— How did you happen to come to Russia?
— In 2006 I was working in London. A friend rang me and invited me on behalf of the Russian restaurateur Arkady Novikov to work for him in Moscow. The newly-opened “Nedalni Vostok” restaurant needed an experienced consultant.
— What were your first impressions of Russia?
— I was expecting it to be cold, but I didn’t think there could be such frosts in mid-autumn. But the warm-heartedness of Russians compensated for the cold weather. I liked Moscow at once. A spirit of freedom and enterprise reigns here. And I was amazed at how much Russians spent in local restaurants. Nowhere else in the world do they fork out such impressive amounts for dinner or lunch.
— Did any problems occur in opening the Nedalni Vostok?
— Everything is always difficult at first. It was an ambitious idea. The Nedalni Vostok was to embody all that was most fashionable and popular, meaning in the most famous restaurants of Europe, America, Asia and Australia. I was only contracted to work for three months, but this was extended and I became head chef. There were quite a lot of difficulties. Firstly, there was an insufficient quantity of high-quality produce, and that which was of excellent quality was wildly expensive. Secondly, there were not enough specialists. All the cooks were quite elderly, but I was looking for young people, thinking of the future. No-one in the kitchen had much experience, not more than a year or two. And no-one spoke English, and I didn’t know Russian.
Russian people are very strong, so accordingly I had to be even stronger. I must have some talent for teaching, many of those with whom I started have become head chefs.
— They say chefs take a lot of food from the kitchen in bags. Did you come across this?
— No. We had strict security measures in the restaurant, checking both on the expensive crockery and on the chefs.
— Where did you go for your produce?
— We bought all over the world. For example, tuna was brought from China, Japan and America. I selected the very best fish. The produce was really fresh, aircraft flew it in to us every day.
— Who were your customers?
— The Nedalni Vostok was considered the No. 1 restaurant, only very wealthy people came there. The prices were over the top. But if you are offered an exclusive dish, it means it’s going to cost you. The idea was that the rich like to be surrounded by people as wealthy as they are. I suggested offering inexpensive but tasty dishes, such as chicken cooked in the Asian or French style. A real treat! But they objected: “We didn’t come to the Nedalni Vostok to eat chicken! We want to try exotic dishes!”
On occasion, we would serve a whole tuna, weighing around 200 kilograms. It took two waiters a lot of effort to wheel it in. And all so that our exalted customers could cut off the tastiest bits near the head, where the meat is full of fat. People didn’t think about the cost when enjoying such delicacies.
The first 12 months of my time in Russia were very stressful. I was not happy with the work and was ready to leave any day. But then President Vladimir Putin and his wife visited our restaurant. We served them a whopping great barramundi, which is considered a symbol of Australia (it’s also known as “barra”, or Asian seabass). The open kitchen is a step lower than the floor in the main hall. And the cooks deal with the grill, the oven, the tandoor and the tepan in front of everybody. On that occasion, the exalted guests liked the barramundi and wanted to speak to the head chef. Arkady Novikov introduced me to the President. Vladimir Putin asked: “Do you like it here in Russia?” I said that it wasn’t easy for someone like me to live and work here, because I’m not very wealthy and I find everything hard. To which the President replied: “Russia has a great future. Wait, don’t leave yet, you’ll come to like it”. This was not the first time I had met Putin. I had seen him previously in Shanghai at the summit of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), which includes Kazakhstan, China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. At dinner there, Vladimir Putin was asked to sing. So I said: “I remember you from Shanghai, you sang a Russian song there”. He had already made a great impression on me. It was a great honour to talk with such a man.
— So you followed Vladimir Vladimirovich’s advice? But you left the Nedalni Vostok?
— I’d been there seven years, I was worn out. I’d run out of ideas. And I was fed up with glamour and arrogant dignitaries. I wanted to develop my own style, to put the stress on simple and pure tasty food. Of course it was hard for me to part from Arkady Novikov. He taught me how to do business in Russia. Together we had opened the Roni restaurant, the Lucky Noodles ramen restaurant and the Mendeleyev bar. There were two possibilities: to leave Russia, or to fulfil my dream of opening my own restaurant, a place with an Australian atmosphere, open and unpretentious, where food for every day would be on offer. While I was standing at the crossroads, I got to know restaurateurs Sasha Organezov and William Lambert, and they became my partners in the Glenuill, Zupperia and Honest restaurants. And we started working together. That was in 2013.
— In the name Glenuill, you combined the names Glen and William. How much had to be invested in the project?
Moscow’s restaurant market is experiencing a period of growth. If you recall the restaurant industry of only a few years ago, there were projects galore for whatever you like, but not “for eating”. Now, new interesting concepts are appearing regularly. Small cosy little restaurants with simple and understandable “everyday food” are in fashion. Many establishments base their menus on local raw materials. The chefs seek out products which were little-known or unpopular. They all want to surprise the guest. If you compare the Russian restaurant market with the Western once, they are very different. In other countries, their own particular restaurant culture was built up over centuries. It should not be forgotten that the selection of products abroad is still much wider. But here too, much depends on the specific region. We have some things in common, of course. Both here and abroad, concepts based on a single product are popular. We and they both have “chef’s” restaurants. And it is particularly gratifying that we have an identical love of gastronomy, an interest in it. As for entering the restaurant market in Russia, it all depends on numerous circumstances. Organizing your business could cost one million roubles or a hundred million. It depends on the concept, the location, the cuisine, whether or not it is licensed for alcoholic beverages, and so on. But the absolute minimum is one million.
Personally, I think the prospects for our business are simply brilliant. Many talented young head chefs have appeared recently. They know how to work with the product and have a creative approach to the matter. Therefore I am sure that there is a rise ahead for the restaurant industry in Russia, in spite of the known problems and the financial crisis.
— Together, we invested 18 million roubles. And that was quite a modest sum. We did almost all the design ourselves. We didn’t import anything. We acquired all the materials locally. The gimmick at the Glenuill is that hardly a single object there is new. Ninety per cent of the things in the interior and almost all the crockery are vintage. You can be served a dish on a Soviet plate, or in a country clay pot. And right now we are drinking tea from Soviet enamel mugs! (Laughs)
The Glenuill doesn’t differ in any way from a typical Australian seaside restaurant. The only difference is that we don’t have the beach and ocean outside, but the Moscow Garden Ring. Three things are important for a restaurant like this: the food, the atmosphere and the staff.
And we have excellent staff. Thirty people work here. There’s no security. I know all these people very well.
— What do your staff earn?
— From 25,000 to 150,000 roubles. The biggest salary goes to the head chef.
— How would you describe your cuisine??
— A mix! And a quite eclectic one. After all, Australia is a multinational country, so its cuisine is mixed, with Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern and Asian roots. Each dish is more or less recognizable, but with a completely new twist to it. We take the usual ingredients as a basis but we put unusual combinations together. For example, pears grilled in bacon, salad with dates and feta, or French fries with truffle and parmesan. And our prices are quite democratic, the average bill is 1500 roubles.
— How much rent do you pay? This is said to be a big problem in Moscow.
— For a floor space of 85 square metres, we pay 500,000 roubles a month. We have 45 covers. There used to be restaurants that could seat 150 or 200 guests. Now there are mainly small ones with a rent of 400,000 to 420,000 roubles a month.
The public we get in the Glenuill is varied. By day, it’s middle and working class people. And in the evening it’s managers, and designers, and artists, and musicians, and students. We have queues in the summer. And so that people can wait in comfort, we have set up table-tennis tables where they can play ping-pong.
— Was it difficult to find suppliers of produce?
— We don’t have any direct contacts with farmers. I or the head chef goes to the market to select vegetables. We buy meat in the market or in the agro-industrial holding Miratorg. When I started in Moscow, not a single chef would make anything from local meat. But now it’s a whole lot better. We used to bring in cheeses from overseas too, but now they come from the Caucasus, where an Italian cheesemonger produces them using unique technologies. He spent four months touring Kabardino-Balkaria, Adygey and Dagestan to find the best milk. And he found a place with a good climate, mountain pastures and really pure water.
I think sanctions have done Russia a lot of good, they have stimulated the production of your own replacements.
— And have the counter-sanctions introduced by Russia affected your business?
— Three factors are important to us. The first is stability. For example, when you came into a restaurant yesterday, there was a carrot dish on the menu. This dish should still be there today, and tomorrow – as long as there is a demand for it. The second factor is quality. And the third is variety of dishes. Of course, now is not the best of times for business. But we have adapted. And we still have the same dishes, the same quality and the same variety.
— How long did it take for your restaurant to start showing a profit?
— It only took two years for our restaurant to get into the black.
— Do you advertise?
— We only talk about our restaurant on the social media, on Instagram.
— And what do you say about the competition?
Moscow’s restaurant market is experiencing a turning point, when it is necessary to surprise and attract guests with something unusual, taking into account the prime cost of the dish, so that it is profitable for the business and tasty for the guests.
The demand for staff in the restaurant business is currently greater than the supply. This particularly applies to qualified head chefs with an understanding of contemporary gastronomic trends and a willingness to give 100% to the work. At the same time, the demand for management personnel has fallen. This is because restaurateurs are mainly opening medium class establishments where the relation of price to quality is attractive to the guest. Good examples of these are Arkady Novikov’s “Farsh” and Aleksandr Rappoport’s “Dr. Zhivago” and Cook’kareku projects, which have exploded onto the market. Therefore managers “brought up” in premium class restaurants are having difficulty in finding jobs.
Russia’s restaurant market differs from the one abroad, and has its particular features. Of course, our restaurateurs too try to bring in innovations from West and East, but in the mass price segment, there is a certain understanding that everything must also be what Russian people are used to. Therefor such formats as the “Pushkin” café, the domestic cuisine restaurant “Ded Pikhto” or the ‘democratic’ chain “Teremok” will always be in demand, both by Russians and by foreigners. Until recently, the Asian micro-café format was very popular in Moscow. But it became clear that such projects could not survive in Russian conditions. We need inside seating (it’s too cold on the street!) and filling meals (again due to the severe climatic conditions),
Most Russians think of a restaurant as a recreational activity, not as an everyday necessity. But there is a noticeable trend towards the ‘democratization’ of restaurants, and the average bill in a popular restaurant now does not exceed 1500 roubles per person, at least in Moscow. And this undoubtedly leads to the guests becoming accustomed to spending time in restaurants.
— Any restaurant is our competitor. And there are a lot of them. But I devote so much energy to offering people high-quality fresh food, and making sure all the staff get paid on time, that I simply can’t spare the effort and time to keep an eye on the competitors.
— Are Russian partners reliable?
— I have never once been in the situation of someone stealing money from me or swindling me. But I am always on my guard. And I have not had any problems. If I don’t feel comfortable with something, I simply walk away, and that’s it. As for my present partner, Sasha Oganezov, I trust him as I trust myself. We have the same tastes. We like the same style, both in interior design and in food. So it’s easy for us to be creative together.
— Has Russia changed over the years you’ve been living here?
— Eight years ago, it was a completely different country. It was hard for young people to make their way. But now I see a tremendous number of young people with excellent education, with knowledge of languages. And that instils optimism.
— Have you tried to learn Russian?
— Yes. And I had a teacher. But lessons take time. I often come to the restaurant at ten in the morning and leave at ten in the evening. I have one day off a week, and I want to spend it with my family. Business brings in money, but that (- he points to a photo of his wife and daughter-) is the main thing!
— What’s in your future plans?
— My partner and I intend to open two new restaurants and a bakery. In Moscow City, a restaurant in the Japanese style; and on the Patriarch Lakes, a bakery and a restaurant which will be in the same style as the Glenuill.
— So you’re staying in Moscow?
— I’m 50 years old, and I need a place where I’ll be happy. I’ve found that place and I don’t want to change anything.
— What advice would you give to foreigners thinking of opening a business in Russia?
— You need to come here, meet people and realize what a unique country this is. Not everything is easy here. But Russia is getting closer and closer to world standards. And business here is getting easier and easier to understand.