TGIFOOD

TOP TRIO

Three global food rock stars go virtual

Vladimir Mukhin, executive Chef of The White Rabbit in Moscow and Brand Chef of the White Rabbit Family. (Photo: Supplied)

Several of the planet’s biggest names in fine dining are coming to us live daily, demonstrating that good food doesn’t have to be complicated.

Your screen time is up by 75%. Well, Inspector Gadget, obviously. We’re on Day Whatever and I’m practically living inside my phone. But it’s not all been Netflix, memes and Anne Hirsch’s Insta Stories. On the contrary, I’ve been toggling between the timelines of the rock stars of the restaurant world and cooking in captivity has become my stress alleviator.

Good-natured and generous, these master chefs, some of the most entertaining and animated characters you’ll ever e-meet, have pivoted spectacularly during this prohibitive crisis, generously sharing recipes and method intel and going even further with virtual dinners, classes, peer interviews, IGTV tutorials and Zoom meet-ups.

Three international fine dining chefs, Vladimir Mukhin (Moscow), Rasmus Kofoed (Copenhagen) and Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen (Nice/Cape Town), share a little about the way they’ve adapted in the online space during isolation.

Vladimir Mukhin, 37

Executive Chef of The White Rabbit in Moscow and Brand Chef of the White Rabbit Family

(Main image)

A disruptor and resuscitator of authentic Russian recipes, Vladimir Mukhin is brand chef of an operation that oversees a suite of restaurants in the capital and Sochi. Splendidly located under the glassed-in rooftop of the Smolensky Passage, The White Rabbit ranks 13 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Mukhin, the featured Chef in Volume 3 of Netflix Chef’s Table, was rated #9 in the Best Chef Awards in 2019. A fifth generation cook with an appetite for experimentation, he straddles the past and the future with ease and is fêted as the man who has put Moscow on the map as a gastronomic destination.

After dispatching his wife and children to a more manageable situation in the countryside, Mukhin has been locked down solo in Moscow since March, quite a push for an extrovert who thrives on social interaction and a high-octane lifestyle. His prescription for sanity has been adhering to a daily schedule, doing Tai Chi and gym workouts, and curating delivery menus for three of the WRF eateries: Gorynych, Tekhnikum and Sakhalin.

“Fine dining for delivery is a challenge – this type of cuisine is not just about supreme food but about emotions, experience, communication and being together on a special occasion and we are endeavouring to keep providing that through our new offering,” he says. Like many restaurateurs, the pandemic has forced a swivel from the galley onto the web and chefs everywhere are tailoring interim offerings until they can reopen their doors. Vladimir introduced his online dinners mid-April “with the best šefami (chefs) in the world!”, the men and women who are part of The World’s 50 Best community whose mutual support has been “unreal, like real brothers”.

The dinners are intimate and he only allows around 20 people to book at a time. Places are taken up within hours. “You can go to a restaurant without leaving the house. Welcome to the new reality, the future starts now,” he said in an Instagram post advertising a collab with Mexican chef Jorge Vajeho. Muscovites and those living up to 200 kilometres away are the only ones able to take advantage of these faraway feasts. Once guests have signed up and paid, the menu ingredients are delivered to their door and everyone Zoom-connects at a set time, with Vladimir preparing up to seven courses and his guests following suit. It’s like the new definition of a block party lots of faces in small squares, clinking crystal, enjoying good conversation and a meal served as close to the real deal as is possible. 

Dining in Lockdown and other projects has kept Vladimir, a small staff complement and several farmers nicely busy during lockdown. The company continues to support a number of organic producers around the country like Constantin Tokarev (@constantintokarev) from Saratov Farm in South-Eastern Russia and Mikhail Plotnikov who is based in the North West. “I was very moved by Mikhail (@filippovhutor on Insta) who, in spite of all this shit, still delivered apple tree blooms and blackcurrant buds to me last week. I used them right away in my edible creations made with tulips from Constantin. Mikhail’s commitment was a beautiful moment for us all, and my emotions are a little difficult to put in words!”

Mukhin and dynamic company CEO Boris Zarkov check in regularly with the team to motivate, maintain connections and remind the team that the White Rabbit Family is still very much in the game. Until everything is back on track, though, the group’s chefs are making use of extended family time, sharing recipes and cooking hacks online and keeping their Instagram tribes engaged and inspired. As the pandemic closed in on their trade and without support from the state, Mukhin and Zarkov managed to secure jobs for their permanent staff with a big supermarket chain. Still, the restaurant industry chain as a whole is in trouble the landlords, the workers, the suppliers.“It’s not easy,” he admits, “and what we are doing now is basically to pay salaries. We know we need to stay strong, persevere and come up with new solutions. Moving is life and we don’t lose heart.” Nostrovia to that.

One thing most people don’t know about him: “I fried our family goldfish when I was five!”

@muhinvladimir 171k Followers (click “See Translation”) | @white_rabbit_family 20.3k Followers 

Rasmus Kofoed, 46

Head Chef & Co-owner, Restaurant Geranium in Copenhagen

Head Chef & Co-owner, Restaurant Geranium in Copenhagen. (Photo: Supplied)

February 2020 was a particularly stellar month for Rasmus Kofoed and his team. Michelin named him winner of the Nordic Countries Chef Mentor Award and he simultaneously learnt that Geranium in Copenhagen had retained the prestigious guide’s three-star status, the only fine dining restaurant with that accolade in Denmark, a country that boasts no fewer than 16 Michelin-starred eateries. Elevated above the treetops on the eighth floor of the Telia Parken Stadium, dining at Geranium is by all accounts an enduring experience, where Rasmus presents cuisine that is considered down to the minutest detail, and exquisite in both appearance and taste. 

The restaurant currently sits in fifth position on the World’s Best 50 Restaurant list, a swift acceleration from 19th place in 2018, and Rasmus is the only chef in the world to have graced all three medal podiums at the most arduous and prestigious cooking competition du monde, the Bocuse d’Or.

Rasmus and co-owner Søren Ledet made the call to shut shop on 14 March, ahead of the official lockdown date in Denmark. While everyone’s safety was the motivation, they also felt that social-distance-dining was at odds with the convivial Geranium experience where patrons have the opportunity to observe the chef and his kitchen teams in close proximity in the open-plan environment. Time spent at Geranium is designed to be a personable, intimate affair. “We run it with energy and care,” explained Kofoed, “and we need to be able to welcome our guests with open arms.” 

Rasmus spent the first few weeks of confinement on the idyllic Danish island of Samsø in the Kattergat Sea. He was with his wife and three young children and savoured every minute. “We could discover the day, cook together and get out in nature where I would teach my kids how to forage for wild plants and learn about the night sky.” As a boy he would follow his own mother on her forages into the forest and today he’s known for having a deep bond with the land. It’s in his DNA and his connection to the earth plays a key role in life and work. Geranium offers a seasonal tasting menu of approximately 17 courses, fare with an earthly narrative that transports and accommodates all palates.

With schools now open for a few hours a day, he and the family have returned to Copenhagen. Workwise, he’s been mostly focused on his team. Luckily for them all, the Danish government stepped up to assist businesses across the board, enabling Geranium staff to remain on salary. “Although we are all very affected by this situation, there are a lot more people around the world having a way harder time than those of us here in Denmark.”

For Rasmus, confinement has been a time to press pause. “I have been reflecting about life, my choices and future plans, and thinking about ways for Geranium to be even more sustainable as we evolve and develop creatively.” Aside from connecting with colleagues and chefs from around the world, he touches base regularly with all those in the company via group chats and on Facebook, another platform the restaurant utilises extensively to reach and engage with customers.

“I have challenged some of our staff to submit a vegetarian recipe every day, a dish from their home countries for us to Share on the Geranium social media platforms.” It’s proved to be an excellent way to introduce the chefs, sommeliers and managers to patrons and online followers, breaking down simple, healthy recipes that anyone can attempt at home. He has also been preoccupied with plans to open a plant-based pop-up experience (a temporary venture) in Geranium’s private dining room, although details around that are still sketchy.  

On 16 May, the restaurant announced that Geranium would be reopening on 3 June. On his Instagram page, Rasmus, with a glass of red wine held aloft and a look on his face that can only be described as joy and relief, posted: “Dear Friends, I am excited to tell you that team and I are back…. you will find asparagus, forest herbs & rhubarb among some of the ingredients in the Geranium Summer Universe Menu. Hope to welcome you soon.”

We know that times have changed, perhaps irreversibly, and the new normal remains to be seen and felt. “The world needs to make some serious changes and hopefully I can be a part of the driving force that makes a positive impact. As a chef, being responsible and caring for the earth has always been important to me. Something has definitely shifted globally; down the line we may see some positive outcomes as we take more care of nature.” 

One thing most people don’t know about him: “I love rap music – always have, since I was 13 years old.”

@rkgeranium 62,8k Followers 

Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen, 38

Executive Chef JAN in Nice / Creative-in-chief at JAN Innovation Studio in Cape Town

Executive Chef JAN in Nice / Creative-in-chief at JAN Innovation Studio in Cape Town. (Photo: Supplied)

Whether cooking, painting, writing or styling, Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen is always telling a story. Quiet, alert and ever curious, he has a flair for capturing the essence of whatever is under his hand, and to be in his company and eating at his table is all about escapism and enchantment.  He opened the eponymous JAN in Nice on the Côte d’Azur in 2013, authoritatively promoting South African cuisine to gastronomes du monde who arrived with haute expectations and left transported. Three years later he became the first South African chef to be awarded a Michelin star, the prestigious hallmark that has been bestowed repeatedly over five consecutive years.

When the French government decreed the closure of all restaurants on March 14, Jan left France for South Africa and went into isolation in Paternoster on the Cape’s West Coast. “JAN in France is closed for now and the building of Klein JAN at Tswalu Kalahari is on hold until we can pick up the building process. Here in Paternoster I’ve been testing a lot of new dishes and playing with the idea of sharing quick recipes.”

That aside, his initial plan was to use lockdown time to get on top of admin and work on various projects. Those intentions were sidelined though as he became more and more aware of the severe food shortages facing communities and charities trying to make a difference during the pandemic. To assist, he and his team began collating the content for The Conversation Journal, a digital-only lockdown edition that’s now available for download via the JAN the Journal App. The book shares thought-provoking stories by some his favourite movers and shakers that capture the spirit of these strange times in which we find ourselves, “insights that will make an incredible read in your quiet time”, he commented on Instagram, making an appeal to his followers to buy the book and support the cause. Each issue costs R29.99 and money raised from each sale will go towards the EatOut Restaurant Relief Fund that is supporting restaurants working to help feed frontline workers and the needy, while supporting some eateries as well.

“I’ll also be initiating a series of Digital Dinner Dates with my one-on-one cooking classes where six paying diners will join myself and a fabulous guest for a fun, interactive cook-along. Funds raised will also go to EatOut fund.”

The silver lining in lockdown has been having time to form ideas. “This is an opportunity for chefs to re-imagine their offerings, listen more and keep things small, real and impactful.” Propelled into the online sphere on a more full-time basis for now, Jan has devised a menu plan that gives his 60,900 Instagram followers and Facebook fans ideas about what to cook at home during lockdown. He has always been extremely personable on social media, particularly on Instagram where he has noticed a spike in engagement as people seek out simple, direct information that matters. “Part of it has been about keeping myself sane and the other about maintaining my knife skills.”

Keeping his squad in optimum emotional health has also been crucial. “We have regular catch-ups to make sure all is well. Most of the team is working on small projects for the fifth edition of JAN the Journal which will be out, hopefully, in July. As for the rest, there’s a series of online courses we offer free of charge to our staff to assist with upskilling, language (French and English) and other personal and professional enhancement courses.”

No one knows what the new normal will look like. A gentle maverick, Jan has never been a fan of trends, forecasting or of trying to reinvent the wheel and he remains positive that fine dining will survive the virus.“If Covid-19 has taught me anything it’s been that what we do and how we do it has to change. At JAN in France, JAN Innovation Studio in Cape Town and Klein JAN at Tswalu, we will reconfigure the safe spaces around our guests with minimal fuss and disruption.”

One thing most people don’t know about Jan: “I’m an introvert and really like to have thinking time. I write, scribble and take endless notes and go back to them year after year. It’s like building up my own library of thoughts that I constantly revisit.”

@janhendrikvanderwesthuizen 60.9k Followers | @restaurant_jan 9,549 Followers. DM/TGIFood

Gallery

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted