MOSCOW - It’s a reasonably hectic night for Ilya Shalev, the expat Israeli chef presiding over the kitchen at Ragout restaurant in Moscow. The modern style bistro, just off the major hub of Belorussky train station, is the brainchild of Shalev and Alexei Zimin, a celebrity chef and restaurant owner. Tonight Ragout is teeming with the clientele any modern Russian restaurant owner would crave: on-the-go, cosmopolitan and in search of quality yet affordable grub.
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In the main dining hall, two young Muscovite women with dyed blonde hair pick at their sauteed mushroom and celery salad. A paunchy Russian businessman ploughs into a shepherd’s pie. A French lady scoops a fork full of steak tartar. She nods in approval and utters a soft “mmmm...”
Shalev, who manages his team of cooks with calm, takes a break from the hissing pans. He presents a picture of his young baby girl, recently born in the Russian capital.
“Her mother, my partner, is Jewish. My first wife was Russian Orthodox, the second Catholic and now this,” he says, wearing an impish expression. “There’s this softness that Jews always look for in one another. I’d never felt it was important until I found it in Moscow.”
Coming from an Israeli chef whose parents escaped the hardships of the collapsing USSR for Israel, this can be a rather puzzling statement. Yet a look at his life story helps explain Shalev’s sense of identity as well as his culinary philosophy, which mixes and matches haute cuisine with the Russian taste for big portions and hearty, typically fatty, food.
Shalev was born in 1971 in Stavropol, then in the Caucasus region of the USSR and today a region in the Russian Federation, to a doctor father and a dentist mother. After the family moved to Israel in 1990, his parents naturally envisioned a career in medicine for him. But after a short stint as a diagnostic radiographer he felt his work “had nothing to do with essence. A person I trusted told me I would answer my calling in life only as a cook,” he told Haaretz.
Shalev abandoned the cold drone of X-ray machines, and began working as an apprentice in some of the hottest kitchens in the country, including the restaurant at Tel Aviv’s Crowne Plaza Hotel and Jerusalem’s Arcadia and Darna.
“My parents said that cooking is not a career,” he says while putting the last touches on a salmon course that’s about to leave his steamy kitchen to awaiting diners. “In Russia, being a chef is considered worse than a whore. Hookers at least get paid well.”
Shalev chuckles and corals the slab of pink fish with a green dressing, “but I was bussing tables and peeling potatoes and falling in love with French cuisine. I didn’t want a career. I wanted to cook well.”
He rings a bell and a waiter materializes through the vapors, picks up the plate and sets sail toward the dining hall.
A friend’s invitation to spend a few weeks at a mansion in California, a decade after his immigration to Israel, gave Shalev the chance he craved. Owned by a “billionaire” − he won’t divulge the host’s name − the estate was complete with a vineyard, an 18th-century art collection, a library full of volumes on gastronomy and a dinner set valued at hundreds of dollars apiece. With the invitation continually extended, Shalev began cooking in earnest, testing the boundaries of his creativity and his host’s palate.
“Some kind of alchemy happened in and on plates,” he reminisces. “I stayed for a year. Then I moved on.”
With his duffel bag filled with just two pairs of trousers and shirts, he traveled to Paris. At the city’s famed Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts School he studied “the objective art of cooking,” as he calls it. “It was like studying mathematics − there’s a real science to it.”
A stint under Alain Sanderens, one of Nouvelle Cuisine’s founding fathers, followed. “I wasn’t paid any salary. Zero. Someone took me in as a subtenant and I chipped in by cooking one meal a week. So I actually felt lucky,” he says.
Luck had everything to do with his next step, too. He followed a woman he loved to London and landed a job at the mecca of posh Britain: the Ivy restaurant. Toiling seven days a week as a patissier, he barely had time to take a peek at the models and actors who frequented the West End restaurant.
“I learned the importance of order, routine and strength,” Shalev says of the experience. “If you are strong, things can happen.”
This rule of thumb cannot be more apt than in Moscow, a city replete with powerful people who like to be entertained and sated.
“In the kitchen Ilya is more of a Frenchman than an Israeli,” says Zimin, who proposed the culinary partnership with Shalev three years ago. “He is such a fan of French cuisine and delicacies that if he had unlimited access to truffles that’s probably all he would cook. Russian customers want to taste anything they haven’t tried before. Ilya is talented at dealing with this.”
Notwithstanding his versatility, Shalev still took pains to include hummus in Ragout’s menu. It’s a far cry from the coarser chickpea paste one finds in Israeli eateries, but apparently nobody cares: The clients just love it, Zimin says.
Shalev says he has many fond memories of Israel, its food and people. Though he visits regularly, mainly to see his parents who still live there, he has no intention of returning. “It’s very difficult to survive there, for someone who is not money-oriented,” he said. “And I’m really not that way.”
A pastry chef presents a dessert made of vanilla sauce, apple and bacon for Shalev’s inspection. Does he feel defined by Jewish religion? “You know, Saint Francis, Mohammed, Jesus, and Elokim all gave love. What you really need to do as a person is refine yourself. There’s a kind of grace which food can provide. And when it does, heaven’s gates open.”
And the last time that happened to him? “Ten minutes ago, when I prepared chocolate mousse.”