It's All About the Food, Says Celebrity Chef

For MT
Frenchman David Desseaux makes a mean sauce, but his real claim to fame is that he is one of post-Soviet Moscow's very first celebrity chefs.
Head chef at French restaurant Nostalgie, Desseaux's budding fame is more than just the natural outgrowth of the fact that, in today's capital, eating good food is as essential for the beau monde as wearing the right clothes or driving the right car.
The Frenchman's ready smile and unique personal style -- until recently, his goatee was dyed blond to match his spiky tresses -- have won him the hearts of studio audiences on NTV's popular Saturday-morning cook-off show, "Kulinarny Poyedinok," to which he has returned as a contestant several times. Desseaux also appeared last year in a television commercial for Camay bath products, which is still in rotation on several channels. Additionally, he was no stranger to Moscow when he accepted his position at Nostalgie 18 months ago: He had already spent several years at Potel & Chabot catering in the 1990s.
But if the television appearances imply that the 34-year-old is pursuing a second career in show business, Desseaux said that they are merely distractions from his true calling: food.

Q:You first accepted work in Moscow in 1993. Had you been interested in Russia before you took that job?
A: No, never. Not at all. I never spoke Russian, but I speak it now, of course.

Q:How long do you plan to remain here?
A: I don't know. Maybe I can tell you tomorrow, or in two years, or in five. I don't know -- because I'm like that. When I decide to, I leave. Maybe tomorrow morning, I'll decide I'm going to leave. I don't know. I'm free and I want to be free. If I want to go somewhere, I don't have to ask anybody. I just take my clothes and "bye-bye."

Q:Why did Nostalgie bring you in as head chef?
A: They wanted to change the kitchen, to change everything. The kitchen was serving Russian food. I've changed it -- with a French touch. But it isn't another person's French cuisine. It's French cuisine, plus a little bit of Russian style, plus a little bit of all-around-the-world.

We try to make special food for Russian people because, you know, the Russian people are different than the French. They can understand some different products. They want, you know, this kind of product, a French product [prepared] in the Russian style. ... [Russian style is] bigger.

Russians really enjoy the different sauces. And the sauces are the basis of French cooking.

Q:Do you have a signature sauce?
A: It's a special sauce with chicken stock, morels, duck liver and truffles. You could call it "chicken sauce." It's very expensive.

Q:Do you have a favorite dish?
A: I like to cook fish, and I like to eat duck liver, too. Here [at Nostalgie], I think we have some of the best duck liver in Moscow. I mean the quality. It's very expensive, but it's the best. It costs $32 per kilogram. Even more, sometimes. It depends.

Q:How does your restaurant compare to the city's other French restaurants?
A: I don't know. Maybe some people like how I cook, some people like the design of the restaurant and some people like the music. Also, we have one of the best wine cellars in Moscow.

Q:Are you responsible for the wine cellar?
A: No, but I confer with the sommelier about wine, and with patrons.

The wine in our cellar used to be very, very expensive [before I became head chef], but now the prices are 25 percent less than they were a year ago. I wanted that because sometimes people are afraid about the price. Now, wine you could buy last year for $500 a bottle is $400, or something like that. It's very attractive for the client. But we have less expensive bottles too, wines for $60 or $70. The highest price is $15,000. We sell a lot of Haut-Brion, an '89 that sells for $1,400.

Q:Talk a bit about your television appearances.
A: I've appeared on television just for fun. I've been on "Kulinarny Poyedinok" five, maybe six times. I don't remember. I lost once because this cook brought in a lot of people. But, you know, it's a kind of joke there. It's not really serious.

Q:How do you explain your winning streak on the show (where audience support determines a winner)?
A: Maybe it's because I'm crazy. I like to play with the public. I like to play with the people on the show. There, I feel like a natural, like in my life. For me, it's a game. You know, it's like being 15 years old and playing with friend who knows how to cook.

Q:Are you usually friendly with the show's other competing chefs?
A: Most of the time, yes. But they [the show's producers] ask me "Do you want to play with this guy?" Why not? I'm open. Sometimes they prefer to put a Frenchman, an American or maybe an Italian together. They decide. But, of course, I prefer to play with my friends, because it's easier to make jokes and play.

Q:How large is the expat chef community today?
A: It's very small right now. In 1997, we opened a French chefs' club, but it doesn't really exist anymore. We're just maybe 10 guys now, still meeting every week, having a drink, joking about business.

Q:Talk a bit about the commercial.
A: They called me up and said "Do you want to be on TV?" I said "Why not?" They needed a French guy to be crazy. That's all.

Q:So you're not trying to launch a career in show business?
A: No, I'm just a chef. Of course, if someone proposes that I make a movie in the kitchen, a special movie with a chef, about my work, I'll agree.

Q:How did you become interested in cooking?
A: I was very young. I used to watch my mother and grandmother cook. They taught me what is tasty, how to mix ingredients. I really started to like using fresh ingredients. When I was 14, I decided to go to culinary school, and I was there four years, three years in the kitchen and one year in desserts. After that, I started to work. ... In 1987, I won first place in a French dessert championship. But dessert isn't my specialty now. I prefer to work in the kitchen.

Q:Do you miss working in France?
A: Of course, but what's interesting in Moscow is that it's something new. Before, it was very difficult to work among Russian chefs, but now some of them are very interesting about it. Here, I feel like not only a chef, but like a teacher as well.