‘It All Began With a Dinner at a Restaurant’

PHOTO by Depositphotos
President of the International Centre of Wine and Gastronomy on his plans for the global expansion of Russian cuisine

In November, the Second Russian Gastronomical Week, which is meant to popularise the diverse Russian cuisine, will be held in Spain. President of the International Centre of Wine and Gastronomy Leonid Gelibterman, who conceived and organised the Russian Gastronomical Week project, told Lenta.Ru of his plans for the global expansion of Russian cuisine, breaking stereotypes, dumplings in Germany and gastronomical challenges that are never to be feared.

Lenta.Ru: How did the Russian Gastronomical Week project come to be?

Gelibterman: It all began in 2014, at a Siberian restaurant called Chemodan in Moscow. I was having dinner with Alexander Radkov, who was Head of the Federal Agency for Tourism at the time, and Taleb Rifai, the Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). We were talking about Siberian cuisine and about Russian cuisine in general, and Mr. Rifai asked why Russia does not promote itself through food tourism. He told us that the First World Forum on Food Tourism was about to be held in San Sebastián and that Russia could very well join the current trend. We took his words to heart and, that very summer, in Novgorod, we held the first international forum devoted to the development of food tourism in Russia. The Russian Gastronomical Week was a logical way to proceed with this initiative. So, that was the start of the project.

Why did you start with Spain?

This is quite interesting. The thing is that the UNWTO Headquarters are located in Madrid. Therefore, the ambassadors of countries that have diplomatic representation in Spain officially represent their countries at the UNWTO. Secretary-General Rifai, who is full of energy and who sees the potential of promoting Russia through its culinary culture, contacted the Russian ambassador in Spain and suggested that they join forces and hold the Russian Gastronomical Week in Spain.

Russia’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Yuri Korchagin was very excited about this idea, so he contacted me and we agreed that we would combine our efforts to accomplish this. The centre that I head developed the programme and selected the participants. In Oct. 2015, we held the First Russian Gastronomical Week. In short, it all began with a dinner at a restaurant.

Taleb Rifai, UNWTO President, has often said that food is the universal language of diplomacy because it is clear to everyone and there is no need for words. One can’t help agreeing with this statement. What message do you want to send to the European public through the language of taste?

Today, Russian culinary culture does not get the attention it deserves. This is mainly due to the lack of awareness of the real state of things. This is actually true for most Russians as well. Russia is a big country and few people know it thoroughly. For instance, I have never been to Yakutia, to Chukotka or to the Far East, although I am always on the go. It is not that I have no idea of the food traditions in Yakutia whatsoever, but I cannot honestly say that I know them well. For that, I would have to go there, to taste the foods there, to study the local produce, to talk to the local chefs. Even for me, a person who is in the know, if I may say so, it is exotic. Who could expect anyone from abroad to know about it?

On the other hand, there are lots of stereotypes that exist about Russian cuisine. If you talk to a foreigner about this, they are most likely going to mention vodka, blini, black caviar and, maybe, borscht. Sometimes, very rarely, will they mention Beef Stroganoff. That is practically it. Even the dumplings are seen as a Chinese food rather than Russian.

But that is not really the thing. It is impossible to bring the immensely rich culinary culture of the 190 ethnic cultures populating our country down to four or five staples.

Neither are they connected with a specific region…

True. This year, I took part in the Second UNWTO World Forum on Food Tourism in Lima, Peru. I gave a long talk and held a masterclass. There were food tourism experts from sixty countries, so I had the chance to find out what they know about Russian cuisine first-hand. They don’t know anything! And it is the food professionals we are talking about. A layperson knows even less.

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Blini with caviar, vodka and borsht are practically all the Russian cuisine familiar abroad

Coming back to your question, I have to say that the overall goal of our project is to tell the world about the rich and absolutely unique culinary culture in Russia. To break stereotypes.

Spain turned out to be a great place to do so. Firstly, it is one of the three European countries most famous for their gastronomical traditions. The general public is very savvy; they are used to good food. It was interesting to see their reaction to the regional Russian foods. It was a real challenge. They were expecting blini and caviar all over again, and we showed them something entirely different.

It was quite funny to see the waiters at a famous Madrid restaurant serve apple pastila with pates as an entrée on the first day. They thought it was some special Russian bread…

You are absolutely right. It was at that moment that we realised that we have to control everything that is going on in the kitchen. Indeed, why would they know our traditions?

In the end, two of Spain’s topmost experts – President of the Real Academia Española de Gastronomía Rafael Anson and leading wine critic Jose Penin – noted that they were very much impressed both by the diversity of dishes and food combinations and by the way they were served. They are not the people who hand out praise lightly.

Another important point is that there was a fee for all of the lunches and dinners: the guests of the Russian Gastronomical Week voted with their euros. In the end, it was so popular that we had to turn people away: there just weren’t enough seats. That is some result.

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Echpochmak is equally popular in the Tatar and Bashkir cuisines

Why are you holding the Russian Gastronomical Week in two locations – Madrid and Barcelona – this year?

We are not looking for a simple life, that’s why. Why Spain again? Because this year is Dual Tourism Year Spain-Russia. Given this framework, our event is very well-timed. The Russian Gastronomical Week is a great addition to a whole range of tourism and culture events devoted to Russia.

On the other hand, it became clear that we can go beyond Madrid. Several regions of Spain (Marbella, Andalucía, Alicante) have shown interest in our project and offered to hold them there. I believe that it is possible to hold Russian food weeks in Spain on a regular basis and we might even turn it into a separate project.

This year we picked Barcelona, a city extremely popular among Russian tourists. The local Russian community is really big. They have a Russian House (Casa de Rusia) and we want to show support for that really useful social project. Last, but not least, we are very interested to see how the general public in Catalonia responds to Russian cuisine. They are very savvy in terms of gastronomy.

At the First Russian Gastronomical Week, you introduced your guests to the cuisines of Kuban, Tatarstan, Mid Volga Region, the Urals and the Russian North-West. Which regions will be the focus this time?

Overall, the concept is not going to change. We will present regional Russian cuisines. We are still going to show Kuban, or, rather, the Russian South, as well as the North-West and the Urals. Most certainly, we will include the Volga Region; we are currently thinking of which part of the region to choose. The new regions will be the Komi and Perm Regions and Dagestan.

However, Russian Gastronomical Week does not only serve as an educational tool. Through this project, we are trying to encourage tourism in Russia and to attract investments into the tourism industry.

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Mushroom soup and sour cream is a typical dish for North Russia

Last, but not least, we are attempting to create the right conditions for exporting Russian food and beverages to Europe. Today, many European countries, especially those popular among Russian tourists, have a tendency for opening specialised Russian stores and sometimes sections in supermarkets.

However, if you look closely, you realise that those foods are not Russian at all. “The real Russian pelmeni” are made in Germany; buckwheat is shipped from Poland; “Soviet Champagne” is produced in Italy and so on. The only truly Russian food I was able to find was baking soda made in Bashkiria and sold in a store in Cyprus. Therefore, there is a lot of work to do.

If I understand you correctly, you are thinking of organising Russian Gastronomical Weeks in some other countries, too.

Next year we are planning to host this event in Austria, Serbia, Argentina and Cyprus. And we are already working on that. In 2018, it will, most likely, be held in Switzerland and several countries in Asia. Right now we are negotiating with about a dozen countries, from Mexico and Panama to the Netherlands, Singapore and Japan.

Russian Gastronomical Week is a private initiative. However, I can’t help but mention that our project has gained enthusiastic support from Russia’s diplomatic representations and state-run institutions, such as the Federal Agency for Tourism and the Federal Agency for CIS Affairs. They have taken tangible steps to support us. I believe we are moving in the right direction.

Interviewed by Alexander Sidorov