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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tito's Chef Tells Tasty Life Story

Sava Vukoev is a man who takes his food seriously.


The author of a doctoral thesis called "The Socio-Cultural Dimensions of Culinary Gastronomics" while at the five-star Lausanne Gastronomic Academy, the Belgrade native went on to work as Marshal Tito's personal cook for 13 years. Now based in Moscow, Vukoev is working on a culinary autobiography, expressed not in print, but in food.


"I have cooked for over 300 world leaders and stars," said Vukoev, 50, who has catered for Leonid Brezhnev, Queen Elizabeth II, Marlon Brando, Madonna, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Jackie Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Emperor Haile Selassie, Richard Nixon, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, and Mikhail Gorbachev, to name a few. "For each one I invented a different, original dish, specially for them."


Now head chef and manager of the Sava restaurant in the Russian Chamber of Commerce's swish new business center, Vukoev has produced an extensive "star menu," which offers diners the opportunity to sample dishes eaten by the great.


"When Joseph Broz Tito used to entertain important guests, he would approve the menus I drew up with the head of protocol," said Vukoev. "We would make sure that we didn't serve beef to Indira Gandhi or anything like that."


Vukoev's most troublesome guest was PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who posted a bodyguard to watch him as he cooked.


"The bodyguard insisted that I use a brand-new cutting board to chop Arafat's fruit, vegetables and cheese," said Vukoev. "He was afraid that an old board might have been used to cut pork."


Marshal Tito was far easier to please, recalled Vukoev, since his tastes, despite diabetes in later life, were firmly rooted in peasant Yugoslavian cuisine. Dumplings, Dalmatian shrimp, roast piglet and back bacon with more fat than meat were the Marshal's staples; only when state visitors arrived did Vukoev get to exercise his culinary imagination.


Valery Giscard d'Estaing, a culinary purist, approved of one of Vukoev's extravagant creations -- roast quails in nests of filigreed potatoes, complete with tiny speckled eggs. The French president made his own cook a member of the Legion d'Honneur, France's highest honor, and joked that he would have done so for Vukoev had he been French.


At the other end of the scale, Mother Teresa was fed a suitably humble but nourishing asparagus vinaigrette with minced eggplant. The Queen of Nepal, as befitted her status as one of the world's more exotic rulers, had a dish of roast terrapin.


"Cooking is a philosophy, an art and a science, all at once," said Vukoev, a graduate and later a professor at the Belgrade cookery school. He claims to have 4,000 recipes in his head, most of which he invented himself. He plans ultimately to put all his celebrity recipes down in a book, complete with photographs of the personages who inspired each dish (which he jokingly wants to call "Who I Could Have Poisoned But Didn't").


The Sava restaurant caters to Russia's biznesmeni, not renowned, Vukoev admits, for their culinary discernment. The restaurant is decorated with fish tanks containing piranhas, and an adjacent Bond-like fitness club offers opportunities for post-prandial workouts. In his three years in Moscow, Vukoev has become a sort of culinary evangelist, educating Russians about how food ought to taste.


But Moscow is paradise compared to where he might have ended up. Had it not been for the war in Yugoslavia, Vukoev would have taken up a three-year contract to manage the Yugoslav-built Ghengis Khan Intercontinental, Ulan Bator, Mongolia.


Vukoev's wife is also a cook, and his daughter is following in her parents' footsteps. But though Vukoev is king in his own shining kitchen at the Sava, at home his wife usually wields the spatula.


"She always cooks at home," explained Vukoev. "Except when someone important comes round."