‘There’s Our Cheese and Then There’s Parmesan’

PHOTO by Vladimir Astapkovich / TASS
Restaurateur Arkady Novikov talks about Moscow mozzarella and other domestic cheeses destined to substitute imports

Gazeta.Ru-Lifestyle spoke with restaurateur Arkady Novikov about everything from Moscow-style mozzarella to burrata, stracciatella and other specially imported delicacies.

In 1992, Novikov became the first person to open an upscale seafood restaurant in Moscow when he founded Sirena in a quiet nook of Bolshaya Spasskaya Ulitsa, back when the imminent dining boom was an unlikely culinary dream. It was Novikov who introduced Muscovites to arugula with prawns and avocado and banned uncouth habits such as using the tablecloth as a napkin. Today he is a recognised mogul of Russian cuisine, owning over 50 dining establishments from London to Dubai. And he doesn’t plan on stopping there.

Last year, Novikov resolved to feed Moscow a diet of desirable meat, reflected in his choice of eateries to open. Today, people form queues on Nikolskaya Street just to grab a burger at his restaurant Farsch and Ryby Nyet (No Fish) restaurant is aptly-named because of its quality meat selection.

But 2015 is now over, and Novikov has a new obsession – cheese. He has opened a new family restaurant called Syrovarnya – literally meaning Cheese Factory in Russian -in the disused Badaev Factory offering pizzas, bruschetta and ravioli and the more traditional turkey cutlets with mashed potatoes. But they aren’t the most important components; what are important are the five kinds of cheese freshly made on site at the restaurant. So those who are tired of badmouthing Belarussian mozzarella can now sample what Moscow cheese makers have to offer. But why limit yourself to mozzarella when Syrovarnya also produces burrata, stracciatella, caciotta and ricotta too?

Depositphotos 56642531 l 2015

Gazeta.Ru: Is it all about imports and that magic word – cheese?

Arkady Novikov: Partially, but not entirely. First of all, I love cheese with Mozzarella and burrata being the kinds I eat most often. Second, imported substitutes are something we indeed need to consider. Third, this place once housed the Badaev Factory, where they brewed beer and so I wanted to create something there that would involve actual production to carry that tradition on. So that’s how it all began.

Was it hard to find milk suppliers?

Indeed, it was. We still have irregular shipments. For some reason there’s a shortage of good milk in Russia. Maybe it’s something the cows eat or how they sleep or live day to day, I don’t know. Some say it’s of the climate. But take a look at Finland, where it’s just as cold and yet they have good milk there.

Why are you focusing solely on soft cheeses?

We will have firmer cheeses as well. We are currently building dry aging fridges for them to enhance their quality. We won’t have a wide selection, though as it’s impossible to do everything at once. We will specialise in those of which we have the highest demand.

Good parmesan would be in high demand.

I don’t think so, it’s far too sophisticated. We’re a long way from making quality parmesan.

Can cheeses actually be properly aged in Moscow? You need a specific temperature and humidity, don’t you?

These conditions are not complicated to create and maintain. The main challenges are technology and milk, and people too, because we have adequate modern equipment but we have to use a lot of manual labor as well. We’re still learning, all of us.

Who oversees the technical process?

We have an Italian expert who assists us and sometimes we invite consultants to pitch their views. It’s not that complicated, we’re not reinventing the wheel here.

Did you personally research cheese production?

If you want, I can lie and tell you that I’ve learned every little detail about the process. In reality I only know the general gist of things. I know what kind of cheese we’re supposed to make, but there are a lot of people involved, and they are better suited for the job. I try to keep out of the cheese-making process.

Some say that a crisis offers new opportunities. Do you agree?

You know, I would rather have no opportunities. I definitely don’t want a crisis!

But you started out in troubled times as well.

Yes, in 1991. I was young and reckless, that’s why I wasn’t afraid of anything.

And now?

Now I am cautious. I’m still rash sometimes, though! You know, some people who study a foreign language don’t like speaking it because they’re afraid of making mistakes. And then someone who has never studied it can talk a mile a minute without stopping. Like me – I never studied English but I speak it. On one hand it’s bad that I haven’t studied it, but on the other hand I’m not worried about getting it absolutely perfectly right. I only care if I can be understood. It’s the same in the business world. Fake it ‘til you make it. Still though, I try to avoid mistakes in business – they may cost not only money, but jobs as well…

Do you ever look at a restaurant and regret that it’s not yours?

Of course, quite often, actually! I fall in love quite easily when it comes to restaurants. I like a lot of dining projects and Moscow has a lot of talent in this regard. I could say that I feel envy in a good way - more like pride. In other words, when someone creates something worthy, I want to become a partner or an owner.

Last year was incredibly successful for the Moscow restaurant scene. For example, White Rabbit made it into the top 50 best restaurants in the world. Do you want your restaurants to be in this list?

I wouldn’t mind, but it was never my goal to be the best or the worst. If someone decides we deserve a certificate or a star, I will be glad. Who wouldn’t? But it would be absurd to say this is the driving force behind my work.

So what is the driving force?

Pleasure. I enjoy ideas, results and money that my projects make.

Do you ever think about your target audience, city professionals and bohemians perhaps?

Definitely not city professionals, more likely families. That’s my thing – family restaurants.