Russia's New Party Line
As foreign caterers bring Western ideas about entertaining to Moscow, the city's New Rich are adding Champagne wishes to their caviar dreams
The bodyguards outnumbered the waiters. "It felt like the movies, like a set from 1930s Chicago," recalls David Desseaux. "There were at least 50 guards with dogs, guns--the full works--to protect 130 guests." Desseaux, a Moscow-based French chef for the Parisian caterers Potel & Chabot, headed the team at a private party for one of Russia's richest bankers. "Still, I like cooking for these kinds of people because they never discuss prices," he says. "They just want you to give them the best."
Bodyguards and bouncers are new elements in the social lives of wealthy Russians now that rivalries among businessmen have become so murderous. Also new are foreign caterers, who are entering the world of the moneyed elite armed with the best ingredients rubles can buy. A decade ago only a handful of Russian hotels offered catering services; today there are about a dozen foreign-owned catering companies and innumerable homegrown ones. They are not inexpensive. A catered sit-down dinner can cost up to $200 a head for food alone--more than what half the Russian population earns in a month.
Once installed behind the stove, these caterers see it as their job to cultivate as well as satiate the Russian palate. But bringing Western food east isn't always an easy task, since Russians know what they like and are not inclined to deviate from tradition. Tradition, for instance, requires covering the table with massive quantities of food. "It is not cultured, of course, but Russians love to put everything they can on the table," says Vill'iam Pokhlebkin, a Russian culinary historian. "It should be laden, piled, overcrowded, with caviar, at least seven cold fish dishes, meats in aspic and mushrooms, tomatoes and cucumbers. Everything must be salty, every ingredient should be served individually and the only possible drink is vodka."
Foreign caterers, the majority of whom are French or Swiss, admit to having to double portion sizes for Russian clients. "But then, no matter how much you serve, everything always gets eaten," Desseaux says.
The influence of foreign caterers is not the only reason the Russian palate is changing. Greater access to imported produce, especially tropical fruits, has made a difference. Asian spices are appearing alongside the ubiquitous salt, pepper and paprika. And as the New Rich travel through Europe, they are developing a taste for Western dishes.
Take 30-year-old Anya Lissovsky, whose husband owns an advertising agency and film and video distribution company. Just back from the Cannes film festival, Lissovsky heads for Fellini, a private club with a restaurant, casino and disco that she and her husband established two years ago to provide a secure environment for entertaining. Sipping espresso and watching the scene from deep within a vast red leather sofa that matches her lipstick, she describes the wonderful birthday "parteee" her husband threw for her at Fellini. She puts a highly accented spin on the English word since, tellingly, there is no Russian equivalent. In Russian you can invite people to your house to eat, or to a formal reception, but no word exists for entertaining.
Fellini's chef--"an Italian, I think," says Lissovsky--replaced the usual zakuski, or cold starters, with carpaccio, avocado salad and crab. Guests drank Champagne, wine and Cognac instead of vodka. After everyone ordered from the Continental menu of pasta, fish and meat dishes, they left their tables to gamble or to dance to the beat of Moralny Codex, Lissovsky's favorite rock group, and an African drum band.
The wedding of Natasha and Vadim Rozumovsky offered a second interpretation of Western-style entertaining. The two young professionals had hired a Russian party agency called Flor, which had engaged a French catering company, which had rented out a mock-gothic opera house built for Catherine the Great. Abandoning the almost sacred practice of seating guests at a huge T- or horseshoe-shaped table, the caterers set out little round tables. Instead of staying in their seats for the customary marathon stretch, guests table-hopped. The only anchor to their own tables seemed to be the vodka bottles many had brought there for comfort.
Although the buffet boasted a magnificent smoked sturgeon (an antediluvian fish that so often looks a lot better than it tastes), the meal was more Roman than Russian, with Italian salami and prosciutto, pastas and mixed salads.
On the other side of town, Chalva Tchigirinsky, a property developer and socialite, hosted a party at his dacha, originally built for senior members of the politburo. Caterers covered his 40-foot dining table with French and Russian food. Langoustines in garlic sauce eclipsed the piroshki (Russian pastries stuffed with cabbage or minced meat). A salade niçoise nicely complemented the salted mushrooms.
The boundaries between guests melted as the drinks flowed. Some gravitated to the grand piano, where a singer performed, while others contemplated a huge, silenced television. Still others wandered into the garden and, eager to "parteee," drank Dom Pérignon from plastic cups.
Natasha Fairweather is an English freelance journalist and book critic currently living in Moscow.