CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with MAKSIM TVOROGOV
Chef Maksim is quite a popular Chef in his hometown of St. Petersburg and a national celebrity thanks to his face appearing on national TV. The adage ‘the early bird catches the worm’ could not be more appropriate to explain Chef Maksim’s rise to fame on Russian TV at 25. He was the only Chef willing to wake up for an 8am live TV news call time and from there he got picked up by the central Russian TV station to host his own show. It would also not be wrong to say, that perhaps cooking or a food related profession was pre-ordained for him, what with his surname Tvorogov meaning ‘cottage cheese’ in Russian. But jokes aside, at 28, Chef Maksim has taken the enormous task of introducing Slavic cuisine to the people of Dubai and wants to break the myth that Slavic food is all about chicken kiev and borsch; he wants to share the wonderful and exciting dishes that his grandmother’s generation used to make presented contemporarily. I am sure that with Maksim’s earnestness and true desire to promote his heritage, Slavic cuisine will soon pip everyone’s interest.
Name: Maksim Tvorogov
Restaurant: Vesna, Conrad Hotel
From: St. Petersburg, Russia
Culinary School: St. Petersburg Culinary College, Russia
Knife Hand: Right
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
Yes. I ate everything that my grandmother, Lucia, cooked. In Russia we love vegetables. Each house has a farm where they grow their own vegetables so when we were kids we used to go out to the garden and pluck and eat the vegetables directly. My grandmother used to cook fried potato with cucumber, a very popular dish in Ulyanovsk where my grandmother’s house was – it’s a really simple taste but it’s lovely. When I used to get the smell in the house, I knew my grandmother was cooking it. I used to visit my grandmother every summer. I remember when I was very young and just teething, instead of a pacifier my grandfather used to give me a pickled cucumber.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Oh a lot of things. Maybe a musician – playing the guitar. I even went to music school. But then I also liked sports like kung-fu and loved riding bikes. But I also loved to cook – and I know everyone loves to eat and I love to see the happiness on people’s faces. I was looking for an activity job – not a desk job. When I was about 16, I realised I loved to cook. When I finished school I was looking for a college and I found the St. Petersburg Culinary School – and that is it – 5 years I was studying to be a Chef. I reached the highest level in Russia. I was also working and practicing my skills – at culinary college they send you to really very nice places to practice and learn. In my first year I worked at Radisson SAS Royal Hotel in St. Petersburg where I saw famous chefs, how they worked, the big beautiful kitchen inside the hotel – and that is it – I knew this is what I wanted to do.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
It was my first job at Radisson SAS Royal Hotel because it is the ideal learning ground. I learned everything there. I worked in the kitchen of the French/Italian restaurant – Barbazan – in the hotel. I watched everything, learned all the details. I learned about logistics when you have to work with so many departments. I learned communication – between the Chefs and the rest of the teams. For me it is very important that a Kitchen works like a watch – perfectly timed – it will be a fantastic restaurant. I also got to taste and try new products – high level products like lobster and oysters. One of the sous Chefs Alexander Nenashev will also be who I consider a top Chef because our Head Chef used to come for one season and leave whereas Chef Alexander was at the restaurant throughout and knew everything.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
It was a new dish. One of my Chefs yesterday made a dish called Herring under the Coat – it’s actually a herring fillet with baked potato on top and beetroot with garlic and like a home-made mayonnaise.
Place you eat most often on days off?
It’s a Japanese restaurant in Dubai Marina called Zengo which is really nice. It’s Japanese but like fusion cuisine. I like meat – so loved the wagyu beef sushi. I also tried something like our Pelmeni (looks a bit like ravioli) – it had wagyu beef inside but it looked like the Russian pelmeni – but the taste was completely Japanese.
What’s your favourite kitchen appliance to work with?
I have a smoke gun. In Russia, we have these old ovens called Pechka which is at the centre of our homes as it keeps it warm. You fuel it with wood and I remember my grandmother cooking on it and it had a distinctive smoky smell. So at the restaurant I have a machine, and I put some wood chips in, and you have the same smoky smell as the pechka.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
At my grandmother’s house in Ulyanovsk eating some home food cooked by my mother.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
I think in Italy in Sicily. I have already visited the place with my friends. I think Italian kitchen is very similar to what we have in Russia – vegetables, fresh fish, the atmosphere at the table. In Italy people sit at the table like a family where they talk, relax and eat. This is very similar to how we are in Russia. I think if I was to move to Sicily, I would cook Slavic food – but modern and adaptive.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
It was once again at the Radisson SAS Hotel. I was cutting cherry tomatoes and I had been instructed by Chef Alexander to cut them a certain way which I forgot to do. When Chef saw me, he took a spatula and hit me on my knuckles. I learned my lesson and now only cut cherry tomatoes the way I was taught.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
I like to cook for people. I like to see smiles and happy faces. I love to cook for the ladies, of course. I also enjoy cooking for Chefs because any feedback and any questions on presentation are very important for me.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
The Borsch. With beef. For me I don’t have too much time to eat and the Borsch is like the first (starter) and second (main course) dish as its really hearty. Also, it’s from my country and reminds me of home.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
I think the kitchen is like music. Our products and our recipes we already have just like notes on a music sheet. But how musicians use these notes to create a new tune is where the skill and talent lies. In the kitchen it’s the same – you have the products and different cooking styles and you have to have the talent to put the ingredients, chose the cooking style together to create a new dish.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Stingray – it has a really interesting taste and I had it in St. Petersburg at a seafood restaurant – Aquarel. But more interesting is black garlic. It’s from Japan and it is put in tea and then put in the ground for more than a year. After that you have the black garlic and it has a very strong taste but it’s not spicy. I tried black garlic for the first time in St. Petersburg at the Buddha Bar. In St. Petersburg we have a Chef’s Club where we visit each other’s restaurants to try something – every moth we made a sort of a master class and I tried the black garlic when we had a master class at Buddha Bar.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I tried a homemade tiramisu made by this old lady in Sicily. I went to Sicily with another chef from St. Petersburg and as we were walking down the streets of old Sicily we came across this old lady who invited us into her home. That is why I love Italy because the people are so friendly and welcoming. So this lady made fresh tiramisu for us right in front of us. When you sit at table and when food is served accompanied by a story of the food, the taste of it will always be better and this is exactly what happened with the tiramisu. I have tried ‘millions’ of tiramisus cross the world, but this one is still the best.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Hamburger – I really love street food. For me I try high-end food like foie gras but sometimes I crave simple food – like a burger or a shawarma. When you are eating it you don’t think about the food – you just eat. When I visit restaurants and Chefs put food in front of me – I usually am thinking about how it has been made – it’s just a professional habit. But I don’t like the burgers at places like McDonalds or similar places. I like the burgers at Applebee’s here in Dubai – its juicy, tasty – it’s like a homemade hamburger.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
It is from my grandfather, Sergie who told me that when someone asks you to do something, do it, but do it ‘a little bit’ better. For me this rule applies to everything.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
I think I would be a TV show host.
Most underrated ingredient? All vegetables. Everyone in Russia only makes potatoes – fried, baked, pureed, mashed… but I think we need to try everything not just one product. In Russia we have old recipes which have different herbs and ingredients but we have forgotten them.
Best culinary tool? Knife, because it is important for me. I feel like the knife is like my hand. Every chef needs just one knife but a really good Japanese knife.
A chef that inspires you? It’s not just one person. Gordon Ramsay because of his strong character. Jamie Oliver because he is young and very active. And finally Alexander Nenashev because he showed me how to cook. He is my idol. He is from Russia and he promotes his own heritage. Gordon Ramsay promotes English food, Jamie Oliver promotes Italian food, but for me Alexander is promoting his own food.
Favourite cuisine? Italian. I like everything – pasta – I collect old recipes of pasta For example, for Carbonara I spoke with the old Tiramisu lady in Sicily and she shared the history of the dishes and shared the recipe. For example when I told her we put cream in the pasta dishes and she told me – how can you, I only add cream in my coffee! She told me that you only use cheese and Guanciale – smoked and dried meat.
One dish you can’t live without? Potato with pickled cucumber. Potato is fried with onion – crunchy outside and soft on the inside and will be golden in colour just like my grandmother made it.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Salad with roast beef with herbs and mustard with a mix of baked potatoes and stir fried vegetables with a dressing of sunflower oil and lemon juice.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. History (every dish needs a story), taste and organic.
THIS OR THAT
Food on a skewer or food in a tiny spoon?
Hot curry or haute cuisine?
Buffet or sit-down dinner?
Mints or gum?
Soup or salad?
Greek yogurt or labneh?
Butter or olive oil?
Chicken breast or chicken thigh?
Baked or fried?
Waffles or pancakes?
Lobster or steak?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!