Artem Chudnenko2, the chef of the restaurant “Alice”3 in Moscow, defines his cooking style as a craft. He is known for creating the finest dishes from handcrafted ingredients, from bread to dressing. He is passionate for technology of the cooking process. As a result, his kitchen is original, deeply creative and meticulously thought out. This interview will lead you through Artem’s thought process in creating food and offer a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse at the craft of cooking which you will not see from the dining room.
JUnQ: Can you elaborate on your concept? What is your approach in the kitchen?
Artem Chudnenko: To me cooking is a craft. It is the same kind of a craft as building a house or crafting a chair. Just like a carpenter starts with wood and cuts out a chair using a plane, making something great. A cook crafts in the kitchen: takes little pieces and makes one big great thing. One can be a good carpenter or an ordinary one. The good carpenter always tries to find ways to improve the chair, while the ordinary carpenter just routinely makes an ordinary chair. And I want to be the good one in my profession. So, I put effort in improving things: not only when creating food, but also when I communicate with the guests or journalists.
Now, what is there to improve in the kitchen? Here is a figurative example. When you cook pasta, it can turn out tasty or not: it can be undercooked or overcooked, with too much salt or too little salt. These are measurable parameters. So, if one can get all these right, one can say “I can cook pasta”. Next, there is room for improvement: for example, you can add butter or add oil, or seasoning. In the end, it is no longer plain pasta but a decent meal. In the concept of crafting, you can also make pasta yourself, which brings the final product on a qualitatively different level. In fact, you can handmake many things.
For example, we decided against purchasing commercially available miso pasta and bacon. Instead, we develop our own ingredients which we can make ourselves from raw materials, that is essentially everything from bread to soy sauce. We make our own garum (ancient Roman fish sauce) from langoustine, beef and scallops. It is indeed more complicated for the kitchen, but it is also cheaper and, in a sense, more sustainable. Because we utilize the ingredients that would normally not go into a dish, i.e. the scallop muscles, veins, shells etc. Recently we started making our own butter which goes so well with our own bread. Soon, we will substitute the commercial sunflower oil with fermented beef fat.
So, this is my approach in a nutshell and the concept of our restaurant “Alice”. I am trying to see to what extent we can go away from buying things towards handmaking them. And I think this is what makes our restaurant so special as compared to others.
JUnQ: The topic of our issue is serendipity, which happens to be a scientist’s best friend. How is it in culinary? Have you had serendipitous discoveries in the kitchen? Have you ever stumbled onto something great accidentally?
Artem Chudnenko: I think I am yet to create something truly great. One of my favourite discoveries is substituting coffee with roasted barley which grew koji on. At some point I needed coffee for a sauce for duck. But I had troubles describing to a barista what flavour of acidity, I exactly needed. It was my intuition that luckily helped me realize that roasted barley resembles coffee. So, I dried it and made coffee, it was perfect for the sauce.
Another great and interesting thing came out as a result of a collaboration with another chef from Saint Petersburg. I had an idea of a desert called “bread, not yet bread, no longer bread”. Basically, it was going to be an ice cream made from sourdough, covered with crunches of malted bread, and on top of all, yesterday’s bread was meant to be re-used for some sort of sweet cream. For the latter, the plan was to soak yesterday’s bread in beer, add honey, dried fruits etc. and mesh it up into a creamy mass.
It was so very tasty in my head and so easy to make. However, while the other components turned out well, the sourdough ice cream was problematic. I expected to get something light, resembling sour cream. But in reality, I did not get anything other than plain raw dough – opposite of tasty. In the end, we just left this mass, what was meant to become the sourdough ice cream, in a fridge for a week. After some time, we noticed that the mix started to separate into whey and curds. We helped it further with a blender and as a result obtained very nice butter, a little sour, due the sourdough. Now, we have our own butter in the restaurant. Furthermore, we figured out how to make use of the leftover liquid whey: we evaporate it until it becomes very dense and viscous. Something like condensed milk, but very salty and sour, and at the same time caramel and milky like. So, we pour this onto the butter, while the butter will be unsalted. Thus, it is sort of a closed cycled bread ecosystem: we serve the butter with the bread, the butter is made from the sourdough and the whey is a by-product of making the butter, but we then add it again to the butter.
There is also a truly serendipitous discovery. There was time when biodynamical approaches in the kitchen were very popular, in particular, lacto-fermentation, that is the process that produces traditional dill pickles or sauerkraut. In Russia, among other fermented delights at that time, lacto-fermented plum was at the top of the list. To be honest, back then I could not understand its taste – it felt like biting with its sweet-sour flavour. One day, I was to cook venison with carrots and a beetroot sauce, and plum seemed to me a good fit there. And I thought it would need to be a lacto-fermented plum. I asked my sous chef to ferment the plum. Since she was a somewhat younger cook, all this lacto-fermentation hype went past her and she didn’t know what I was asking for. Luckily, there was a similar process we used for making what I call a mushroom soy sauce. I make minced mushrooms, salt them and put the mass aside. After some time, this mix gives out sour juice and the left-over press cake we leave unused. This sour juice is quite tasty, I boil it down to further saturate the flavour. In the end it becomes a scrumptious mushroom sauce.
So, I said to my sous chef: “Nastja, let’s do with the plum the same as we do for mushroom sauce, but instead of the liquid we will use the plum itself”. For some reason I trusted her and it wasn’t until shortly before the dinner when we realized that she had mixed all up. I was furious at first because there was no time to redo it. When I cooled down and tried the juice she had made, I immediately realized what other dish to prepare with it. It decided to soak the spices which I think all go into the tiger’s milk. That is a traditional citrus-based, spicy marinade used to cure fish in classic Peruvian ceviche.1 This aggressive citric acid causes the proteins to denaturate thus the seafood appears cooked. It must be prepared fresh and consumed immediately, some also drink the sauce, so it is very much liked.
So, we did the same with our plum sour juice, added a little bit of seaweed broth to fine tune the acidity for the scallop to not be overcured in the acid. And the final dish, the scallop ceviche with fermented plum tiger’s milk, is still one of the top choices on our menu (Fig. 1).
JUnQ: Are all dishes a derivative of some other dishes with slightly different ingredients or can there be truly original dishes?
Artem Chudnenko: This issue is nicely discussed in the book “You and I eat the same” by René Redzepi. It says that in every place on Earth, there was the same kind of “bread” developed at some point in time. Be it pita or taco, in the essence it is still bread. And there was always something to go along with this “bread”, e.g. butter, guacamole, hummus, salo etc. In that sense, I think, since the appearance of bread, we no longer create anything conceptually novel. That was such a revolutionary transformation – from seeds to bread.
This however does not interfere with originality. Especially nowadays, when we can see how things are made on the other end of the world. For example, in our restaurant we have tabbouleh from quinoa with langoustines (Fig. 2). Tabbouleh is an appetiser originally coming from Syria. It is usually made from bulgur or kus-kus. And I, a russian guy, decided to make tabbouleh from South American quinoa, feature it with Japanese shitaki mushrooms and mix everything with chopped langoustines. There is no such dish anywhere in the world, but the style of the dish, its genre, if you wish, was there way before me.
Another interesting example is the cake “Anna Pavlova”.2 It was named after a prima ballerina from Mariinsky theater, but the homeland of this dessert is still not decided between Australia and the New Zeeland.3 Essentially it is a meringue-based cake topped with berries and whipped cream. Now, imagine I make the cream with feijoa and the meringue from bay leaves, it will still be Pavlova. Or if instead of berries I add berry ice cream, it will also be Pavlova.
There are, however, examples of absolute crazy innovations. Albert Adriá,4 a chef of the restaurant El Bulli in Spain, who is known for his wondrous, surprising and delicious ideas, created transparent bread.5 Another example is the creation of Grant Achatz,6 the chef of three Michelin Star restaurant Alinea in Chicago. In that restaurant you could try an edible balloon made from green apple taffy filled with helium.
JUnQ: What is your creation process?
Artem Chudnenko: It starts with a defined task: say we need to develop our own miso pasta. First thing I do is the literature search to see what and how it has been done before. Then I try things out in the kitchen, which often do not work out the first time I try. For example, it took us half a year to work out the way to make the perfect miso pasta for our needs. At first, the taste was off, then it was too liquid. In fact, only recently I figured out a way how to make it of the right consistency. On top of it, it takes ca. 1.5 month for miso pasta to mature. So, it is very long until you can get a feedback.
The same story with bacon. As follows from our concept, buying bacon is not an option, also our kitchen equipment does not allow us to make bacon ourselves. So, I was to come up with a suitable substitution to use for breakfasts. In the meantime, I had a collaboration with another chef. The idea was to cook a steak as follows: let the meat soak in koji for four days, let it dry for one day, then fry and finally bake overnight. In the end, that “steak” turned out to be a wonderful pastrami-like meat. And that was it! Similar technology is now used in our restaurant to make a good substitution for bacon for our breakfasts.
Finally, we need to “compose” a dish using individually optimized ingredients. For this step, we keep track of everything what is going on by using some sort of run sheets stating the ratio of the components. For example, here is the recipe of a dish based on our crafted bacon and brioche:
1. beef breast – 50 gr
2. egg – 1 pc
3. brioche – 50 gr
4. avocado cream – 20 gr
5. hollandaise sauce – 20 gr
6. fresh chives – 2 gr
7. black pepper – 1 gr
I will strictly follow the numbers in this recipe and try what comes out of these numbers. I will then intuitively know whether it has too much or too little of something, so that I can adjust the numbers. Or if one of the ingredients is off, so that I will need to figure out what else would suit here. In the end, the routine goes like this: cook – try – adjust – try again.
Also, interesting and puzzling is that when I work out larger volumes, simple scaling up does not work. Say, if I need to prepare ten times the amount of the aforementioned bacon with brioche, if I just take ten times as many ingredients, it will taste differently as compared to the small test portion. And usually, it is the amount of salt that needs to be adjusted.
JUnQ: Your approach sounds quite scientific. Yet, in science there are parameters which can be measured compared to one another (e.g. voltage, energy, density) while in culinary there is taste which seems a subjective measure. How do you deal with it?
Artem Chudnenko: Let’s turn to music for an analogy, and let’s disentangle, say, the technical part (the performance) and the content (the notes, the rhythm). So, the latter, the selection of notes played is obvious (also personal): either you like it or not. And the technical part can be measured. A false note is false for everybody. Nobody perceives it as, say, a unique signature of an artist. Otherwise, newbies would all have these signatures. Then, if the rhythm is off, this can be measured too. Nobody likes to listen to a cacophony, even those without any training.
The same in culinary: there is somebody who does not like the combination of, say, cauliflower with tahini (that’s personal). Or let’s rather take a steak as an example. You can dislike the sauce that goes along with the steak: it can be too sour or too sweet. But the steak itself can be either good – you took good quality meet and cooked it as it was requested (rare/medium/well done), or bad – if you overcooked/undercooked it or simply didn’t do it the way your guest had asked for. And finally, the quality of the raw product is something that can be evaluated in our craft as well.
JUnQ: Related to music is another interesting question. It is well known that Ludwig van Beethoven suffered from deafness especially in the last decades of his life, but he continued to compose. Do you think there could be a chef without nose?
Artem Chudnenko: Absolutely. There is an interesting example of the aforementioned Grant Achatz. In 2007, he was diagnosed with tongue cancer and he lost the ability to taste anything at all. He had to trust his sous chefs for their sense of taste. He would write everything down what they were describing, then tell them what to change and then over again. I cannot imagine how weird it is for a chef to not discern any flavour at all. Luckily, he is fine and cancer-free now.
JUnQ: You mentioned that intuition helps you compose, how do you develop an intuition? Do you just eat a lot?
Artem Chudnenko: I think I eat a lot. As in any other case, the intuition in the kitchen is developed by constantly trying things out. When we are kids, we are naive, but as we grow older and mature, we gain experience and learn based on this empirical knowledge. Say, you once walked on the ice, slipped and broke your arm, and next time you know that you should not do it the same way again. At some point you already have enough experience to extrapolate it to alike situations and anticipate the outcome.
Similarly in food, but here, these basic categories are flavours or textures: sweet, salty, soft, crunchy, puree-like etc. You try mixing and learn that generally sweet and sour works well together. Or that having something crunchy in a dish almost always feels good. Quite often I go to other restaurants and I try out new combinations in my kitchen too. Sometimes I happen to have two random things on my spoon. And when I try, I realize they turn out to combine pretty well. I remember this combination, so that in the future my intuition strikes me to employ this combination in a dish.
For example, once I was in the restaurant “Kagges” in Stockholm where I tried baked cabbage with red caviar and sour cream. This is in my experience a very standard mix. But that sour cream was seasoned with lavender, which was an unexpectedly fine combination. Then I realized that this kind of flower-ish flavour, even perfume-like, can go very well with caviar. It appeared handy, when for the New Year in “Alice”, we were to make pancake tartlets with caviar. Obviously, caviar should go with butter and the butter, in turn, needs some seasoning. I remembered the positive experience and so I was looking for something flowery to add. It turned out that the zest of sour lemons, that we used for another dish, yielded exactly this perfume-ish flavour I needed.
JUnQ: Does cooking need everyday practice and refinement of the skills?
Artem Chudnenko: Absolutely. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, that is why I still can control the cooking process perfectly. I know, there are chefs who indulge in creating new dishes and may lose some basic cooking skills, like, for example, when it comes to chopping something quickly etc. I, on the other hand, enjoy the time spent in the kitchen very much, and I am absolutely into frying, chopping etc. So everyday practice in cooking is important too. But the creation skill also needs practice. Generally, I try to work out 2-3 dishes a week, of which 1-2 may end up on the menu. Thus, we monthly have 1-2 new items on the menu.
JUnQ: In one of his interviews, Alain Ducasse said that being a great cook is 95 percent hard work and five percent talent, do you agree? Is there anything else one needs?
Artem Chudnenko: Alex Atala, a Brazilian chef, once said that the most important thing is to accept the routine. It is in fact true that every step in a career of a chef is more or less routine. When you just come to work in the kitchen you are given absolutely routinely stuff to do, like a robot. When I started, I was to cut cabbage all days long, or peal gazillions of potatoes, not even cooking it. Then you get promoted to actually cooking but it is again the same things over and over again. One day you cook puree and the other day you cook another kind of puree, and on the third day it is again the first puree. And when you become a chef, you also follow a routine but of a different kind. More poetic, perhaps, and what, I think, applies to every kind of craft is expressed perfectly in the words by Mike Sheenoda (Linkin Park):
“This is ten percent luck, twenty percent skill
Fifteen percent concentrated power of will
Five percent pleasure, fifty percent pain”
JUnQ: Thank you very much for the interview!
— Mariia Filianina
|H. Leach, The Pavlova Story: A Slice of New Zealand’s Culinary History, 2008, Otago University Press.