Far from hiding in the shadows of White Rabbit, its more famous sister restaurant, Selfie positions itself in a luxury mall in Novinsky Boulevard, the heart of Moscow’s shopping precinct. Inside, tasteful modern art decorates the walls and Brazilian wood floors lead the eye to the restaurant’s focal point — the open kitchen by well-known Italian designer Andrea Viakava.
Belying the sheen of glamour, the name of the restaurant also refers to Kazakov’s do-it-yourself culinary philosophy. The seasonally changing menu of Russian classics with Asian inflections spans the unique geography of Russia’s 15 regions, shining the spotlight on local, seasonal produce and Russian culinary traditions. Pork from Kursk, halibut from Murmansk, veal from Bryansk, asparagus from Tver and truffle from the Crimea all play starring roles in Selfie’s dishes.
Tradition, local products and modern techniques are the three key elements of Kazakov’s cooking. “My do-it-youself cuisine is primarily aimed at working only with local food suppliers and, as much as possible, Russian cooking techniques,” he says. “But sometimes I cook Russian dishes with the help of Chinese or Japanese technology to achieve the best results.”
Kazakov’s dedication to local produce isn’t a trendy marketing spiel, nor is it a forced direction as a result of Russia’s ban on importation of food from Western countries since 2014. In 2010, four years before the sanctions, he had already begun on a mission to build a local network of artisanal producers, farmers and fishermen to supply his ingredients.
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“Prior to this, many cooks and restaurateurs did not think about local farmers, because it’s very difficult: you need to find them and agree on growing something together. It is much easier to buy vegetables and berries from Holland, meat from the USA and Australia, fish from France and Tunisia, without thinking,” he says. “I always saw this as a lack of responsibility towards local producers and we began to spend a lot of time training local farmers and setting up the logistics of transporting food products. So when the embargo came, I was ready.”
From Water Polo To Fine Dining
Born in 1983, Kazakov nearly didn’t become a chef. As a teenager, he was a professional water polo player while studying in cooking school. The academic life and internships at bad restaurants were uninspiring. “The professional contract for water polo was not as great as football or hockey either. I thought I would complete my studies and do something else.”
In 2005, 22-year-old Kazakov left Russia to work in the city of Lecce in Italy for half a year, giving him his first brush with working closely with local farmers. Not three years later, his big break came when he received an internship to work with legendary Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi at his eponymous restaurant. “This time greatly changed my perception of high gastronomy and I was ready to work 16 hours just to learn something new every day.”
Down The Rabbit Hole
In 2012, Russian businessman Boris Zarkov began looking for a talented chef for his new restaurant concept — the now world-famous White Rabbit. The shortlist came down to Vladimir Mukhin and Kazakov, but instead of becoming rivals, they became friends. “In the end, he chose Mukhin, but we agreed with Zarkov that we would definitely open a new restaurant together,” says Kazakov.
When Selfie finally opened in 2014, it was a culmination of all of Kazakov’s culinary experiences and the groundwork he had laid building agricultural networks across Russia. Now, he works with 14 farmers in different climatic regions of Russia where they grow everything from fruit and vegetables to meat and poultry, and even rare mushrooms, algae and various wild-growing plants. He says: “Twice a year, I bring them to the restaurant where I prepare a dinner and we discuss what interesting products they can grow for us, make up a seasonal calendar of products and decide the amounts to produce.”
Over the last decade, Moscow has positioned itself as a culinary destination glittering with ambitious restaurants and equally ambitious young chefs. On what it takes to stand out from the crowd, Kazakov replies: “I am the most ordinary cook in terms of talent, but I have always been hungry for knowledge and ready to work without sparing myself. In our profession, talent is only 10% — the rest is diligence.”