Food & Drink

Vladimir Mukhin offers Japan a culinary reminder that Russia is just next door

by Melinda Joe

Contributing Writer

Chef Vladimir Mukhin is spearheading a culinary revolution in Russia. At his Moscow restaurant The White Rabbit, which ranks No. 23 on the list of the world’s best, the bearded 34-year-old is resurrecting food traditions lost during seven decades of Soviet rule and reinventing them for modern times.

Mukhin has also taken up the mantle of cultural ambassador, starring in an episode of the Netflix series “Chef’s Table” and traveling the globe to tell the story of Russian gastronomy.

Last month, the chef visited Tokyo to launch the Far From Moscow festival, a new program supported by President Vladimir Putin. He spoke with The Japan Times about the relationship between the two countries and the future of Russian cuisine.

What is your personal relationship to Japan? I get a lot of inspiration from Japanese cuisine. We have 21 restaurants in The White Rabbit family, and when I was researching recipes for our (pan-Asian) restaurant Zodiac, I spent two months visiting restaurants in Tokyo and Osaka to learn. For example, (Sukiyabashi Jiro’s) Jiro Ono taught me how to make rice for sushi, and I developed the recipe for one of our signatures, daifuku mochi (glutinous rice cake).

The seafood at your restaurants comes from both Russia and Japan. Can you comment on that? Japan and Russia share the same sea, and this fact is very important. Sometimes we have problems, like with the Kuril Islands (the Russian-held isles off Hokkaido), but it’s purely political.

We have a joke in Russia: “If you have a fight with your wife and then have breakfast together, you have a future.” Food unites people. Part of why I came here is to show how our countries are near in proximity and have more in common than people think.

I presented dishes that used techniques inspired by Japan — for example, black cod marinated in sauce created from black bread and black garlic instead of miso. For us, the combination of black bread and fermented garlic is traditional, so this is like a mixture of Japanese and Russian culture.

How would you describe modern Russian cuisine? We have a lot of stereotypes about Russian food — that it’s heavy, with a lot of garlic and onion. But we have a new wave of young chefs who are changing everything. The cuisine is evolving.

Modern Russian food is seasonal, with crunchy textures and lighter flavors. After the embargo (on imported products) five years ago, we started producing very good local ingredients. The White Rabbit works with four organic farms in different regions around Russia.

What is the quintessential flavor of Russian food? It’s about the interplay of sour, sweet and savory, with the flavor of fermentation. We ferment a lot of vegetables but also fruits like pears and plums, and (the beverage) kvass is made from fermented rye bread.

What do you think about the recent trend of chefs looking inward for inspiration? Everything today is digitized, but food needs to be real. Every chef must have a signature, and that is related to culture.

I cook dishes that look like they’re from the future, but when you taste them, it’s like being back with your grandmother.

What would you like people in Japan to know about Russia? Japan and Russia share a similar history. For a long time, we were both closed countries.

When Japan opened up to the rest of the world in the 19th century, it was a big success. You can see how the Japanese have kept their roots and influenced culture around the world.

This is the way of the future — moving forward while remembering the past. I think Russia has the same potential.