What is contemporary Russian food? In the mind — and on the menu — of Anatoly Komm, it's things like Far East oysters with cucumber and honey, salted salmon with Don River crayfish and celery, borscht with foie gras and pampushki (garlic donuts), dumplings with Kamchatka crab and sour cream "snow," and turkey heart kebab with pomegranate kissel (fruit soup) and walnut paste. And if the nature of these specialties doesn't make their Russian-ness clear enough, a note at the bottom of the menu states "All the ingredients used are made on [sic] the territory of Russian Federation and are the Russian National Agricultural Pride."
Komm was trained as a geophysicist, but somehow ended up importing designer clothes into Russia. Self-taught as a chef, he has credited meals he had on his travels to top international fashion capitals with igniting his interest in haute cuisine. His headquarters today is the elegant Varvary, which we named in first place in our Best Restaurants of Russia and Its Neighbors and number seven in our list of the 101 Best Restaurants in Europe. Varvary is Russian for "barbarians," and is Komm's ironic reference to the fact that Western Europeans historically often characterized the Russians that way. (He also has the more casual Varvary Brasserie and an Anatoly Komm restaurant in the Barvikha Hotel & Spa just outside Moscow.)
I sat down briefly with Komm during his first visit to Madrid Fusión this week to ask him a little about his philosophy of cuisine, the challenges he faced in bringing cooking of this level to Moscow, and more.
Colman Andrews: First of all, what brings you to Madrid Fusión?
Anatoly Komm: It's a great meeting point for all the community of chefs. It's one of the most respected conferences in the world for cuisine. I would have come before, but it always falls on my birthday. This year I came anyway.
CA: Was it difficult to introduce contemporary cooking to Russia?
AK: Yes, of course. Even in France, when nouvelle cuisine was introduced, the journalists criticized it. In any country, with anything, when you start to change, people will be unhappy, the journalists will try to kill it.
CA: Your cuisine seems to be based on traditional dishes.
AK: Yes, of course, but there is a big difference between haute cuisine and the cooking of the people: Haute cuisine is not for the stomach, it's for the soul. To compare the two is like comparing opera or ballet with, oh, Lady Gaga. To create a new cuisine, you absolutely must have three things: The feet, which means that your base is in tradition; the hands, which means that you keep up with all the new technology; and the brain, which means that you have to put into your cooking all your life experience, all the books you have read, the music you have heard, the pictures you have seen, your family… You mix all this together and you shake it well, and perhaps you will have something.
CA: What chefs have influenced you the most?
AK: In Italy, Carlo Cracco and Massimo Bottura. Massimo Bottura is my brother! In France, Pascal Barbot and Jean-François Piège. In Spain, Quique Dacosta, Joan Roca, Andoni Aduriz…
CA: And Ferran Adrià?
AK: Of course, but he is a global person, not only of Spain.
CA: Have you considered opening in another country?
AK: Yes, but it depends on investors. I have had offers from London, Paris, Shanghai, but I prefer to be a little careful. Every two or three months, though, I travel to cook someplace — Munich, the Côte d'Azur…In September, I will come to New York.
CA; What is your greatest innovation as a chef, the dish by which you will be remembered?
AK: I think maybe it will always be the last one I have done, whatever that is.