Kiev's turning point

Day 1 at the congress in Ukraine. And the feeling that something significant is starting

15-04-2015
A moment of relax for the Italian participants in

A moment of relax for the Italian participants in Fontegro, the first fine dining congress taking place yesterday and today at Kiev’s Olympic stadium. Left to right, co-organiser Ekaterina Avdeyeva, Christian Milone, Viviana Varese, co-organiser Anna Zelenokhat, Lorenzo Cogo, Eugenio Roncoroni and, kissed by the sun, Errico Recanati (photo credits Federico Cicogna, Loveresto)

The wind is blowing between the clouds in Kiev. Yet this is not the icy breeze that enveloped Euromaidan, the central square, in the winter of 2013-2014, the big crisis one. It’s the Ukrainian spring, inviting the country to rise again. This identity resurrection passes through cooking and food. It is not an unusual idea, after all: Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia, the first gang of creative chefs in recent history (1999), was based on the very irredentist pride of the Basque and Catalan people.

Yet Fontegro is the first signature cuisine congress not only in a country at war – if we’re not mistaken – but in the entire ex soviet galaxy, a macro-cosmos in which we also include countries that were once under the indirect (yet pressing) influence of the Kremlin: from Slovenia to Poland, from Hungary to the Baltic Republics.

If fine dining has finally broken the Iron Curtain, we need to thank Anna Zelenokhat and Ekaterina Avdeeva, two passionate women, marked by a high degree of enlightened recklessness (see the progammatic interview), who were capable of bringing some of the best young chefs in the world to the Olympic stadium in Kiev, to «Equip our contemporary chefs, who are technically uncertain between the past and the future, with a compass that would guide them through the cuisine of the future».

Eugenio Roncoroni (Al Mercato, Milan) offers scents of fish sauce to the Ukrainian audience

Eugenio Roncoroni (Al Mercato, Milan) offers scents of fish sauce to the Ukrainian audience

Of course, time is necessary to overcome the tragic contingencies and a peculiar mentality: the conflict has dramatically buried the grivnia, the national currency, so finding sponsors to balance all costs is rather complicated. Many patrons from Kiev’s restaurants boycott the event because they are afraid of the excessive independence of their chefs-employees. And in the kitchen, the (understandable) tendency prevails to use “exotic” ingredients (from foie gras to oranges) that were denied for decades.

Yet the myth of local cuisine starts to root here too. At the same time, the social status of the chef advances, thanks also to TV programmes like Hell’s Kitchen, that lead more and more young people to this once unpopular profession (also because today it could offer more opportunities to work abroad, needless to say).

Yesterday, in the first of the two days of Fontegro, hundreds of people came to fill the side room of the Olympic stadium. Captivated and patient, they listened to the ideas of Peeter Pihel, the chef from Estonia who tried to redefine Baltic cuisine, now Magnus Nilsson’s sous chef at Faviken. To sparkling Eugenio Roncoroni and Beniamino Nespor, with their spicy verve, who were showered with questions on the authentic spirit of street food, «which must not be a trend but a life style». To the green Piedmontese essence of Christian Milone’s Trattoria Zappatori in a country allergic to any vegetarian draught (the previous night, at the excellent restaurant Sito-Piano we had 6 courses, all meat-based...).

INTERLUDE. Between one lesson and the other, borsch, the national Ukrainian dish. Next to it, the bread to be abundantly soaked in the beetroot and cabbage soup

INTERLUDE. Between one lesson and the other, borsch, the national Ukrainian dish. Next to it, the bread to be abundantly soaked in the beetroot and cabbage soup

And again, Errico Recanati of Andreina and his memories of the Marche made current, what with vegetables and game meat in different textures, with the hare in salmì explained to the Ukrainians and a deserving end: «Kitchen means life and freedom». Right after him, it was time for Yuri Priemiski, one of the forerunner-chefs of the new Ukrainian cuisine (= creative western style): low temperatures, edible landscapes, liquid nitrogen and a mini snowman as a cake. Tonight he’s invited us at his restaurant, Odessa, of which we will tell you more. Day one ended with the passionate closing argument given by Viviana Varese of Alice: passion, instinct and technique.

Energies that livened up the traditional Ukrainian spleen. Thanks to the widespread awareness that something important is truly happening.


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Gabriele Zanatta’s opinion: on establishments, chefs and trends in Italy and the world