At the forefront of New Russian cuisine, Andrei Shmakov is committed to preserving a traditional cuisine, while modifying it for the 21st century. Having worked at Noma under Rene Redzepi, the Estonian-born chef was heavily influenced by the New Nordic movement. He launched Lapland restaurant in St Petersburg, but his real chance to test the boundaries of Russian food came at SAVVA Restaurant at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow.
Shmakov is well known to TV audiences in Russia as host of Masterchef Junior. Now he brings his skill in nurturing young talent to S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 as mentor to Ruslan Evstigneev. Fine Dining Lovers caught up with Shmakov ahead of the big event.
Can you remember the moment you decided to become a chef – what inspired you and what obstacles did you overcome to achieve your dream?
At the age of 12 I wanted to be a chef, a clown, an actor, or become a tailor and sew men's suits. Mom asked me why a chef? I answered: ‘I want to be a chef on a passenger ship.’ The main word was ‘ship’, and my mom suggested I should go to Marine College. I graduated at 19, worked half a year as a mechanic, finished my cooking courses, and at the age of 27 I ended my career like a chef on a passenger ship, just as I’d wanted as a 12-year-old.
What was your biggest triumph as a young chef, and is there anything you would consider your biggest failure?
Like many chefs, I’ve had failures. When you’re young, you think more about the beauty of the dish than the taste. This is a failure, but all chefs go through it. A triumph: when 300 passengers applaud the young 25-year-old chef and you realise that it’s for you.
As a mentor, what do you expect from your young chef, and what do you think you can offer him?
Ruslan is a young and talented chef. He has energy and ideas, and I have experience and taste. I think we’ll succeed.
What would victory in the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition mean for a young chef?
Any victory is fine. They give an incentive to develop and create. S.Pellegrino Young Chef offers the chance to show your philosophy, to see the best chefs in the world, and to get acquainted with a mass of talented people.
As a host of Masterchef Junior, what are the common mistakes you’ve seen young chefs make when under pressure in a competition, and how can they avoid them?
In this show I worked with children. Not so much young chefs, but micro chefs! They think a lot about the dish, but little about the taste, and it's a mistake. Shows and competitions are two different categories. I hope in Milan, young cooks will work without any mistake.
Tell us about the food of your home country of Estonia – what ingredients and dishes stand out?
Estonia is a Northern country. Chefs from the Baltic States have always been equal to Nordic cuisine. It is close to us and we understand it. We have a lot of root vegetables, forest herbs and grains; pork and game are the most common meats. Sprats, cod and flounder are popular fish. And our dairy products are of excellent quality.
How would you define new-Russian cuisine?
Everything is very simple: seasonality, ingredients, philosophy, and grandmother's recipes! We no longer want to eat what we ate during Soviet times. We are young and ambitious chefs. We travel around the world, participate in seminars, make friends with world chefs and invite them to our restaurants. We work with local products and show the world that Russia has interesting and, most importantly, delicious food.
Tell us about some of your signature dishes and why they are special.
I try to think and act like a guest. The guest likes simplicity and taste. SAVVA Restaurant’s menu is simple guest’s to understand. But when I prepare a chef’s table, then I can excel for the guest and cook him a veal brain with a cherry!
What did you learn while working at Noma?
I was in Noma for the fourth year of opening. That was a great time. A real army! Everyone was waiting for Michelin, and went to Rene. I learned how to work quickly, giving great care to the product and how to respect our Danish neighbours!
What are you working on at the moment and what are your plans for the future?
I have my own restaurant (SAVVA), I am ready to make it the best in Moscow and am striving for this. At home, in Tallinn, I also have my own small place, Neobistro TAR TAR, where I prepare modern, interesting and simple food.