Welcome back to my guide to Chef’s Table. You can find all installments on my Netflix series page. Yesterday’s episode featured Buddhist monk and chef Jeong Kwan, a true force of nature. Today, in Vol. 3 Episode 2, we travel to Russia and meet chef Vladimir Mukhin of the acclaimed Moscow restaurant White Rabbit.
I really, really loved this episode. Not only is Vladimir’s cooking incredibly beautiful (take a look at the gallery of images I’ve provided), but he’s a cool person himself. Dedicated, resourceful, totally ambitious, visionary — my kind of guy! At a certain point in his life, he knew what he wanted, and he went for it, though it flew in the face of everything he knew and jeopardized his relationship with his father.
Vladimir Mukhin was born in Essentuki, a little Russian town, in 1983. I give you this detail because now you know he lived through one of the most tumultuous times in Russia’s tumultuous history. He remembers the lowering of the red flag from the Kremlin, the fall of the Soviet Union. He also remembers the much more recent Russian push into the Ukraine, which resulted in a series of trade embargoes and sanctions from Western nations against Russia.
the history of russian cusine
Russian cuisine, like Russia herself, has a curious history. During the late 1800s, Russian chefs were in the midst of paving a path forward for Russian cuisine, creating new and innovative dishes. Everything changed with the fall of capitalism. During the seven decades of socialism, Russia lost much of her traditional food culture. To ensure equality between Soviet cooks, all cooks used the same cookbook: On Tasty and Healthy Food. Across the country, people ate the same bland, gray, urban diet.
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of borders in the early 1990s, Russian food culture made a sudden leap forward into the future. Chains like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and more appeared by the dozen. Lines wound around blocks. Vladimir remembers candy becoming available. Snickers, Twix, M & M’s.
His father was the best chef in Essentuki. As soon as Vladimir could, he began working in his father’s kitchen. His father cooked traditional Russian food with the tastes of Russia. Vladimir was more interested in modern French techniques, the European style. He began experimenting, and soon formed a secondary menu for his father’s restaurant, a menu of modernized foods.
The next step was Moscow. Vladimir Mukhin wanted to show everyone what he was all about — including his father. So he left home, moved to Moscow, and started over from the bottom. Eventually, he found his way to France and spent time there in the restaurant of chef Christian Etienne, where he taught Etienne about Russian cooking techniques.
After returning to Moscow, he met Boris, owner of the White Rabbit and his business partner. Together, they began serving traditional Russia food from the White Rabbit, which now sits among the top 20 restaurants in the world.
At first, critical reception was bad. It seemed people didn’t want traditional Russian cuisine. They wanted food cooked with French technique, in the French way. But everything changed when the trade embargo began. Then, Vladimir found himself a step ahead of his competition, because he had been utilizing Russian products for a long time. He was the only well-known Russian chef creating traditional Russian food. And now, with the embargo, traditional Russian food was all the rage.
Vladimir seems untouched by his success. His mindset is the same as ever. He works as hard as ever. He speaks with his father again. They cook together again. To my eyes, he appears strikingly humble. It’s a good look for an all-star chef.
Learn more about White Rabbit, Vladimir Mukhin’s restaurant, on its website.