Confident, calm, cheerful — is the way to describe chef Viktor Timchishin. He is one of the leading chefs of Ukraine, a participant and co-host of cooking programs, the head chef of an Italian restaurant Guramma Italiana in Kyiv.
— Victor, you are a chef with more than 25 years of experience. How did your path begin? What inspired you to choose such a field as culinary?
— You can always master something you love. Nevertheless, it is important to feel trends and implement innovations. Most of the income I used to spend on tableware, equipment, products, and also books. I still have this love for reading and self-education.
I made my first culinary steps in the childhood conducting crazy experiments in the kitchen. These were candy, condensed milk, canned fish… The deficit forced to ‘move around’ (smiles). Later on, I continued my path like many other chefs of my generation — in cafeterias and cafes. Basically in the 90s restaurants as such did not exist! I got basic chef education and ‘blasted off’ experimenting with food, with everything and everyone! Back then it was all ending up with insane and ridiculous dishes, there was a feeling of knowledge and information absence.
I never had any high-profile teachers or mentors. In this business, one can have even 5 degrees and 10 mentors – it still won’t work out if there is no desire! I visited lots of restaurants both in Ukraine and abroad, was communicating with chefs exchanging information, was participating in contests, and reading. Once more I would like to emphasize: the most important is to have a desire, fire in your eyes. My teachers were desire, hard work and thousands of experiments! In my culinary youth, I was drawn by contests with dozens of medals from various international culinary championships and festivals under my belt. In order to come up with a dish, you have to think through a hundred ideas and conduct hundreds of experiments, read a ton of literature. I always took any opportunity to work on myself, to advance and interminably develop.
In the 2000s I started working in a Vietnamese restaurant first as a chef in the department of banquets and local cuisine, and a year later I headed the department of South-East Asia cuisine. When Vietnamese dined in the restaurant, they could not believe the chef was Slavic. The internship in Vietnam and studying wild Vietnamese cuisine paid off.
Every time I was abroad trying a new dish or seeing a unique product, I asked chefs to allow me in the kitchen and observed the way their processes were organized. Upon arrival home, I tried to repeat. In case of a failure, I kept trying until I achieved the best result.
I remember a long time ago I had a food tour around the French Riviera and Cannes. I really fancied a steak tartare. I asked the chef to show me (exchange the experience). He took me to the kitchen, showed, and taught! After that, I realized that openness and sociability are a very important part of the chef’s job. I deem these spontaneous ‘training courses’ to produce more knowledge than standard lectures!
— How long have you been working with Italian cuisine? What are the most popular dishes in the menu of Guramma Italiana?
— I became familiar with Italian cuisine a long time ago – around 15-17 years ago. It happened in one of the back then few Italian restaurants in Kyiv – Stradivari. It was a successful and popular restaurant in the center of the capital, where Buddha-bar is located today. I remember how pretty famous people used to visit it – Boris Grebenschikov, the band Scorpions, Valeriy Butusov… It was a fascinating time in terms of my development and evolution as a chef and development of Ukrainian culinary in general. Back then chefs merely did not know how to work with products, and guests knew very little about food. Now I recall it with a smile, how an Italian ordered cannelloni, and they served him 3 little ‘columns’ on a plate decorated with an insane number of kinds of sauces and green. Everyone was peeking out the door gap watching his reaction, of course, expecting an ovation… but he just sat there being probably shocked. He couldn’t stop looking at the dish! He just wanted to dine, and they put a ‘haute cuisine’ show for him (smiles).
There was another funny moment when I won a gold medal at a contest in Greece and the administrator cut out my photo from some magazine and put it framed in the hall. Under the frame, a violinist was playing, and there were flowers in a vase on the table. When I entered the hall, many had ‘round eyes’ as playing violin near my framed photo looked like I was being given a sendoff to the other side (laughs). I surely took off the photo as soon as I saw it all.
Currently, I’m the head chef of the Guramma Italiana restaurant – a piece of Italy right in the heart of Ukraine. The menu is represented by dishes of Italian cuisine made of the freshest high-quality products, which combined with modern cooking technologies allows making the restaurant’s cuisine memorable and different from the rest. The food is cooked on the principle ‘the simpler, the better’. Guests enjoy taglierini with truffle, the grilled common sole is also popular, ravioli with burrata, and of course the brand Guramma cake! Crabs are very popular. Guests prefer crabs with prosecco or garlic sauce. In the nearest time, we will introduce bruschetta with stracciatella and bottarga, – I’m sure it’s going to be a hit!
— You have ‘grown’ and ‘released’ many talented Ukrainian chefs.
— Many guys who worked for me are now working as chefs. And it, of course, pleases me! Yet it’s their merit, not mine!
— What kind of chef are you? What’s your team management style?
— I’m a pretty calm and well-adjusted chef. Previously many were imitating foreign chefs, who probably were mentally unstable and considered that screaming and throwing things or products around solve problems! I believe that first and foremost you need to build a team of likeminded people explaining the rules to them. Second of all you first need to plan, organize, teach, motivate and only then control and demand.
One must surely remember that products like quiet and silence. Products and dishes are like a sponge soaking up the bad energy.
— How many people are there in your team? How is your work organized?
— As for today, there are 18 chefs in the team of Guramma. Cannot help recalling a luxury restaurant project Black Market where they had around 20 chefs. And if we recall the restaurant Alaska, they had 23-25 chefs on duty. It was Alaska where I got that great experience of working with crabs, and when before the opening we visited Dubai to study the market tendencies, deep down I started having this desire to work in that city!
And here you can quote Bulgakov – ‘fear your desires’. Anyway, just after a year, I was working in Dubai in a crab restaurant! New products, new people, new professional equipment. Procurement and selection of products, hundreds of ideas developed. The experience was simply fantastic!
In my restaurant, everything is divided into processes. It is costly, but the food quality, the speed of serving dished and the assortment require organizing the processes exactly in this manner. I have no chefs-generalists. When a chef applies for a job here and says he is a generalist, it is difficult for me to imagine the level of his expertise. It is like a ‘general sportsman’ – a hockey player, a cyclist, and a chess player all in one man. This is why I prefer ‘narrow’ specialists since I don’t get guys who can ‘do it all’. Though I’m sure such people exist.
— In 2009 you gave impetus to the development of modern Ukrainian cuisine having created a cooking show ‘Ukrainian Fashion Food’. Tell about that project, please.
— At that time there was a popular culinary movement called The Ukrainian Connoisseur Club ‘TUCC’ organized by a British businessman Terry Pickard. They awarded restaurants and chefs with stars. Most importantly it was honest; they were really evaluating the skills of chefs and sommeliers. It wasn’t a sort of advertising or corrupt event. It is difficult to overestimate Terry Pickard’s contribution to the national culinary! He gave chefs the opportunity to grow. I participated in the events organized by the Connoisseur Club and received the highest mark of 5 stars several times (although no one has ever topped Denis Komarenko, who received 7 stars – the highest mark in history).
I as a growing chef wanted to bring about something new as you could already feel the tension in the society. Everyone had gotten bored with risotto and foie gras, they desired something local and easy to understand.
At that time I was the head chef of a signature cuisine restaurant Device Café. The Connoisseur Club requested dinner. As the event was attended by mainly international guests (ambassadors, businessmen), we decided to serve dishes of Ukrainian cuisine, yet in its modern variation – with elements of molecular gastronomy. It was taken really well! It was the first dinner revolving around Ukrainian cuisine!
At the beginning I was really supported by Igor Bragin and Kyiv Association of Chefs, a TV host Tatyana Kostenko, journalists Nina Polyakova and Igor Ryibalko and many others. Later on our friendly ambitious team together with the CITY channel made one of the first cooking shows, where Ukrainian chefs were cooking and presenting their vision of modern Ukrainian cuisine, and we were evaluating them and returning a verdict.
Tatyana introduced me to a famous and advanced restaurateur Dima Borisov, who started the legendary brand restaurant of modern Ukrainian cuisine – ‘Kanapa’. I made a small contribution as well, for which I’m thankful! I believe, Dima has done a lot for the Ukrainian restaurant industry and his contribution is difficult to overestimate!
I was also supported by a restaurant magazine ‘Restaurateur’, in which we expounded on the core and the vision of modern Ukrainian cuisine. ‘Cabaret’ magazine, ‘Lasun’ web platform and many others were helping promote Ukrainian cuisine. Lots of masterclasses, training courses, interviews, sessions with chefs were conducted. It was the major impulse for the development of our modern Ukrainian cuisine. Too bad we didn’t get the power of marketing and the internet’s potential back then.
Nowadays many people keep popularizing our Ukrainian cuisine and are bringing it to a new international level! These are people from the Association of Chefs of Southern Ukraine headed by Viktor Titov, and the Kyiv Association headed by Igor Bragin and Aleksey Povtorenko, and the First Ukrainian Association from Kharkiv headed by Aleksey Latkin, and the Ukrainian Culinary Union headed by Anatoliy Mazaraki, also the ‘Western Chef Group’ from Lviv headed by Evgeniy Sushko and Ivan Yanchishin; Sovenko brothers, Sergey Baysarevich, Artur Protchenko, Vitaliy Guralevich and Mihail Gursulyak from Ternopil. In other words, it’s now the real deal!
And of course, I cannot help mentioning Yuriy Kovrizhenko who represents Ukrainian cuisine on the international level.
— You participated in opening restaurants in Moscow, Dubai, Kazakhstan. What did you remember the most? Which difficulties did you face?
— The most difficult is getting into a new mental environment. When you are used to working with certain products and you have to adapt to working with different ones. In Moscow, I had great experience of working in a chain project. Restaurants were located in different districts of the city, hence guests differed. I had to adapt to location, to control the cost, the quality of products. Guests in restaurants in the center required different food from those in the suburbs. This is when I realized the importance of location when working on the menu, in order for the concept to correspond with the location. There were a lot of guys from nearby countries, who had to be taught nuts and bolts (from boiling eggs to baking vegetables). The most difficult was that nodding up and down didn’t necessarily mean I was understood. Yet they had fire in their eyes, and there was a true team spirit! That company was run by a positive and reasonable man from Moscow, a teambuilding guru. I was fortunate to have worked with such people. I also learned a lot in Dubai. I came across new restaurant concepts, new equipment, unique local products, diversity of seafood, hardworking staff, and the principles of work in accordance with European sanitary rules. I met the legends of the restaurant business – A. Orlov, B. Mukhin, and B. Zarkov while working for their collaborative project.
— Which products do you prefer working with?
— My profession and my calling suggest loving all products. The main criteria are each product’s quality and non-standardness. For example recently in Guramma we were serving exotic and incredibly delicious percebes (goose barnacles) and living sea urchins. Also, we purchase Sicilian bottarga and buratta on order.
— Do you agree with the saying that the customer is always right?
— A guest may have their own vision, same as any chef. As a rule, I listen to my guests’ suggestions on the condition that they don’t contradict my life principles and my guests’ safety.
— Would you call yourself a chef-experimenter?
— I really love conducting culinary experiments. It is a big part of my life! Because experimenting is the integral attribute of a chef’s life. And I get to experiment a lot since it is easy for me to share my knowledge and know-hows, which provides with space for new knowledge.
I always complete a menu in a thorough way, conduct a lot of tastings. I completely agree with Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, that ‘the discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star’.
I also had a period of culinary experimental ‘hooliganism’ or maybe it was some sort of midlife crisis, I don’t know. Yet it happened when alginic caviar clouded my judgment, so I couldn’t imagine my life without carrageenan, maltodextrose, foam, and similar techno-textured innovations! I once even thought of shaving my head, putting on rectangular spectacles with titanium forceps in the pocket of my chef’s jacket.
I was cooking many ‘unusual’ dishes. I didn’t get borscht without sous-vide turkey, dumplings without foam and cucumber powder. As a rule, serving cold dishes was accompanied by dry ice ‘mist’. After I started smoking red wine with a ‘Smoking Gun’, sommelier Ruslan looking me in the eye couldn’t believe I was coming up with such things without taking nervous system stimulators in the form pills or special cigarettes. I was ‘torturing’ guests for less than a year. After a while I heard the feedback – ‘why don’t you serve a stuffed pike in jelly shape?’ or ‘I prefer my fish soup warmer than a fish soup in the shape of foam with potato noodles and olive dirt’. This was my big fat molecular closure in experiments on my guests. Since then, I started experimenting solely on ‘my people’ or to broaden my knowledge.
Today I try to bring more life and taste into food, yet I still use the knowledge of texture and other technologies, but it depends on the situation and I ‘dose’ it. Now for me, it’s hard to imagine a modern restaurant without sous-vide, siphon or PacoJet, xanthan gum and, other thickeners and stabilizers. Molecular, chemical knowledge of products is really important.
— How does your working day go?
— My working day starts with going through new information about products, markets, technologies, trends, and culinary news. My credo is to learn always, everywhere and in everything. It is followed by espresso, discussions about novelties, planning the working day and week. The usual routine (laughs).
— What is your favorite dish?
— My favorite cuisine is Italian. It has simplicity, charm, and complexity. I love ravioli with burrata, spaghetti with cuttlefish ink and pink shrimps.
— How do you rest? Where do you draw inspiration from?
— Forrest, fishing, museums, traveling – this is my inspiration. Also, fresh products.
— Are you experienced in TV-projects?
— Yes, I have had experience of being a cooking show co-host on the TV-channel ‘Ukraina’ with Maksim Nelipa. It was called ‘Guests are at the door’. With designer Irina Boyko we were visiting different cities, and I was making themed dishes, while Ira was designing rooms. Then guests would arrive. They were very surprised since they had no idea there were professionals ‘backstage’, anyway, the happy end! Everyone was having fun, everyone was satisfied!
Also, I have co-hosted a show ‘Ukrainian Fashion Food’ with Tatyana Kostenko, Igor Bragin and Oleg Onikienko (again, we were discussing each chef, making comments, admiring). We did it on a pro bono basis, as we had no sponsors. I believe we should look for a sponsor and start making the same local cuisine-based show. I am sure it is going to be interesting.
Unfortunately those cooking shows didn’t give me more than recognition on the market; they gave nothing in a professional way.
There have been many projects with me as an expert on different channels: STB, Novyi Kanal, Ukraina, etc.
I am more of a chef-practitioner than a chef-showman!