Pas de Deux: Flying Four Hands
I met Igor in Gaziantep. Previously, I had met Ana in Istanbul, then for a second time in Bilbao. I’m talking about the Russian chef Igor Grishechkin and the Slovenian chef Ana Roš. I’ve heard of both chefs before we met and they have made a mark on me even before tasting their food. Just listening to them, and then reading about them gave me a glimpse of their world. Apparently both were very creative, they had stories to tell, and both had a very strong personal style. I was curious about their food in different ways, it was apparent that both were very gifted chefs, but it was certain that their styles were world apart. I’ve tasted Ana’s food at four-hand dinners with Maksut Aşkar at Neolokal in Istanbul and with Josean Alija at Nerua Guggenheim in Bilbao, but I had never tasted a morsel from Igor before.
They say, seeing is believing! In the culinary world, it must be tasting is believing, or in better words, tasting and experiencing. Past December, I had an invitation from Kristian Brask Thomsen, aka Ambassador Bon-Vivant, with the courtesy of Matilda Shnurova, offering a chance to taste their food in St. Petersburg, at a four-hands dinner. I was excited for the experience, first I was looking forward to be experiencing Igor’s creations in his own kitchen at Cococo, inspired by my favorite city in Russia. Second, I was also curious that whether Ana would feel at home, outside her comfort zone, as her kitchen in Slovenian countryside restaurant Hiša Franko is strongly connected to nature, totally in contrast with the flamboyant imperial grandeur of St. Petersburg. I feared it would be a clash of cultures and styles, yet I had full trust in both of them as person, and hoped for a miracle to happen. I secretly had a trust also in Kristian, he has this a keen eye for the best, and would never ever step into an arrangement that is bound to end in a disaster.
Four-hand dinners have become a fad of the world-dining scene since so many years now. They are sometimes more chefs involved; six & eight hands are quite common. I’ve even witnessed twelve and more experiences, a parade of plates, often confusing to follow track of dishes and chefs appearing one after another. Star-chefs are flying afar as guest chefs, working in kitchens they are not familiar with, and sometimes travelling to countries they’ve never been. It is a challenge for them, to show their talents to accomplished palates, but it is more about the collaboration with their chef pals, stepping out of their enclave, sharing experiences, learning from each other, and getting inspiration from other kitchens, cuisines and cultures. On the clients’ side, usually the single night four-hand crossover events are opportunities for diners to have an unforgettable experience of both chefs in one go, to taste the food of chefs they have heard of, but never had the time or wallet to travel to their own places. Reservations usually sell out in seconds, in hopes to experience the best of two celebrities. It is almost like a very luxury high-end version of ‘buy-one/get-one-free’ deals. Deal? May be yes, may be not. We all know that sometimes it works, sometimes it just doesn’t.
In the case of Igor & Ana combo, I must admit that it worked, and it worked wonders. Igor and Ana were like two parts of a whole. Igor was a gentleman, a great host making the most to have his guest comfortable. He gently stepped back without compromising his own stand, giving the stage for her guest to shine. Ana was happy to get the most amazing and freshest ingredients possible. She told guests that the scallops were still moving when she was about to slice them. Scallops made Ana instantly at home; she is known to have her strong point in making the most of the freshest seasonal ingredients and it was delivered to her counter in the best way possible. Igor, on the other hand, stayed away from his glittery theatrical style; so there were no signs of caviar filled gilded Fabergé eggs, or whirling ballerinas as if like the Sugar Plum Fairy just stepped to the table from The Nutcracker. But instead, he delivered equally impressive and creative plates, not as flamboyant, but even more impressive and innovative. The two were like dancing on the stage of Mariinski or Sankt Petersburg theatre performing a formidable Pas de Deux, lovingly dancing their parts, giving a hand to each other at very single dish that appeared on the stage. They were like two silent streams gently uniting to flow like a powerful river, culminating to a crescendo in the most unaccepted way. Actually, it was their charming personalities and their respect both to each other, and to their own work and their teams.
To admit, before flying to St Petersburg I also had another fear, the overpowering existence of Matilda Shnurova, undoubtedly one of the most powerful women in Russia. She is the one who spotted the talent of Igor, and established Cococo to start a culinary journey with him. It was apparent that she had full trust in Igor, when I asked about how it all started, she told me in an almost whispering tone, “Now, we are now like a family”. As our host she was present at all times during our visit, but was almost silent, displaying great hospitality, but far from being the boss around. Pretty much like Igor being a great partner to Ana, she gave the stage to the chefs, a manner she apparently achieved from her dancing carrier, and the ballet school she established, she knew that talent only shines when the stage is given and the spot light is turned upon them.
I met with Ana and her amazing team at the airport. Whilst having our one-for-the-road shots of vodka, she admitted that their Pas de Deux was effortlessly well danced, displaying a harmony hard to achieve, proving that miracles do happen.