Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chefs Dish Up Slavic-Style Feast

"Her hands are made of gold, just look," said writer Vladimir Kovchenkov, pointing at an intricate baked bread basket full of chocolate mushrooms set in the midst of a table groaning with pirogi, rasstegai, kulebyaki and real Russian kvas.

The author of the confection, dessert chef Irina Yurasova, stood blushing modestly next to her masterpiece. She, together with chefs from 30 Moscow restaurants, competed Thursday afternoon for electric samovars, French toasters and Japanese televisions in Moscow's Festival of Culinary Arts of the Central District. It was all part of the city's ever-intensifying 850th birthday celebration.

Held in a cavernous hall at the giant Rossia Hotel, the event brought together a motley collection of chefs from an eclectic group of restaurants ranging from Soviet-era hotel standbys like the Praga and the Moskva to new foreign-style eateries such as Dolce Vita and Lili Wong. What unified them all was their preparation of Russian food, whether mouthwatering, caviar-filled bliny, or, as in the case of the fancy Silver Century, a big baked cabbage, brown and not looking very appetizing.

Surprisingly, some of the older restaurants now going through tough financial times outshone their newer competitors. The chefs from the American Bar and Grill, for example, presented a big piece of unidentifiable meat roughly the size of two rugby balls and surrounded by cooked mushrooms and garlic. The Officers' Union Cafeteria, a government entity, brought a stunningly imaginative dough slipper full of cranberries.

"It's amazing that there is still such a high level of cooking at my restaurants," said Larisa Korzhneva, the head of the local State Trading Inspection who oversees state-run restaurants. "This holiday proves that we still have real masters devoted to their profession."

After 1 1/2 hours of looking at 30 tables of food, a jury of 10 city bureaucrats with no connection to cooking announced the winners of the festival. The prize structure was designed to give every contestant something and down play competition. When the top prizes -- four OKI television sets -- were announced, no one paid much attention, they were too busy eating from paper and plastic plates.

"To me the most important [thing] is not the result of the competition but the fact that I take part in it," said Yury Gonyashin, the Ambassador restaurant's chef who made a stuffed pig decorated with pickles and mushrooms alongside a stuffed goose complete with feathers, wings and head.

In recent years, Moscow as a whole has been the scene of a culinary invasion of foreign fast food and haute cuisine. Although Thursday's competition was a reminder that Russian cooking is alive, there were a few interlopers, such as American Bar and Grill's Buffalo wings.

The festival was a time to feel proud about Russian -- even Soviet -- cooking accomplishments. Living proof could be found behind the Praga restaurant's table in the form of Vladimir Guralnik, the chief confectionery chef and, more importantly, the inventor of Ptichye Moloko, or Bird's Milk, the cake eaten from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok.

Modestly, in soft tones, Guralnik, talked about the invention of the Bird's Milk cake in 1978 and his 41-year career at the Praga restaurant. Judging from the half-meter-high, chocolate-domed cake in the shape of the Christ the Savior Cathedral, Guralnik hasn't lost his touch.

Russian cooking has come a long way since those primitive days on the banks of the Moskva River 850 years ago. Still, that culinary history is a source of inspiration for some contemporary chefs.

"I like to use old forgotten recipes of baking," said Yurasova, a 23-year veteran of the Moskva Hotel's restaurant. "Our ancestors were very smart. They added some vegetables to dough. And, that made bread more tasty and less fattening."