Chain reaction: meet the new generation of Moscow food entrepreneurs

Chain reaction: meet the new generation of Moscow food entrepreneurs

For a growing number of young Muscovites, the previous penchant for showy restaurants is out. Now, it's all about burgers and curries dished up at food stalls, trucks and hole-in-the-wall type joints

5 September 2013

Eating out is a big business. Nowhere more so than Moscow, where a growing middle class means more disposable income to spend on food. Responding to the growing appetite for dining out is a new crop of food entrepreneurs, who, having travelled abroad to some of the world's finest gastronomic capitals, have returned, fizzing with ideas. Anna Nikulina, co-founder of Curry Me, a pop-up food stall specialising in Thai curry, is just one of the latest to join the pack. Until this May, Nikulina, 27, worked in advertising sales for Look At Media, owners of a raft of hipster webzines. For years, she had watched as Look At Media's online publications reviewed Moscow's latest culinary hotspots; now she wanted a piece of the action.

A trip to London reaffirmed her new vocation. “London was very inspiring,” she says. “I loved that you live in a certain area and you have a cafe where you always go for coffee or somewhere you always go for your Sunday roast.” Unlike London, where most neighbourhoods pride themselves in having a Kiwi-run cafe, an award-winning gastropub or some other epicurean eatery, Moscow’s best dining spots are sprinkled across the city. Unless you happen to live or work near them, they’re destination restaurants.

“People are tired of selling air. They want more from their lives. They want to create something and work for themselves”

Nikulina is typical of the dozens of new food entrepreneurs in search of more fulfilling careers than the traditional 9 to 5 job. “People are tired of selling air,” she says. “They want more from their lives. They want to create something and work for themselves.” Curry Me is one of three projects nurtured by Accelerator 2.0, an incubator turned consultancy launched in June by Anastasia Kolesnikova, a freelance marketing consultant. The other two ventures currently under its care are Crabs Are Coming, a pop-up serving a variety of crab-stuffed rice, noodle and wrap dishes, and Mr Laflafel, a kosher food delivery service. Both have opened in the last 12 months. Since early summer, the incubator has paired the start-ups with mentors from the city’s most established eateries, including Russian restaurant Mari Vanna and Asian-inspired cafe Wokker. Kolesnikova attributes the rise in food entrepreneurship to part of a global trend. “Plus,” she adds, “there’s a lack of good places to eat in Moscow.”

Nikulina’s decision to focus on Thai curry was a pragmatic one: with no cheffing experience behind her, she figured that a single-dish food enterprise would be easier to launch and to promote. She’s not alone. In the past year, a spate of restaurants, among them Pie Point, Meatball Company, The Burger Brothers and Durum Durum — purveyors of a mean shawarma — have all set up shop with the philosophy that less is definitely more. As the names indicate, the entrepreneurs behind these ventures are snubbing the trend for multi-cuisine fare in favour of whittled down menus that feature only a handful of items — often variations on the same dish. What’s more, this new generation is swapping the palatial restaurants of yesteryear — the favoured stomping grounds for the city’s moneyed elite — for hole-in-the-wall type joints, food trucks and street food stalls.

The new trend isn’t about hand-crafting artisanal products such as bacon jam or nettle-infused goats cheese wrapped in lifestyle-oriented packaging. Nor is it about a new generation of aspiring chefs or even the kind of experimentation that takes place in other culinary capitals around the world. Although not impossible, it’s unlikely that Moscow will be home to such food crazes as the cronut or the ramen burger any time soon. Sure, there’s an enthusiasm for food involved but, at heart, it’s about running a business that, thanks to the new voguishness of street food, has a decided cachet.

Put simply, it’s about bringing to Moscow what those of us who live in other metropolises take for granted: decent, cheap grub. But more than that, it’s about decent, cheap western-style grub. Whether a boutique or a bar, the fetishisation of New York culture, and to a lesser extent that of London, has shaped any number of new businesses that have opened in Moscow in recent years. The same can be said of restaurants. As elsewhere in the world, what you choose to eat, whether consciously or otherwise, speaks volumes about who you are. In general, habitues of these new places are mostly young, well-educated individuals who work in the creative industries. They’re well-travelled and now want a slice of what they’ve experienced abroad at home. “We’re more western than eastern,” says Danila Antonovskiy, 32, one of the founders of the newly opened Meatball Company.

“If you look back five years ago it was cool to have a corporate career. But that’s not cool anymore. Now it’s cool to do something you really enjoy”

Antonovskiy and the rest of the Meatball team fit this trend perfectly. Ask him why they settled on meatballs and he replies, “For no specific reason.” He explains that the four-person team, which in 2011 set up Brooklyn-style barbershop Chop Chop, generated a number of food concepts based on places they’d visited in New York. Since June, the bite-sized restaurant in north Moscow has been dishing up pork, chicken or turkey meatballs plus a side for 300 roubles (£6) a pop, a bargain given that Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Now, with one of their ideas checked off the list, they’re already planning their next food venture: a Mexican restaurant. “If you look back five years ago it was cool to have a corporate career,” says Antonovskiy. “But that’s not cool anymore. Now it’s cool to do something you really enjoy.”

The same month, Doodles, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it noodle joint in Chistye Prudy, north-east Moscow, opened its doors. Between them, Yevgeny and Galina Denisov, the husband-and-wife team behind the venture, had worked in real estate, banking, publishing and fashion before turning to food. Inspiration came from the noodle shops in Hong Kong and of course, New York. “Though Moscow is big there aren’t very many places to eat healthy, cheap, fast food,” says Denisov. “It’s either expensive or fast food like McDonald’s.” As we talk, Denisova brings me a vegetable stir-fry with buckwheat noodles and a glass of sea buckthorn juice laced with honey and goji berries. It hits the spot: light and healthful.

Although a recent addition to the restaurant scene, it’s already wildly popular thanks in part to a review in The Village, a local culture website and one of the publications Nikulina previously sold advertising for. When I visit Doodles, a young woman who once lived in China gives her stamp of approval by returning for the second day in a row. Next to me is the owner of Palazzo Ducale, an eye-wateringly expensive Italian restaurant whose ostentatious interior design is based on the Doge’s Palace in Venice. It’s a marked contrast to Doodles with its bench-and-bar stool seating and biodegradable, cornstarch tableware.

The financial case for opening up a restaurant in Moscow is also a solid one. “There’s a shortage of places,” says Denisov. “There are only around 5,000 restaurants but for a population of 20 million, we should have more than 50,000.” In May, RIA Novosti, the state-backed news agency, reported that spending on food at restaurants had increased sixfold in the last decade with around 30% of Muscovites eating out regularly. “Analysts predict that spending will be at least 10 times bigger by 2025,” says Alexei Nemeryuk, head of the Moscow government department of trade and services.

“Twenty years ago a restaurant had to be an architectural or design landmark. The reason you went wasn’t for the food but to socialise. The changes today mean you can open a place with glass not crystal cups”

It wasn’t always this way. When it comes to dining out, Moscow has historically had a pretty bad reputation. During the Soviet Union, restaurants were the province of apparatchiks or members of trade organisations such as the Union of Writers. Back then, the emphasis was on nutrition, not creativity or taste, an ideology that lasted for 70-odd years and is best captured in the Book of Tasty and Healthy Food: Iconic Cookbook of the Soviet Union, first published in 1939. About two inches thick, the propagandistic book was curated by Anastas Mikoyan, the People’s Commissar of the Food Industry of the USSR. In addition to extolling the successes of the food industry, it contained information about the value of nutrition and home-cooking and recipes that were highly unrealistic given the frequent food shortages.

Then came the Nineties, the era of the oligarch, when restaurants were characterised by style over substance. According to food critic Jay Rayner, these were the days of the gilded restaurant where armed security men stood guard outside and $500 tips were the norm. Nor was the Russian penchant for glitter and gold shortlived: in 2005, Turandot opened its doors to Moscow’s high society — it had cost $55m to build. “No one cares about the food,” writes Rayner in his book The Man Who Ate the World. “Just as in Soviet times, they only care that they are part of an elite who can visit them.”

In those days, says Alexei Zimin, a food critic and founder of Ragout restaurant in Moscow, the choice was severely limited: diners could either choose between plush, high-end restaurants or “small and dirty ethnic places” on the outskirts of the capital. “Twenty years ago a restaurant had to be an architectural or design landmark,” he says. “The reason you went wasn’t for the food but to socialise. The changes today mean you can open a place with glass, not crystal, cups.” Embracing this ethos, food stalls such as Curry Me are setting up at flea markets and other pop-up events until they find permanent homes.

Given the high cost of living in Moscow, Nikulina says that food entrepreneurs are crippled, not by red tape as one might suspect, but by exorbitant rents in the centre. For now she has the backing of her mentors at Accelerator 2.0 until she finds a property suitable for a Curry Me cafe. Since launching the incubator this summer, demand has been so high that founder Kolesnikova has broadened the organisation’s remit by offering consulting services rather than just focusing on a handful of start-ups. “It's a big experiment,” she says. “The main goal is to help people open cooler places in Moscow. We don't have money for start-ups but we give them a fishing rod and teach them how to fish.”

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