Cooking Up a Storm

Ginza Project chef Alexander Belkovich’s philosophy is that delectable dishes do not necessarily require exotic ingredients.

When Alexander Belkovich, brand chef for Ginza Project restaurants in St. Petersburg, travels to another town or city, whether for business or on holiday, he goes straight to the local market. That is how he starts getting to know any new place. When the 26-year-old visits his friends' dachas, he makes a beeline for the blackcurrant bushes to wolf down what is growing there. In short, Belkovich experiences life through his tastebuds.

Young, blond, muscular, curious and laid-back, Belkovich bears a striking resemblance to Britain's most popular chef, Jamie Oliver, the host of hugely popular TV shows and author of bestselling cookery books. A glance at the Russian chef's first cookbook, published this spring, reveals that the two chefs share a philosophy of choosing simple and easily accessible ingredients: "Cooking is as simple as lacing up your trainers: you cannot be incapable of doing it," says Belkovich, whose recipe for chicken cutlets with gooseberry sauce has made him highly popular with local gourmands.

"I can just sense what sort of dish is likely to be popular," says Belkovich. This bold statement may sound a little immodest, but the fully booked restaurants of the Ginza Project group — which include Francesco, Mansarda, Terrassa, Tsar and Moskva — prove him right.

Belkovich's first experiments in the field of gastronomy date back to his early teens: His sausage sandwiches made with rye bread were a hit with his local swimming team in his home town of Severodvinsk in the Arkhangelsk Oblast.

The chef's favorite ingredients include lemon, honey and northern berries such as cranberry, cloudberry and seaberry.

"The cloudberry has a very particular flavor — I love it and I add it to whatever I can, from soups to sorbets," Belkovich said. "As for my personal taste in food, I still stick to what I loved when I was a child. We had a house in the forest near Arkhangelsk, and we grew potatoes in the garden. We kept them in the basement, and in the autumn, when the first frosts came, they tasted beautiful; it was a very special, slightly sweet flavor."

If Jamie Oliver realized that what he really wanted to do in life was cook when making a salmon sandwich for his friend who had been surviving on chips and cookies, Belkovich admits that the key to his decision was his voracious appetite.

"I have always loved eating, to an almost comical extent: I remember as a child going to visit friends and thinking on my way there, 'Hmm, what are they going to feed us?'" Belkovich laughs.

A seasoned traveler, Belkovich often brings ideas for new dishes home from his trips and incorporates them into the menu, albeit with his own twist.

"Sometimes, however, I can immediately see that however much I was impressed by a dish, there is no chance of bringing to Russia, as it is either too exotic or requires ingredients that won't be available locally," he said. "For example, I once visited the kitchens of the famous New York restaurant Buddakan, where a chef showed me how they make turtle soup. They use one particular breed of turtles delivered fresh to the spot, and serve the dish with a shot of rice vodka mixed with turtle blood and a shot of vodka blended with turtle bile. The soup is a gastronomic delicacy, but its main ingredient is simply not available to me in Russia."

As the chef points out, compared to Western Europe, the range of cooking ingredients in Russia is very limited, which does not encourage people to show much interest in culinary experiments.

"How can your average Russian be adventurous if even bacon can only be found in about every tenth shop?" Belkovich said. His book aims to spark ordinary people's interest in cooking by showing that even the most basic — and, most importantly, freely available — products can be used to create a mouthwatering dish.

Belkovich's circle of clientele is broad enough to include members of royal families and heads of states. In February, Mansarda restaurant hosted a lunch for President Dmitry Medvedev and Juan Carlos I of Spain.

"We did not close the restaurant for ordinary customers that day, and absolutely anyone could come in and have a meal," Belkovich said. "In fact, there was no extra super security regime. I can tell you that the security required sometimes for a member of the local parliament creates far more hassle than the presidential security requirements.

"Of course, the menu was agreed in advance. On the day of the president's lunch, we had a visit from the security services. A nice, cheerful-looking bloke entered the kitchen, gave us a bottle of vodka and told us to get another one to wipe all the kitchenware with. And then he said, 'Right, guys, I'm getting a taste of everything you're going to put on the table — in sample portions and before you serve it'."

White Nights June 2011
White Nights June 2011
The guide White Nights has an exciting article about famous St. Petersburg parks, recommends the best restaurants of the city, and also publishes a city map with useful information about places to eat and famous landmarks.
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