The chef leading Russia's culinary revolution

Anatoly Komm's Moscow restaurant was this week named among the world's top 50. Shaun Walker hears how he put it on the map

An amuse bouche of rye bread and minced beetroot topped with a capsule of organic sunflower oil; pickled herring salad re-imagined as a sushi roll; and the stodgy Soviet-era dessert of "chocolate potato" engineered into a delicate mouthful to be slurped from the end of a silver spoon.

It's unmistakably Russian food, but in a new incarnation. Every evening, Russian super chef Anatoly Komm serves up a 15-course tasting menu for 25 diners at Varvary, and this week his restaurant was the first ever Russian establishment to make it into the prestigious World's 50 Best list.

When the list was released earlier this week, there were no great surprises at the top. Copenhagen's Noma topped the list again, while Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck remained in the top five. But hiding towards the bottom, at number 48, was something entirely new – Varvary, the 44-year-old Komm's flagship Moscow venture. Its inclusion is another sign of the food revolution that has been taking place steadily over the past decade in a city that just 20 years ago hardly had a single private restaurant.

Varvary is at the extreme end of the spectrum, but across the restaurant sector, prices are coming down and quality is improving. "As Russia boomed economically, Moscow became so expensive that normal restaurants couldn't afford to pay rent," says Alexei Zimin, editor of Russia's leading food magazine and the co-founder of Ragout, a French brasserie that opened in central Moscow last year. "The extreme ends of the spectrum – fast food and extremely expensive restaurants – flourished. But there was nothing in the middle. Over the last five years, that has gradually been changing."

Of course, Russia did not start from a level playing field. Just 25 years ago, the only restaurants in the capital were grim, state-run cafes for workers and the occasional restaurant visited by top Communist officials. Varvary is the Russian for "barbarians", and the name is a play on the reputation of Russians in Europe for lacking sophistication in matters culinary – or indeed anything else, says Komm. He says Russians themselves were partly responsible for this reputation, but also insists that, when prepared correctly, Russian cuisine can be exciting. "Foreigners come here and they're quite surprised at the things that can be done with Russian food," he says.

Russian guests sometimes leave his restaurant in disgust at what he has done with traditional Russian dishes. "The worst case was with high-level government officials," he says. "They got angry and left. I'm talking about very high-level government officials. But then that's always been the way in Russia. The great artists have been repressed."

Komm is a prickly character and not short on self-confidence, drawing comparisons between himself and cultural figures, such as the composer Dmitry Shostakovich, whom he says were unappreciated during their lifetimes. The majority of visitors to Varvary are foreigners, he says. "Haute cuisine is only for a small percentage of the population everywhere, but while in Europe or America it's between 3 and 10 percent who appreciate it, in Russia it's more like 0.001 percent," he says.

But, however slowly, Russia is changing, he says. His most valued customers are members of the emerging middle class who save up for several weeks to dine at the restaurant, where the set menu costs close to £200 per head before you even order a glass of wine. "These are people who made their money themselves, they didn't steal it, and these people are the reason I keep working here."

Komm was educated as a geophysicist, but when he graduated – as the Soviet Union was in its death throes – there was no work for him, so he went into business as an importer of designer clothes. Throughout the 1990s, Komm travelled the world buying clothes for his business, but made sure to sample the best restaurants in every city he visited. "If a chef did something I didn't know, I would go into the kitchen and offer him money to show me how to do it," he says. In 1998, he opened his first restaurant, as the owner, but soon noticed he was spending all his time in the kitchen, and so in 2000 he sold the fashion business and became a full-time chef.

Like Blumenthal or Ferran Adrià, the Catalan founder of El Bulli, Komm's food is based on experimental "molecular" cuisine – investigating the science behind food preparation – and this is where his geophysical education comes in handy. The idea behind such cuisine is simply to understand food on a molecular level, he says – something even the Soviets knew about. Take the basic stolovaya, or canteen, where everything would be served with smetana, the Russian version of sour cream. The head of the stolovaya would usually steal around half of the smetana and take it home to his family, says Komm, filling the rest of the pot up with water so nobody would notice the absence. But in order to disguise the theft, they would have to add a special thickening agent called methylcellulose, which thickened the smetana the more water was added. "This was the best example of the use of molecular technology in the Soviet Union," Komm grins.

At Varvary, sunflower oil is served in tiny, shiny capsules created using a technology that the Soviets used to make artificial caviar. Komm also borrows a technique first used in the 1960s to create food for cosmonauts.

Not everyone can afford the tasting menu at Varvary, which takes 18 chefs all day to prepare for its 25 diners. But, says Zimin, going to restaurants has become a normal part of life for the average Muscovite. "Going to a restaurant used to be a luxury, now it's just something normal that people do," he says. "And deciding what restaurant you want to go to for dinner is no longer about being seen in an expensive place. It's now simply a decision about what you want to eat for dinner."

Komm's Signature Dishes

Three traditional Russian dishes

*"Herring under a fur coat": slices of pickled herring, mixed with mayonnaise, and topped with beetroot and carrots

*Kholodets: not for the faint hearted, this is cheap, minced-up meat suspended in a huge lump of aspic jelly

*Borscht: the traditional Russian soup, usually served with plenty of smetana (sour cream) and dill (the Russian national herb, sprinkled on everything from salads to pizza)

Three New Moscow favourites

*Caesar Salad: It's hard to find a Moscow restaurant that doesn't have Caesar Salad on the menu – ranging from the sublime to the sickening (lettuce leaves replaced with cabbage)

*Flat veal chop with celeriac pure and caramelized fennel: From the menu at Ragout, Alexei Zimin's restaurant – one of the new range of reasonably priced tasty eateries springing up around Moscow.

*Vareniki (dumplings) with Kamchatka crab: From the Winter 2010/11 tasting menu at Anatoly Komm's Varvary

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Intervention Teacher Required To Start ASAP.

£125 - £150 per day + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: A 'wonderful primary ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Our client is an 11-16 mixed commun...

Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough, Cam...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy