— What gave you the idea of visiting Moscow?
— I have wanted to come here since I was a child. My grandfather was born in Russia, in the Caucasus, but he left for Greece in 1922. I am familiar with Russian culture: I especially like your poetry. And so, finally, this year, in April, on the day before Easter, I turned up in Moscow by invitation of the owner of the Greek restaurant “Molon Lave”, Alexey Karolidis. Since Greek and Russian orthodox Easter fall on the same dates, the restaurant was putting on a big holiday celebration. I cooked the traditional Greek Easter menu: lamb and kokoretsi (grilled lamb’s offal), and chicken magiritsa soup.
— What surprised you most of all about Russia?
— I was very pleasantly surprised by the way in which people received me. Russians are very well disposed towards Greek people: I hadn’t expected that. I went to the Easter Service at the Church of All Saints in Kulishki. There, in that church, I had my first ever taste of Russian paskha. It’s very good. I was happy to come back here again as soon as that summer. This time to take part in the Moscow gastronomic festivals “O, da! Eda!” (“Oh, yes! That’s food”) and “Taste of Moscow”, where I was giving masterclasses. The sights in Moscow left the very best impressions on me. We wandered around the Kremlin, Red Square, the Luzhniki; went around on the metro. The only downside was that I don’t know Russian, so I wasn’t able to speak freely to the people here. But what I liked most of all in Russia were the ladies! What can I say? I always speak the truth. I cannot tell a lie.
— Filistor, you travel around the world a lot. You have something to compare it with. In your view, is Moscow like any other world capitals at all? Are Russians and Greeks kindred spirits?
— I can say that Moscow reminds me of New York, especially in the evenings. Both here, and over there, there is the same boisterous nightlife. The same traffic jams. But I wouldn’t change Russia into any other country. Russians, however, are not like Greeks at all. We are very different. Although, there are a large number of Greek words in the Russian language. We do share the same faith, and that brings us closer together.
— What are your impressions of Russian establishments like coffeehouses, cafes, and restaurants?
— Other than “Molon Lave”, I have been to the restaurants “Pushkin” and “Turandot”. I have to admit, the service and food there are excellent. I tried the borscht and pirozhki. The chicken which I was served was also very refined in its taste.
— How well qualified would you say the staff in Russian restaurants are?
— I can only judge by the work in our Greek restaurant. The local staff are great: the try their best to reproduce the dishes of Greek cuisine, the traditions of Hellenic cuisine. The thing about the restaurant business in Moscow is that here there are long distances involved. Our colleagues have to spend a long time getting to work; people get tired. Therefore, they have a lot of days off; a lot more than in Greece. In Greece, due to the protracted crisis, people are happy to have work, so the staff work seven days a week.
Another thing I noticed is that Moscow chefs work more slowly than Greek ones; there are more relaxed. I would advise restaurant owners to be a little firmer with them if they want everything to be perfect. Although, amongst the Russian head chefs, there are genuine professionals in their field too.
— Is there a particularly “Russian style” of interaction in restaurants?
— In Russia, it is not the done thing to chat to the waiters. Such a casual attitude doesn’t go down very well. In Greece, it is completely different. The waiter considers it his duty to lavish attention upon the guests. Nobody would be surprised if he pulls up a chair next to them, recommends what to choose, explains how a dish is prepared. The main reason many people go to a certain restaurant is because they are impressed by the waiter and like the level of service. But in Russia, a guest may not like such treatment and so they won’t go back there. We endeavour not to infringe upon the rules of hospitality as they are in your country.
— What is your take on the opportunities and prospects in the restaurant trade in Russia? Is it worth it for the foreigner to open one here?
— During the economic upturn in Russia of the last few years, there was a trend in the restaurant business for complicated technology along the lines of molecular gastronomy. It looks good, but I don’t think that there is a future for it. In difficult times, the best prospects are for those who don’t spend money just for the sake of effect. Flashiness and glamour: their time has gone. The way I see it, for an establishment to enjoy popularity, it is not at all obligatory to serve a dish ingeniously arranged as if for a photo shoot. The main thing is not the form but the content. It should taste good! And for that you shouldn’t overcomplicate the dishes. A restaurant should have its own style, and a warm and welcoming atmosphere. The restaurants succeeding now are the ones which count on quality and don’t hoick their prices. In Moscow, there are lots of restaurants, Russians know a thing or two about food. Opening a new establishment is worth it if you can come up with an original idea.
— What would you say about the choice and quality of Russian food? When planning to open a restaurant business in Russia, can the foreigner count on supplies from local producers, or should they be prepared to order food from abroad?
— The traditional motto of every Greek restaurant is “everything the freshest”, so the quality of ingredients is something to which we pay the very closest of attention. It is possible to use local ingredients if you don’t cut costs and pay for quality, even if that means making a little less money. For example, most of our ingredients are produced in Russia with the exceptions being fish, oil and spices. Imported food is more expensive anyway, which means that the price of the dishes will be higher. But you cannot manage without supplies from abroad. Some of the ingredients can’t be replaced with local ones because there are no equivalents. Even in Greece, ingredients in various parts of the country vary in taste: they have their good points and their bad points. Incidentally, you can buy genuine Greek ingredients in Moscow; you don’t have to order them yourself from Greece. I have already met one such supplier. He has his office here and a chain of shops. If I manage to stay on in Russia a little longer, I want to cook dishes with purely Russian ingredients: especially buckwheat [“Greek grain”]. By the way, despite the name, we hardly ever eat this in Greece. We don’t use it in any traditional dishes.
— What do you think about the food sanctions introduced by Russia limiting the imports from EU countries?
— I’ve heard that they are talking about maybe lifting sanctions from some countries which enjoy good relations with Russia: Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary. I hope that will be the case. It will be of benefit to all of us. Greece has something to offer the Russian consumer. It produces 140 varieties of cheese alone. Feta, which is popular in Russia, is but one of them. Many types are a lot tastier than the Italian and Spanish cheeses which are heavily marketed in Russia. But Greeks don’t put as much effort into promoting their food. Recently I have taken part in dozens of different international exhibitions devoted to the restaurant trade and foods, where I have tried to introduce people in other countries to Greek cheeses.
— The economic crisis in Russia, like the world over, is reducing people’s buying power. They are economizing; visits to restaurants and cafes are going down. How is the food industry reacting to this? Have there been any changes in the approach to the business?
— It is logical that the crisis has led to a drop in trade for restaurants. People’s priorities are the very basics, and not everyone has the money to spend enjoying themselves. In Greece, many good establishments have closed down due to a lack of customers and simply not having the means to pay their staff. I don’t like the growing trend of cutting costs on the quality of ingredients for the sake of lowering prices. Instead of proper meals, people are eating more and more unhealthy fast food.
— Cooking now in Moscow has become a fashionable hobby. There are cookery shows, master classes, festivals all over the place. Does the same kind of thing happen in other countries?
— Yes, it is popular in many places. A certain friend of mine, a renowned chef, runs such courses in the US. If I stay in Russia for a while, I would also like to conduct similar master classes for those who want to learn how to cook Greek food. For me, Greek cuisine is a celebration, a form of cultural expression, a passion which is impossible to resist, and I would be happy to help make it popular in Russia.
— Filistor, in your view is it straightforward for a foreigner to live and work in Russia? Would you recommend running a business here to your colleagues?
— I haven’t noticed any serious obstacles to the running and developing of a foreign-owned business in Russia. I think that whoever has started a business in your country should count themselves lucky. That said, in Moscow, a nice place to live in costs an awful lot of money. Of course, everything here works differently, and you first need to learn the local ins-and-outs. Find out how the laws operate. Build relationships with government officials, suppliers, customers. Here public relations are hugely important. If you compare with Europe, the business infrastructure is completely different. Due to the long distances, you have to factor in the logistics of food supplies. But the restaurant market in Moscow is very big, and there is room in it for everyone.