French Chef on Russian Cheese, Epiphany Bathing and Banya Nudity

PHOTO by Le Restaurant press service
A Bordeaux native talks about how Moscow looks from an outsider’s perspective and why one feels like a child when they don’t know the language

A French chef in Moscow has gotten used to everything after a year in Russia: the climate, the language and the unusual traditions. Everything, that is, except the tasteless cheese.

I wanted for a long time to work in a different country: different people, different culture, different language. When I was offered a position as a chef at a French restaurant in Moscow, I couldn't believe it was true. Of course, I agreed without hesitation.

I was already kind of familiar with Russia through stories. My girlfriend is Russian, one of my cousins was born in Kazakhstan and I have some Russian friends in France. But it actually turned out to be much more interesting. I knew that Russia in summer and Russia in winter are two different countries, so I enthusiastically waited for winter. Honestly, I wasn't ready for the -30°C (-22°F) cold this year. But, as I understood it, it was a big surprise for everyone, not only for me. The fact that winter lasts for almost six months was a revelation to me as well. It seems like “Game of Thrones.”

This climate takes time to get used to. It's either winter or summer, either +30 or -30. It's clear why Russians are such hardened people.

Epiphany bathing rites are, perhaps, the most mind-blowing thing I’ve seen here. I wasn't aware that it's so massive; I thought that it required years of training. Imagine my surprise when I learned that most of my friends and colleagues went bathing during Epiphany and asked me to join them. I'm not even ready to watch it. But I wonder what I’ll say in a year.

The most difficult moment of adaptation was work. At first, I wasn’t sure how to establish order if I didn’t speak Russian. Since the team had already been formed, I had to work hard to make people want to listen to me and understand me. They thought at first that I would throw frying pans at them. As it turned out, many people think that all French chefs do that kind of thing. This isn't true: the Italians are famous for it as well. It's not my approach though; I prefer diplomacy. Everything can be explained in words.

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It was more difficult with diners because the tastes of Frenchmen and Russians differ a lot. French cuisine is not very well represented in Moscow, so my duty is to translate it for our guests. As a result, I seem to have started to understand the tastes of Russian people and reached a compromise. However, due to the absence of many products, I have to develop innovative approaches.

I really like some Russian products. Kamchatka crabs are excellent with their very soft, slightly sweet flavour and texture. Game meat is of a very good quality. I also like to work with Russian fish because it's different and it has an intriguing taste, especially the wild ones.

However, I was very surprised when I heard that Russian cheese tasted better than French cheese! I disagree with this strongly. Frankly, I don't like Russian cheese at all. I'm used to a stronger taste. I understand that cheese making in Russia is very young and it’ll be interesting to see what happens in the coming years.

I don't feel there is any language barrier at work. I use Russian expressions I hear from my colleagues. It amuses them because I only know the names of the products and kitchen utensils in Russian. In general, it's difficult without knowing the language. I'll remember for a long time my recent trip to a store for a beer. I showed my ID but the clerks couldn't understand whether it was a driver's license or a medical policy. They held council to decide whether to sell me a beer or not.

I feel uncomfortable when everyone speaks Russian, makes jokes and laughs when I don't understand what's going on, even when the joke is translated. Once, I couldn't find a bar where my friends were waiting for me because the taxi driver dropped me off in the wrong place and I could hardly explain to people what I needed and where I was. Terrible! It’s funny afterwards but you feel like a child. I remember well my first trip to McDonald's: I was literally explaining with gestures what I wanted for five minutes, waited ten minutes for the order and saw that they got it all wrong. But I couldn't be angry; it was very funny.

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I communicate with colleagues and guests most of all because I spend most of my time at work. I try to find time to visit the restaurants of my colleagues and new places. Fortunately, I have a lot of French and English-speaking friends in Moscow who are always ready to keep me company. I also made some steps in a new direction: I began to learn Russian. It's incredibly hard! But I decided for myself that I should be able to speak it by the end of the year, or at least be able to use the most common phrases.

Of course, I miss my family and close friends but we talk on the phone regularly and keep in touch. Last summer, my parents and a couple of friends visited me. Unlike me, they were very surprised by what they saw in Russia. They had a completely different image of the country, but in the end they didn't want to leave.

A lot of my friends plan on visiting me and seeing Moscow. However, none of them dare to come until the end of March. I also miss European weather. Bordeaux has a very pleasant climate and it's not far from the ocean, so you can take a surfboard and go there any time. And, of course, I miss some products — cheese, cooked meat, some wines. Everything else is quite comfortable for me, or maybe I just easily adapt to any condition.

Moscow is a very dynamic city. It's cool but very tiring at the same time. Due to the rush, people are very nervous and tired. The way to or from work can sometimes cause a storm of negative emotions. I try not to use subway, but the traffic on the road is not so pleasant either. I’ve gotten used to it and I even missed it a little bit during the New Year holidays when I was home. There really is no time to be bored.

I like how some people spend their time here. I decided to try hunting, ice fishing and cross country skiing, not mountain skiing. I was always curious what people find interesting about skiing on a flat surface. I need to try it myself to understand, I guess.

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Actually, I don't understand how Russians have enough energy to work so much during the week and then to go out not just for an hour and a half but to party for real. I tried it a couple of times but realised that it requires years of training.

There were many funny moments during my adaptation. I don't remember all of them but I'll never forget my first and last trip to a banya. Everyone thought I wouldn't stand the temperature and some even feared that I would faint. But I survived and even agreed to try a massage with tree branches. What I don't get though is why the tradition of going to a sauna completely naked is still alive in Russia.