzepi it’s raw or fermented food, sour tastes, Nordic style, while for Bottura it’s richly embellished Tuscan porcelain plates, art and deconstruction of Italian classic dishes. It’s important not to lose yourself while searching for that personal style.”
21 restaurants and numerous awards in, is there anything left on your wishlist?
“I want to become the best chef in the World. The best chef who is cooking Russian cuisine. This would become a breakthrough for the whole country, not for me personally. I don’t want to seem blasé, but I’m in the spotlight 24/7, so I feel the need to share and create something that would not be good just for me, but also for the people around me. We will make Russian cuisine great again!”
To try Chef Vladimir Mukhin’s dishes for yourself make sure to book your table well in advance of your Moscow visit! In the meantime you can stay up to date on all things White Rabbit via @whiterabbitmoscow and @muhinvladimir.